Press Releases

Alexander Hold First Hearing on NCLB Reauthorization

Press release from U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; January 21, 2015:

Holds First Hearing as Chairman on Federal Requirement that States Administer 17 Standardized Tests Each Year — “the Center of the Debate” on No Child Left Behind

WASHINGTON, D.C., Jan. 21 –U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) today gaveled in his first hearing as chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, calling for the committee to pass a bipartisan bill to Fix No Child Left Behind by the end of February.

“Almost everyone seems to agree that it’s time to fix No Child Left Behind—it’s more than 7 years overdue.  We’ve been working on it for more than 6 years, we’ve had 24 hearings, and in each of the last two Congresses we’ve reported bills out of committee. Twenty of 22 senators on this committee were members in the last congress, and 16 of these 22 were here in the previous congress.”

Regarding today’s hearing on testing and accountability, Alexander said: “At the center of the debate about how to fix No Child Left Behind is what to do about the federal requirement that states annually administer 17 standardized tests with high-stakes consequences. Educators call this an accountability system. Are there too many tests? Are they the right tests? Are the stakes for failing them too high? What should Washington, D.C. have to do with all this?”

Alexander’s full remarks are below:

Since this is the first hearing of the committee in this 114th Congress, I have some preliminary remarks.

This committee touches almost every American.

No committee is more ideologically diverse and none is more productive. In the last Congress, 25 bills passed out of this committee became laws.

That’s because we worked with Chairman Harkin on areas of agreement.

I look forward to working in the same way with Ranking Member Murray in this Congress. She is direct, well-respected, she cares about people and is results-oriented.

We are going to have an open process, which means we’re going to have a full opportunity for discussion and for amendments.  Not just in the committee, but on the floor. In the last two congresses, we reported a bill, but it didn’t make it to the floor.

This congress, we hope to  have a bipartisan bill coming out of committee—but even if we don’t, the bill will go to the floor and it will have to get 60 votes on the floor, 60 votes to go to conference, 60 votes to get out of conference, and then the president will have his say. We hope to get his signature and get a result.

Next, the schedule:

Let me start with some unfinished business:

Fixing NCLB: This is way overdue, it expired more than 7 years ago.   We posted a working draft on the website last week, already feedback is coming in—not just from Congress but from around the country.   We have several more weeks of hearings and meetings.  We hope to have a bill ready for floor by end of February.   The House expects to have its bill on the floor by the end of February.

Reauthorizing the Higher Education Act: This is, for me, about deregulating higher education making rules simpler and more effective.  Also, finishing the work we did on student loans in the last congress.   Our first hearing on the deregulation task force formed by Senators Mikulski, Burr, and Bennet and me is on Tuesday, February 24.

As rapidly and responsibly as we can, we want to repair the damage of Obamacare and provide more Americans with health insurance that fits their budgets. Our first hearing is tomorrow on the 30to 40 hour workweek–the bill introduced by Senators Collins, Donnelly, Murkowski and Manchin. We will report our opinions to the Finance committee.

Then, some new business:

Let’s call it 21st Century Cures—that’s what the House calls it, as it finishes its work this spring. The president is also interested. What we’re talking about is getting to market more rapidly, while still safe, medicines, treatments and medical devices. There is a lot of interest in this and we’ll start staff working groups soon.

There will be more in labor, pensions, education, health but those are major priorities and that is how we start.

The president has also made major proposals on early childhood education and community college. These are certainly relevant to K-12, but we’ve always dealt with them separately. It’s difficult for me to see how we make these issues part of this reauthorization.

Now to today’s hearing: Last week Secretary Duncan called for law to be fixed.

Almost everyone seems to agree with that—it’s more than 7 years overdue.

We’ve been working on it for more than 6 years. When we started, former Rep. George Miller said, Pass a lean bill to fix No Child Left Behind, and we identified a small number of problems.

Since then, we’ve had 24 hearings, and in each of the last two Congresses we’ve reported bills out of committee.

