Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander (R-TN) “State Student Achievement Contract”

Posted on November 6, 2007

Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, Senators Kennedy and Enzi have recently said that early in 2008 the Senate will consider whether to authorize No Child Left Behind. That law, which was enacted in 2001 as a part of the regular 5-year reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, required every State to set standards for math and reading and to test each child once a year in grades 3 through 8, and once in high school, in order to measure their progress toward meeting these State standards. In addition, the law requires States to report the results in a disaggregated way, meaning according to racial, ethnic, socioeconomic status, disability, and limited English proficiency, report the status of the children so it would be clearer whether groups of children are being left behind in their academic progress. So my purpose today is, first, to announce my support for the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind Act but ask that we find a better way to do the job of reporting results. We should be trying to catch schools doing things right rather than seeming to penalize them for doing things wrong. Second, to introduce legislation providing for greater flexibility in administering the law for up to a dozen States, if those States agree to maintain a high level or increase the rigor of the program, their standard-setting process, and reporting requirements. Third, to express my concerns about early drafts and proposals of reauthorizing legislation that seem to require more Federal control and less State responsibility for results -- the reverse of what we should be seeking to achieve. Finally, I wish to call attention to several parts of the legislation that need to be strengthened and expanded: Support for teaching American history; the Teacher Incentive Fund; charter schools, which I know the Presiding Officer has been very interested in for a long time; and State collection of data to aid States in measuring student progress. First, support for reauthorization. I have decided to cosponsor the No Child Left Behind Act of 2007, which has been authored by Senators Burr and Gregg because I believe it represents a sound foundation for eventual reauthorization of the legislation. This legislative draft leaves in place the framework of the 2001 law: high goals, State standards, and disaggregated reporting of results. And it addresses some obvious deficiencies in the existing legislation, including more flexibility in helping children learn English, in measuring the progress of children with disabilities, and in how to report the progress of children who make great progress but still fall behind their goals. This bill -- the Burr-Gregg bill -- does not retreat from the bold goal that all children will be proficient in reading and math according to each State's standards by the 2013-2014 school year. Some have argued that sets schools up for failure. I would argue it is the American way to set high goals and then to attempt to reach them. Our Declaration of Independence does not say "life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness" for 80 percent of us. Our national character is not that some things are possible. Rightly or wrongly, we Americans uniquely believe that anything is possible for all of us, and much of our politics and debates in this body are about dealing with the disappointment of not reaching high goals that we set for ourselves, and then, of course, we set out and try again to achieve them. I do think we would be wise to find a different way to talk about the progress of schools in reaching those high goals. Most schools, at least today, are succeeding in reaching their State's No Child Left Behind standards. There are more than 100,000 schools in the United States. According to the U.S. Department of Education, over 20 percent of those -- 21,000 -- did not make adequate yearly progress. Of those 21,000 schools, about one-fourth missed their goals by one subgroup of students. The same is true in Tennessee. According to our Department of Education, there are 1,710 public schools. There were 245 -- or 15 percent -- which did not make adequate yearly progress. Of those, 127 didn't do it because of one subgroup. Therefore, I suggest we find a different way to talk about progress. Schools that reach their goals might be called "high-achieving schools." Schools that do so for more than 1 year in a row might be called the “highest achieving schools." Schools that, on the other hand, miss their goal by only one subgroup might be called "achieving schools," and those that do not do as well might be called priority schools. Second: A new State contract for flexibility. I am introducing today the State Student Achievement Contract which I will work to make a part of No Child Left Behind. The idea is simple: Now that we have 5 years of experience with No Child Left Behind, we should toss the ball back to at least some States and see whether those States can implement the law with at least as much rigor in reporting, more flexibility, and more innovation. I know if the Presiding Officer and I were still Governors of our respective States, we would want to try that over the next 5 years. This proposal would allow up to 12 States to negotiate with the U.S. Secretary of Education to enter into a State student achievement contract, which would permit States to improve their own systems of accountability, and in exchange, receive the necessary flexibility to innovate on finding ways to close the achievement gap. In other words, instead of saying: "Do it exactly this way" to the States, the Federal Government would be saying: "Give us results, and we will give you more flexibility." In determining which States would be eligible for this new contract, the Secretary would expect States to increase their standards, assessments, and expectations of students. Washington, DC, itself is not going to make schools better in Wilmington, Maryville, Kansas City, and Sacramento. This can only happen locally, when parents, teachers, communities, and State officials take charge. In fact, No Child Left Behind is simply an extension of the State standards movement that began