Alexander: Federal Law Should Not Choose “A Single Right Answer for National Education Reform” for All States

Posted on July 28, 2011

“Let’s take the whole idea of relating teacher pay to student performance… my fear is that if we put it into the law and we write a rule about it, then suddenly we’ll be defining what 100,000 schools will be trying to do and I don’t think it works well that way.”

– Lamar Alexander  

WASHINGTON – At a hearing Wednesday of the Senate Appropriations Committee’s Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education and Related Agencies about the U.S. Department of Education’s fiscal year 2012 budget, at which U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan was testifying, U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) said the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (commonly referred to as No Child Left Behind) should support “’state leadership and innovation and… not …seek to codify a single right answer for national education reform,’” a request made by the Council of Chief State School Officers, an organization representing nearly all state education department heads.

Alexander said at the hearing: “One of the difficult issues we have as we think about fixing No Child Left Behind is this accountability section and to what extent the federal government should write anything about tests or growth models or teacher performance. Because when we put it in law, the Department of Education goes through the process of rule-making and establishes “parameters,” which are what people in Washington think that Chicago’s superintendents or governors of Tennessee ought to be doing. And it all sounds good, but by the time you have it all done, you have a superintendent flying in from Chicago, Denver, or Nashville, seeking the Secretary’s approval for some specific growth model, it is a big waste of everybody’s time.”

The transcript of Alexander and Duncan’s exchange is below:

Sen. Alexander: Let me use my time to talk with you for a few minutes about what we call accountability in the education business. And I want to read a sentence or two from a letter and see whether you agree with it. I think you’re generally familiar with the letter. This is the letter that the Council of Chief State School Officers sent to Senator Harkin and Senator Enzi and Senator Bingaman and me in May, talking about the work that they’ve been doing, which you’ve been very much involved with. And I’d ask, Mr. Chairman, that this letter be included in the record.

In this letter, it talks about the work that the different states have done in creating common course standards, in creating tests to see whether children are meeting those standards, in creating what are called “growth models” which have been discussed in this hearing before. And especially in working in an area that you and I and others care a lot about, which is finding a way to measure teacher and principal effectiveness and especially relating that to student achievement. And it’s a very impressive record. And they go on to say this, and I had a conversation about this with one of your predecessors, Secretary Dick Riley, the former governor of South Carolina, who supports this idea. This is the sentence in the letter. It says: ‘States seek a reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary School Act that supports this state leadership and innovation and does not remain a barrier or seek to codify a single right answer for national education reform.’ Do you agree with that?”

Sec. Duncan: “Yes”

Alexander: “Well, good. Then, as we go down through these, one of the difficult issues we have as we think about fixing No Child Left Behind is this accountability section and to what extent the federal government should write anything about tests or write anything about a growth model or write anything about how to measure teacher performance. Because when we put it in law, then the Department of Education, which you and I know something about, then goes through the process of rule-making and establishes “parameters” which are what people in Washington think that Chicago’s superintendents or governors of Tennessee ought to be doing. And it all sounds good, but by the time you have it all done, you have a superintendent flying in from Chicago, Denver, or Nashville, seeking the Secretary’s approval for some specific growth model, which is a big waste of everybody’s time. So, what I’m trying to get at and let’s take a specific proposal: let’s take the whole idea of relating teacher pay to student performance. I’m a big advocate of rewarding outstanding teaching, of master teachers, I think it’s the Holy Grail of education, how do we reward outstanding school leaders and teachers with more pay and more honor. I think most of us agree on it. But my fear is that if we put it into the law and we write a rule about it, then suddenly we’ll be defining what 100,000 schools will be trying to do and I don’t think it works well that way. I think what has worked well is your Teacher Incentive Fund, where you give grants and money to local school districts who then work with their teachers or work with their community to then come up with different models for rewarding outstanding teaching.

“So what would your advice be, as we work on fixing No Child Left Behind, about how we accomplish this goal which there’s broad bipartisan support for, without running into the problem of violating what the chief state schools officer have told us they don’t want done?”

Duncan: “These are really, really thoughtful questions, and you and I have talked about this a multitude of times. There’s a balance we’re trying to strike and I think we’re all trying to get to the same point and figure out how to do that. The last thing we want to be is to be prescriptive or top-down. We think the Teacher Incentive Fund has been very effective. We think that Race to the Top has been very effective. We said that student achievement had to be a significant part of teacher evaluation, but we didn’t say a number and, frankly, we don’t know that number. We’ve seen a huge amount of very creative and very very hard work going on at the state level because we incentivized that in the right way.

“So, the Council of Chief State School Officers, Gene Wilhoit, has been an amazing profile in courage. All this work on higher standards, better assessments that we talk about—that’s not coming from you or I. That’s coming from governors or state chief school officers having the courage to do the right thing. And I can’t overstate what a great partner they have been.

“My only concern that I have expressed to you is that, I think the vast majority of states are moving in the right direction now—my only concern is that I don’t want to give a pass to a state that somehow goes in the wrong direction. And we have a history of governors, both Republican and Democrat, who dummied down standards on No Child Left Behind—who did exactly the wrong thing for children in their state because it was politically expedient. Because it made them look good politically. But it hurt their children. It hurt their education. Ultimately it hurt their state’s economy—and nobody said anything about it. It was like they all got a great pass. So I want to continue to reward courage—to incentivize that. But as the federal government, we have an obligation to make sure that if a state says – you know –we’re not going to do accountability, we don’t care about achievement gaps. We think poor children or black or brown children can’t learn. We have to think about what our responsibility is there. And I think we’re trying to get that fine line worked out and again continue to look to you for your advice and guidance on how best to do that.”

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