Alexander: Bipartisan Legislative Agreement to Fix No Child Left Behind Will Produce Fewer Tests, Advance Higher State Standards, Better Teaching, Real Accountability

Senate education committee today begins action on legislative agreement reached between Chairman Alexander and Ranking Member Murray

Posted on April 14, 2015

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 “Consensus is this: Continue the law’s important measurements of academic progress of students but restore to states, school districts, classroom teachers and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do about improving student achievement.  This change should produce fewer tests and more appropriate ways to measure student achievement.”

– Lamar Alexander 

WASHINGTON, D.C., April 14 – At the start of the Senate education committee’s action on legislation to fix No Child Left Behind, Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today said the bill reflects “remarkable consensus” about how to fix the problems with the law.

“That consensus is this: Continue the law’s important measurements of academic progress of students but restore to states, school districts, classroom teachers and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do about improving student achievement.  This change should produce fewer tests and more appropriate ways to measure student achievement. It is the most effective path to advance higher state standards, better teaching, and real accountability.” 

Last week Chairman Alexander and Ranking Member Patty Murray (D-Wash.) announced a bipartisan agreement on fixing “No Child Left Behind.” The senators’ legislative agreement, the Every Child Achieves Act of 2015, would reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), the chief law governing the federal role in K-12 education. The most recent reauthorization of ESEA was the “No Child Left Behind Act,” which was enacted in 2001 and expired in 2007. 

Today at 2:30, the committee began action on the bill. In what is called a “markup,” committee members offer amendments to the bill, those amendments are discussed, debated, and voted on. Later this week, the committee will vote on the entire legislation, including those amendments that have been accepted. If the committee votes to approve the legislation, it will be sent to the Senate floor for debate by the full Senate.

The complete text of the senator’s prepared remarks follows:

We are meeting today to write legislation that will fix the problems with “No Child Left Behind,” the federal law causing confusion and anxiety in our country’s 100,000 public schools.

Working together the last few months, Senator Murray and I have found a consensus about the urgent need to fix these problems as well as a remarkable consensus about how to fix them.   

That consensus is this: Continue the law’s important measurements of academic progress of students but restore to states, school districts, classroom teachers and parents the responsibility for deciding what to do about improving student achievement.  This change should produce fewer tests and more appropriate ways to measure student achievement. It is the most effective path to advance higher state standards, better teaching, and real accountability.  

We have drafted a bill based upon this consensus which we will offer as a starting point for our deliberations.     

The problems with No Child Left Behind have been created by a combination of presidential action and congressional inaction.  In 2001, President Bush and Congress enacted “No Child Left Behind,” requiring a total of 17 tests between reading, math and science during a child’s elementary and secondary education. The results of these tests must be disaggregated and reported according to race, ethnicity, gender, disability and other measures so parents, teachers and the community could see which children are being left behind.  The law also created federal standards for whether a school is succeeding or failing, what a state or school district must do about that failure, and whether a teacher was highly qualified to teach in a classroom.

If fixing No Child Left Behind were a standardized test, Congress would have earned a failing grade for each of the last seven years. “No Child Left Behind” expired in 2007 but Congress has been unable to agree on how to reauthorize it. As a result, the law’s original requirements have stayed in place and gradually became unworkable. This has caused almost all of America’s public schools to be classified as failing under the terms of the law. To avoid this bizarre result, President Obama’s Education Secretary offered waivers from the terms of the law.  But the Secretary required each of the 42 states currently operating under waivers to adopt certain academic standards, take prescribed steps to help failing schools, and to evaluate teachers in a defined way. 

So much new federal control of local schools has produced a backlash against “Common Core” academic standards, teacher evaluation, and against tests in general. Governors and chief state school officers complain about federal overreach. Infuriated teachers say that the U.S. Department of Education has become a “National Human Resources Department or, in effect, a national school board.”

In each of the last two Congresses, this Committee produced bills to fix No Child Left Behind. Basically, these bills divided our committee along party lines. Even so, two Congresses ago, Sens. Enzi, Kirk and I voted with the Democratic majority to report a bill out of committee so that the full senate could act.  In the last Congress, the committee majority passed a partisan bill without any Republican votes, but I committed to support Chairman Harkin in taking the bill to the floor if there would be an open amendment process. Unfortunately, these bills never reached the senate floor.

In January, Sen. Murray suggested that the two of us work together to try to bridge the partisan divide and to recommend to the full committee a solution.  I accepted her suggestion and I want to thank her for it.  We have listened carefully to our senate colleagues, to teachers, principals, governors, chief state school officers, students and parents and the business and civil rights communities—and to each other.  