Senators should know issues by now, 20 of 22 were here in the last congress, 16 of 22 were here in the previous congress.

One reason it needs to be fixed is that NCLB has become unworkable.

Under its original provisions, almost all of America’s 100,000 public schools would be labeled a “failing school.”

To avoid this unintended result, the U. S. Secretary of Education has granted waivers from the law’s provisions to 43 states—including Washington, which has since had its waiver revoked—as well as the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico.

This has created a second unintended result, at least unintended by Congress, which stated in law that no federal official should “exercise any direction, supervision or control over curriculum, program or instruction or administration of any educational institution.”

Nevertheless, in exchange for the waivers, the Secretary has told states what their academic standards should be, how states should measure the progress of students toward those standards, what constitutes failure for schools and what the consequences of failure are, how to fix low-performing schools, and how to evaluate teachers.  The Department has become, in effect, a national school board.   Or, as one teacher told me, it has become a national Human Resources Department for 100,000 public schools.

At the center of the debate about how to fix No Child Left Behind is what to do about the federal requirement that states annually administer 17 standardized tests with high-stakes consequences.  Educators call this an accountability system.

Are there too many tests? Are they the right tests?     Are the stakes for failing them too high? What should Washington, D.C. have to do with all this?

Many states and school districts require schools to administer additional tests.

This is called a hearing for a reason. I have come to listen.

The Chairman’s staff discussion draft I have circulated includes two options on testing:

  • Option 1 gives flexibility to the states to decide what to do on testing
  • Option 2 maintains current law testing requirements

Both options would continue to require annual reporting of student achievement, disaggregated by subgroups of children.

Washington sometimes forgets—but governors never do—that the federal government has limited involvement in elementary and secondary education, contributing only 10 percent of the money that public schools receive.

For 30 years the real action has been in the states.

I have seen this first hand.

I was Governor in 1983 when President Reagan’s Education Secretary, Terrell Bell, issued a report called:  “A Nation at Risk,” which said that: “If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.”

The next year Tennessee became the first state to pay teachers more for teaching well.

In 1985 and 1986, every Governor spent an entire year focused on improving schools ?? the first time in the history of the National Governors Association that it happened.  I was chairman of the association that year and the Governor of Arkansas, Bill Clinton, was the vice chairman.

In 1989, the first President Bush held a national meeting of Governors in Charlottesville, Virginia, and established national education goals.

Then in 1991?1992, President Bush announced America 2000 to help move the nation voluntarily  toward those goals, state by state, community by community.  I was the Education Secretary at that time.

Since then states have worked together voluntarily to develop academic standards, develop tests, to create their own accountability systems, find fair  ways to evaluate  teacher performance—and then adopted those that fit their states.

I know members of this committee must be tired of hearing me talk until I am blue in the face about a “national school board.”  I know it is tempting to try to fix classrooms from Washington. I also hear from governors and school superintendents who say that if “Washington doesn’t make us do it, the teachers unions and opponents from the right will make it impossible to have higher standards and better teachers.”

And I understand that there can be short term gains from Washington’s orders– but my experience is that long term success can’t come that way.   In fact, today Washington’s involvement, in effect mandating Common Core and teacher evaluation, is creating a backlash, making it harder for states to set higher standards and evaluate teaching.

As one former Democratic governor told me recently, “We were doing pretty well until Washington got involved. If they will get out of the way we can get back on track.”

So rather than turn blue in the face one more time about the national school board let me conclude with the remarks of Carol Burris, New York’s High School principal of the Year.   She responded last week to our committee working draft this way:

. . .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 might 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 that 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 harder to fix.

Please understand that I do not dismiss the need to hold schools accountable.   The use and disaggregation of data has been an important tool that I use regularly as a principal to improve my own school.  However, the unintended, negative consequences that have arisen from mandated, annual testing and its high stakes uses have proven testing not only to be an ineffective tool, but a destructive one as well.

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