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With Republicans in Control of Congress, Sen. Alexander Advances ESEA Renewal Proposal

January 29, 2015

With Republicans now in the majority in both houses of Congress, a new effort is being launched to address the long-stalled discussion of reforming the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), which has been stalemated for years due to frosty relations between President Barack Obama and legislators.

The initiative is coming from Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, who became the chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee in January (due to the new GOP majority in the Senate). Alexander previously served as the federal Secretary of Education from 1991 to 1993 under President. George H.W. Bush.

Alexander has introduced a draft ESEA bill that runs nearly 400 pages. In his first meeting as the new committee chairman on January 21, Alexander called for the committee to pass a bipartisan bill to Fix No Child Left Behind by the end of February, saying:

“Almost everyone seems to agree that it’s time to fix No Child Left Behind – it’s more than seven 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.”

“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 complete remarks at the Jan. 21 committee hearing are available here:

On Jan. 27, Alexander went a step further, urging a less authoritative role for the Federal government in K-12 education – rhetoric that is likely to play well with a number of education stakeholder groups. In a press release headlined “Washington Telling States How to Evaluate Teachers Has Caused ‘Enormous Backlash’,” Alexander said:

“My experience is that finding a way to fairly reward better teaching is the holy grail of K-12 education – but Washington will get the best long-term result by creating an environment in which states and communities are encouraged, not ordered, to evaluate teachers. Let’s not mandate it from Washington if we want them to own it and make it work.”

Alexander’s full remarks on Jan. 27 are available here:

Alexander’s initiative drew a mixed response from the Obama Administration’s Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who said:

"There is agreement it is time to replace No Child Left Behind, and I look forward to working with Chairman Alexander, Sen. (Patty) Murray (D-Washington) and others in Congress to create a bipartisan law that accelerates the progress of our schools, protects civil rights, provides access to quality preschool and supports children and educators. Every child in America, not only some, needs to be ready for college and a career. I appreciate that Sen. Alexander plans to discuss his draft with his colleagues and to solicit public feedback, but I also am concerned that his proposal makes optional far too much of what the law needs to ensure the promise of its title. There is much we can debate in reauthorizing this law—and areas for productive compromise – but Congress must not abdicate its responsibility to help all children succeed, must protect our most vulnerable children and must build on what we've learned about supporting bold state and local innovation."

Duncan outlined the Obama Administration’s priorities in a speech delivered in mid-January, the text of which is available here.

The National School Boards Association (NSBA) issued a carefully-worded statement by Executive Director Thomas Gentzel:

"We all agree, the current version of ESEA must be revamped, taking care not to repeat the inadequacies of the existing law. A modern ESEA must ensure that local school boards in local communities across the nation gain the flexibility essential to deliver a high-quality public education. NSBA calls for flexibility and strong local governance, among other priorities aimed at supporting student outcomes, to appear in any version of ESEA sent to the president for his signature."

Specifically, the NSBA is advocating for five points:

  1. Safeguard the authority and flexibility of states and local school districts, without placing undue burden on districts or adversely impacting effective local governance.
  2. Ensure the modernized version of ESEA is fully supported by federal investments in Title I, a cornerstone of ESEA intended to improve academic achievement of disadvantaged students, which has been woefully underfunded for decades. And, also ensure Title V restores local flexibility to provide innovative programs and services and is fully supported by federal investments to advance local innovative programs effective in closing achievement gaps.
  3. Ensure ESEA going forward includes requirements for Maintenance of Effort (a provision of the current law that requires states and districts to maintain spending at a certain level in order to access federal funds) to help sustain and improve education services for millions of students.
  4. Eliminate the sanctions of NCLB that impose unintended consequences on schools that are trying to improve and advance reform.
  5. Protect the federal investments in public education and ensure public dollars are not redirected to private schools that are not fully accountable to the same laws and civil rights that govern public schools.

The National Education Association (NEA) released a response by NEA President Lily Eskelsen García:

“We are pleased the Administration is calling for the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. We all know that 12 years under a broken No Child Left Behind system has failed students and schools by neglecting to close the achievement and opportunity gaps as promised. Our students, especially those most in need, should not have to wait any longer.

