On ESSA

Sen. Lamar Alexander on the nation’s new education law, and how it could shape Tennessee schools

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
From left: U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) speaks with former Nashville superintendent Jesse Register about the Every Student Succeeds Act.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has one underlying message to share about the federal education law he co-authored and co-sponsored last year in Congress: Leave decisions about schools up to local stakeholders.

Alexander, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, spoke Monday to an audience of Tennessee educators and policymakers at Belmont University in Nashville about the revised federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, formerly called No Child Left Behind and now known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. The discussion was moderated by Belmont professor and former Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Jesse Register.

Alexander knows Tennessee education from numerous angles. The son of a kindergarten teacher and elementary school principal in Maryville, he promoted standardized skills for students and merit pay for teachers as governor of Tennessee from 1979 to 1987. Prior to his 2002 election to the U.S. Senate, he also served as president of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and U.S. education secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

Here’s what Alexander had to say about his experiences with education policy, and what he hopes is in store for his home state:

On why No Child Left Behind had to go

No Child Left Behind was passed under President George W. Bush’s administration in 2001, and signed into law in 2002. The law dramatically ramped up the federal government’s role in education and had a lofty goal: that all students in the United States would be “proficient” in math and reading by the 2013-2014 school year. Schools, states and districts that failed to comply with No Child Left Behind were penalized financially.

It quickly became apparent that most schools would be labeled as failures under this ambitious metric, and President Barack Obama in 2011 offered states waivers to the law. In order to receive a waiver, states were required to adopt rigorous “career-and-college” readiness standards. Though no specific set of standards was mandated, almost all states, including Tennessee, moved to adopt the Common Core State Standards.

The U.S. Department of Education also asked states applying for a waiver to focus on schools in the bottom 15 percent, and to create teacher evaluations at least in part based on teacher evaluations.

Alexander called the waivers overly prescriptive and said they created the appearance that the federal government was requiring states to do things they might have done anyway, significantly undermining certain reforms.

“The department was in effect acting as a national school board for the 42 states with waivers — 100,000 schools,” he said. “The states were doing fine until the federal government stuck its nose into it and created a huge backlash on Common Core, a huge backlash on teacher evaluation and really set both those efforts back. So it was important to get the balls back in the hands of the people who really should have it.”

On testing and accountability

The Every Student Succeeds Act mandates annual testing in math, English and science in grades 3-11. It also mandates states break down the test scores to look at achievement gaps among various subgroups of students by race, socioeconomic status, and even homeless students and students in foster care.

“There are more things you have to look at in your accountability system, but what you do about those things is up to you,” he said.

"The states were doing fine until the federal government stuck its nose into it and created a huge backlash on Common Core, a huge backlash on teacher evaluation and really set both those efforts back."

Alexander said he went into the process of rewriting No Child Left Behind thinking it would eliminate federally required tests. However, he changed his stance after realizing, he said, that people had fewer concerns about the federally required tests, and more concerns about what was being done with test results.

“The problem was Washington telling people what to do with those tests — states were using those tests for everything!” he said. “So schools were giving dozens of tests to prepare to that test. We found one district in Florida was giving 183 tests. But only 17 were required by the federal government.”

Like past federal regulations, the new act requires states to break out their lowest-performing schools. But it leaves the decisions on how the state identifies its lowest schools to the state, and the decisions about how to turn around those schools to districts. (The law will not interfere with state turnaround districts such as Tennessee’s Achievement School District, Alexander’s policy aides clarified after the discussion.)

On TNReady

Alexander charged that the state’s TNReady woes — including the state’s failed new online standardized test and numerous delays in shifting back to paper tests — are a direct result of federal meddling.

“The problem is the federal government stuck its nose in Tennessee and helped create a huge backlash against Common Core,” he said. “As a result, the legislature and the governor changed that. And when you change the academic standards and when you change the test, it’s very expensive and it takes awhile. So my view is, if the federal government had kept its nose out of it, Tennessee was doing just fine. And I think Tennessee will do fine in the future, as soon as it gets back on track.”

The Common Core, which was was developed in a multi-state process spearheaded by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, was endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education.

Regarding presidential candidates who want to repeal the Common Core, Alexander said he was exasperated even by the inclusion of Common Core into recent presidential debates.

“We still have people running against it — even though it’s not there unless the governor and the legislature and the school board and the teachers want it to be there.” he said. “As of last December, there’s a law that says the federal government is not authorized to set standards.”

On next steps for Tennessee

"The exciting thing about (this law) is that it … recognizes that the path to better teaching, higher standards, higher achievement, lies through classroom teachers, the local school board, and the state of Tennessee."

“The exciting thing about (the Every Student Succeeds Act) is that it … recognizes that the path to better teaching, higher standards, higher achievement, lies through classroom teachers, the local school board, and the state of Tennessee,” Alexander said.

He urged state policymakers to submit a plan on what they want to do under the new law — not to wait for regulations from the U.S. Department of Education.

“Come up with your own ideas, and then fit it into the federal template,” he said.

Alexander warned educators not only to be on the lookout from federal interference, but state interference as well.