in the 1980s in most States. While it requires the setting of standards and requires public reporting, the solution to the problem of low-achieving students is left in the hands of communities, where it must be left. In fact, only 8 percent of funding of public schools comes from the Federal Government. So this proposal seeks to recognize that solutions are local, to encourage those States that are trying the boldest programs, and to permit the flexibility needed to achieve those results. Third, creeping Federal control. One reason I have introduced the State contract proposal is I don't want the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind to become a vehicle for increased Federal control of local schools. In fact, now that the first 5 years of confusion and learning the new law are completed, there ought to be fewer Federal requirements, not more. After all, the law is essentially a requirement for State standards and reporting disaggregated results. But, unfortunately, Washington doesn't work that way. Our motto seems to be: Once we have stuck our noses into something, we will meddle with it forever. In some of the early drafts of No Child Left Behind, I have seen examples of increased Federal regulation that in my view offer the prospect of more Federal control and less local accountability. It ought to be the other way around. I have expressed my concerns to Senators Kennedy and Enzi in a letter which I will append to these remarks. Finally, there are three special provisions of No Child Left Behind that, based upon the first 5 years' experience, need to be expanded. One, teaching American history. The late Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, once said the rationale for a public school is to teach immigrant children the three Rs and what it means to be an American, with the hope they would go home and teach their parents. Yet the lowest test scores for American high school seniors is not math or reading or science, it is U.S. history. Senators Kennedy, Enzi, and I have worked to create some new provisions for this reauthorization which would encourage putting the teaching of American history back in its rightful place in our schools so our children can grow up learning what it means to be an American. These provisions include: The teaching traditional American history provision. That was put in 5 years ago. It is a program of grants to school districts to encourage professional development and teaching of American history. It has been very successful. Senator Kennedy and Senator Byrd have had a major part in this law. Next, Presidential and congressional academies. The pilot programs for these summer academies for outstanding teachers and students of American history have been low cost and very successful. It is my hope that in a partnership with States and the private sector, these can be expanded to a total of 100 each summer. They are very much similar to the Governors' schools many States have for students and for teachers. David McCullough has suggested perhaps we can match up the 10-year centennial program for national parks with these summer programs for students and teachers of U.S. history. Imagine what it would be like for a group of U.S. history teachers to spend a week with David McCullough at the Adams House in Quincy, MA. Finally, a 10-State pilot program in U.S. history NAEP. Currently, the National Assessment of Education Progress -- the Nation's report card -- only measures student achievement in history every 4 years. We don't get State-level data; only a national sample of student achievement. Senator Kennedy and I have offered legislation to create a 10-State pilot program so there can be State-level data for 10 States, which will reflect the importance of this subject to our Nation and call attention to student progress or lack thereof in American history. A second area of special emphasis that ought to be considered when we reauthorize No Child Left Behind is the Teacher Incentive Fund. After parents, nothing is more important to a child's success than the classroom teacher. In every hearing we have in the Senate, a witness emphasizes the need to attract specially equipped teachers for math, for science, for children with disabilities, for inner-city schools, for gifted students, and other special needs. Yet we struggle in this country with an across-the-board pay mentality that will not allow schools to lift themselves up when it comes to attracting and keeping outstanding classroom teachers. Finding fair ways to pay teachers more for teaching well is not easy. I have tried it. But during the last 5 years, the Teacher Incentive Fund has helped at least three dozen cities, usually working with local teachers' unions, to find new ways to train and reward outstanding teachers and principals. We need to do as much of this as we possibly can. I wish to thank and acknowledge Senator Durbin of Illinois, the Democratic whip, for working with me to make certain that appropriations for this program continue. Then, charter schools. I mentioned earlier the Presiding Officer was a national leader on charter schools when he was Governor of Delaware. Last year, I visited a charter school in Memphis. It was the Easter holiday, except those ninth graders weren't on vacation, they were in class. To be specific, they were in a ninth grade advanced placement biology class. What was special was these children had come from so-called low-performing schools. To be blunt, they were labeled the least likely to succeed, except they were succeeding. This was because they were getting extra help during holidays, longer school days, Saturdays, and from special teachers. The idea of a public charter school is simply to give teachers the freedom to use their common sense and their skills to help the children who are presented to them -- freedom from Federal, State, and union rules so they can do it. It is nonsensical to me that we don't encourage, rather than discourage, such public charter schools. Most of our children are learning, but for the 15 percent or so who are having genuinely special challenges in learning, it will take different kinds of schools, even better teachers and different methods. In this reauthorization of No Child Left Behind, we must do all of these things to cause that to happen.