I especially want to thank our staffs—Evan Schatz, Sarah Bolton, and Amanda Beaumont on Sen. Murray’s staff, and David Cleary, Peter Oppenheim, and Lindsay Fryer on my staff—for their hard work and the way that they worked, trying to strip aside the rhetoric and look for real solutions. I believe they, and we, have succeeded in that.  

We found that no issue stirred as much controversy as testing. Our proposal maintains the reading, math and science tests and disaggregated reporting requirements established in 2001. The more we studied the problem, the issue seems not to be the 17 federal tests. A third grader, for example, is required to take only one test in math and one in reading during one year. Denver Public Schools superintendent Tom Boasberg testified before the committee that he’d like to keep math and reading tests to a total of 4 hours a year – that’s about what they are right now in Denver, according to our calculations.

Instead, the problem is the federal government’s accountability system for what to do about the results of these tests. This federal accountability system has greatly contributed to the exploding number of state and local tests.

Because of this, our proposal would end federal test-based accountability and restore state and local responsibility for creating systems holding schools and teachers accountable. State accountability systems must meet limited federal guidelines, including challenging academic standards for all students, but the federal government is prohibited from determining or approving state standards or even incentivizing states into adopting specific standards. In other words, whether a state adopts Common Core is entirely that state’s decision. This transfer of responsibility is why we believe our proposal will result in fewer and more appropriate tests. 

Our proposal allows, but does not require, states to develop and implement teacher evaluation systems that link student achievement to teacher performance. States will be allowed to use federal funds to implement evaluations the way they see fit. 

States will determine their lowest-performing schools and receive federal funds to assist those schools but the federal government will not mandate specific steps to fix those schools.

Sens. Murray and Isakson will propose and I will support an amendment for competitive planning grants to help states expand quality early childhood education by addressing the fragmentation of current early childhood federal, state, local, public and private programs. 

In conclusion, I have this request for members of the committee: please exercise restraint and help us get to a result.

If we senators were students in a classroom, none of us would expect to receive a passing grade for unfinished work. Seven years is long enough to consider how to fix No Child Left Behind. The members of this committee are thoroughly familiar with the issues.  Twenty of our 22 members were on the committee during the last Congress when we considered and reported a bill. Sixteen of our members were here in the previous Congress. Over the last 6 years and 3 months we have had 27 hearings on elementary and secondary education. 

Knowing this, Sen. Murray and I have exercised restraint.  Neither of us insisted on putting into our base bill every proposal about which we feel strongly, although we will offer some of these as amendments when we reach the senate floor.  We know that to get a result we have to achieve consensus, which means more than sixty votes. We also know that in conference we will need to agree with the House of Representatives, which is of one political party, and then with the President, who is of another. 

During our committee discussions, any germane amendment will be in order to the bipartisan agreement Sen. Murray and I will offer. Any amendment related to K-12 education will be in order on the senate floor. Nevertheless, I would ask each member of this committee to exercise restraint in search of a result. If we can agree on most things, let’s put aside the other things until another debate and another day. 

And I would ask one other thing: in offering your amendments, please keep in mind the advice we received earlier this year from Carol Burris, New York’s 2013 High School principal of the Year: 

“I ask that your committee remember that the American public school system was built on the belief that local communities cherish their children and have the right and responsibility, within sensible limits, to determine how they are schooled.

While the federal government has a very special role in ensuring that our students do not experience discrimination based on who they are or what their disability may be, Congress is not a National School Board.

Although our locally elected school boards may not be perfect, they represent one of the purest forms of democracy we have. Bad ideas in the small do damage in the small and are easily corrected. Bad ideas at the federal level result in massive failure and are far harder to fix.” 

In other words, our well-intended guidance from Washington is usually not as effective as a decision made in the home, classroom, and community by those closest to the children. 

What we heard over and over again from Democrats as well as Republicans was that while continuing measurements of academic progress are important in holding schools and teachers accountable, we should respect the judgments of those closest to the children and leave to them most decisions about how to help 3.4 million teachers help 50 million children in 100,000 public schools improve student achievement.

Fifty years ago on Palm Sunday, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the first Elementary and Secondary Education Act. A good way to celebrate that anniversary is to fix the problems with the most recent version of the act so that all our children can have the best possible opportunity to learn what they need to know and be able to do so in an increasingly complex world.  

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