“If there’s overtesting in any Tennessee school, it’s Tennessee’s responsibility,” he said.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.

DeVos on offense

DeVos criticizes Bush-Obama policies, saying it’s time to overhaul conventional schooling

PHOTO: U.S. Department of Education
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos speaking to the Council of Great City Schools.

One era of federal involvement in education is over, U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said Tuesday, in some of her most expansive public remarks since taking over the department last year.

DeVos used a speech at the American Enterprise Institute to hit on familiar themes: America’s schools haven’t changed in many years, failing to embrace technology while still spending more and more money. But she also offered a pointed skewering of the approach of her recent successors.

“Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem,” said DeVos. “Too many of America’s students are still unprepared.”

She also gave a harsh assessment of one of the most controversial policies of the period. “Common Core is a disaster,” DeVos said, echoing her boss, President Trump. “And at the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

In place of those efforts, DeVos offered a different framework for improving education: overturning a host of conventional approaches to schooling.

“Why do we group students by age?” she asked. “Why do schools close for the summer? Why must the school day start with the rise of the sun? Why are schools assigned by your address? Why do students have to go to a school building in the first place? Why is choice only available to those who can buy their way out? Or buy their way in? Why can’t a student learn at his or her own pace? Why isn’t technology more widely embraced in schools?”

Some of these questions dovetail with DeVos’s embrace of private school choice programs and tech-infused approaches to schools, including fully virtual options. The emphasis on technology is aligned with a number of wealthy philanthropies that have embraced computer-based “personalized learning.”

They also mark a departure from the paradigm of previous administrations. No Child Left Behind, the law signed by President George W. Bush, and the Obama-era Race to the Top program both focused on improving academic standards, instituting tests, holding schools and teachers accountable for results, and expanding charter schools, though generally not private school voucher initiatives.

DeVos’s vision is more aligned with a strain of conservative thought that has grown increasingly skeptical of test scores. “I talk about accountability more in terms of transparency and information that parents can access to find out how the schools are doing for their child,” DeVos said in a follow-up session with Rick Hess of AEI, the conservative think tank whose board DeVos previously sat on.

This rift is not entirely surprising. Former secretary Arne Duncan has sharply criticized DeVos and Trump, and left-of-center charter advocates have attempted to separate themselves from an unpopular and polarizing president and secretary of education.

In a rare agreement with the American Federation of Teachers, DeVos argued that federal involvement had put too much focus on test scores, citing a poll commissioned by the union. “The result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing,” she said.

The AFT responded icily on Twitter: “More American educators feel disrespected by DeVos than anyone else in the entire world. You can’t blame Bush & Obama for that.”  

Debates about evidence continue

Earlier at the event, “Bush-Obama school reform: Lessons learned,” researchers and policymakers conducted a post-mortem of the last couple of decades of federal school reform.

The results weren’t always pretty. Virtually all participants agreed that well-meaning efforts had proven difficult to implement and sustain: No Child Left Behind had become widely reviled for increasing testing; teacher evaluations pushed by the Obama administration continued to rate most teachers as effective and faced stiff opposition from teachers’ unions; Common Core became the target of conservative ire and the associated tests were scrapped in most states; and a comprehensive study of the federal school turnaround program found that it made little impact on test scores or graduation rates.

Evaluating large policies, like Race to the Top or Common Core, is inherently challenging.  Nationwide test scores have been fairly stagnant in recent years, though that may be due to the effects of the Great Recession.

At one session, participants suggested that not enough had been done to incorporate teachers’ perspective into federal policy. (Notably, no current teachers or union representatives participated in panels at the AEI event.)

Still, research suggests that No Child Left Behind substantially improved math achievement. Studies in some districts have found benefits of their revamped teacher evaluation systems, too.

Joanne Weiss, chief of staff at the Department of Education under Duncan, cautioned against judging policies too quickly. “At some point you gotta say, the results should be in today,” she said. “[But] we have a history in education of calling it too early and moving on to something else, and then 10 years later the research comes in.”

Nevertheless, DeVos seized on the mixed results of past efforts to make the case for her favored changes: more school choice and more innovation at the school level, not driven by the federal government.

She didn’t mention the research on those approaches, which is decidedly mixed and even negative in some cases.

A number of recent studies on school voucher programs have found showed they hurt student test scores, though they bounce back for some students who stay in private schools for several years. In DeVos’s account of disappointing federal programs, she did not mention a recent study of Washington D.C.’s voucher program, which showed drops in math achievement. (A few studies have found positive impacts on high school graduation rates and college attendance.)

Fully virtual charter schools, which DeVos has long backed, have posted even worse results. And some math programs that blend technology with more traditional classroom culture have posted positive results, but as a whole, the evidence base for those approaches remains thin.

DeVos’s skepticism of federal involvement also highlights the central paradox of her job: As the leader of the very agency she is critiquing, how will she advance her agenda without expanding the federal footprint?

So far, DeVos has rolled back a number of Obama-era regulations and supported a new federal tax break for private school tuition, while acknowledging its impact would be modest.

We also fact-checked seven claims — from Common Core to PISA test scores — DeVos made during her speech. Read more here.