“We are looking forward to working with Republicans, Democrats, the civil rights community, educators and other partners in ensuring that all students have equal educational opportunity – the original focus of ESEA. Our focus is on providing equal opportunity to every child so that they may be prepared for college and career. A child’s chances for success should not depend on living in the right zip code.

“In order to do this, we must reduce the emphasis on standardized tests that have corrupted the quality of the education received by children, especially those in high poverty areas. Parents and educators know that the one-size-fits-all annual federal testing structure has not worked. We support grade span testing to free up time and resources for students, diminish ‘teaching to the test,’ expand extracurricular activities, and allow educators to focus on what is most important: instilling a love of learning in their students. We must give states and districts the flexibility to use assessments they feel are best for identifying achievement gaps, rather than forcing them to live with a one-size-fits-all approach that often ignores high needs children.

“And we should move toward a smarter accountability system that looks at more than just a test score, but focuses on the many factors that are indicative of school and student success, and highlight gaps in equity that must be addressed.”

And the American Federation of Teachers released another call for a reduction in high stakes testing. AFT President Randi Weingarten released a statement saying:

"This debate has become increasingly polarized, especially around equity, teacher professionalism, and testing. But these principles put equity front and center, propose the better use of testing, and put an end to the fixation on the high stakes and sanctions that are eclipsing the purpose of the ESEA, narrowing the curriculum, and taking the joy and innovation out of teaching and learning. By crafting a robust accountability system that uses multiple measures, including grade-span testing, we will ensure schools are doing what they need to do, while limiting the amount of high-stakes testing. And annual testing, done right, will help parents, communities and, of course, educators get information that can inform student progress. More than that, these principles provide a way to ensure schools have equitable resources to serve the original and still-critical priorities of the ESEA."

The AFT also partnered with the Center for American Progress on a two-page set of recommendations regarding ESEA renewal.

The AFT’s Weingarten also took a jab at Sec. Duncan’s ideas for ESEA renewal – and the topic of high-stakes testing in general, saying:

"As I've said before, any law that doesn't address our biggest challenges—funding inequity, segregation, the effects of poverty—will fail to make the sweeping transformation our kids and our schools need. Today, it was promising to hear Secretary Duncan make a call for equity, stressing, as we did through the Equity and Excellence Commission, the importance of early childhood education and engaging curriculum. It was encouraging to hear him laud the hard work of educators, who have had to overcome polarization and deep cuts after a harsh recession. And it was heartening to hear him acknowledge the progress our schools have made. However, the robust progress we saw in the first 40 years after the passage of ESEA has slowed over the last 10 years.

“On testing, we are glad the secretary has acknowledged that ‘there are too many tests that take up too much time’ and that ‘we need to take action to support a better balance.’ However, current federal educational policy – No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top and waivers – has enshrined a focus on testing, not learning, especially high-stakes testing and the consequences and sanctions that flow from it. That's wrong, and that’s why there is a clarion call for change. The waiver strategy and Race to the Top exacerbated the test-fixation that was put in place with NCLB, allowing sanctions and consequences to eclipse all else. From his words today, it seems the secretary may want to justify and enshrine that status quo and that's worrisome.

“Yes, we need to get parents, educators and communities the information they need. And all of us must be accountable and responsible for helping all children succeed. That's why we have suggested some new interventions, like community schools and wraparound services; project-based learning; service internships; and individual plans for over-age students, under-credited students and those who are not reading at grade level by third grade.

“If one test per year can cause an entire school to be shuttered or all the teachers fired, something is wrong with the way that test is being used. Even in the District of Columbia, where the secretary spoke from today, the school district has pulled back from the consequential nature of these tests.

"At the end of the day, the most important part of the debate shouldn't happen in big speeches. It should happen in real conversations with parents, students and teachers, who are closest to the classroom. Communities understand the huge positive effect ESEA had for impoverished and at-risk communities 50 years ago. Those communities are saying loudly and clearly that they want more supports for students and schools, and data used to inform and improve, not sanction. It's my hope that, in the coming weeks, leaders in Congress and the administration will listen to these voices and shape a law that reflects the needs of all our kids."

Sources:  Office of Sen. Lamar Alexander, U.S. Department of Education, National School Boards Association, National Education Association, American Federation of Teachers