Alexander: Fixing No Child Left Behind

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The President and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan recently announced that the Department of Education will begin a process to grant to states waivers from provisions of the No Child Left Behind Act, a law that was passed with bipartisan support in 2001 and 2002 by Congress.

Almost every state will be asking for a waiver — Tennessee has already done so. My request of the Secretary and of the President is that as they establish a waiver process and as they begin to approve waivers, they show restraint and not take unto themselves responsibilities that are the responsibilities of Congress.

No Child Left Behind needs to be fixed, and Congress needs to act to fix it, and I recently joined several Republican senators in introducing a series of bills that will do just that.

Our legislation would eliminate entirely the Adequate Yearly Progress mandate and instead require states to have high standards that promote college and career readiness for all students. It would continue the reporting of student progress so parents, teachers, and communities can know whether students are succeeding.  It would encourage teacher and principal evaluation systems, relating especially to student achievement, and would replace the federal definition of a highly qualified teacher.  It would consolidate federal programs and make it easier to transfer funds within local school districts.  It would expand charter schools and give parents more choices.  For the bottom 5 percent of schools, the Federal Government would help states turn them around. 

Much has happened during the last 10 years, and it is time to transfer back to states and to local governments the responsibility for deciding whether schools and teachers are succeeding or failing. 

Today, because Congress has not acted to fix No Child Left Behind, the Secretary has the states over a barrel. We have about 100,000 public schools in America, and about 80 percent of them, under the current law, are going to be deemed as failing schools soon.

What I hope the Secretary will do is to look at the applications, and if those applications submitted by the states for exemption from the requirements of No Child Left Behind, if they would enhance student achievement, then approve them. If they would not advance student achievement, then deny them.

It is a good idea for Tennessee or for Missouri or for California to set performance targets to replace adequate yearly progress. But those performance targets ought to be in the states' application and not be required and defined by the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, which could turn it into a national school board.

The states have been working over the last 10 years in very good ways to take steps forward together. They have created common standards. They have created tests to measure performance against those standards. The chief state school officers are in the middle of creating an accountability system. A lot of progress has been made in what I like to call the holy grail of elementary and secondary education: finding a way to reward outstanding teaching by connecting it to student achievement. Tennessee became the first state in the country to do that when I was Governor in 1983 and 1984 and many school districts in many states are trying to do that now.

I do not think you can make schools better from Washington, DC. We can create an environment in which they might succeed. Schools are similar to jobs. We have a national responsibility for them, but we cannot create them here. We can create an environment to make it easier and cheaper to create jobs, private sector jobs. We can create an environment to make it easier to create better schools.

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