The proper role of the federal government is at the heart of almost every debate between congressional Republicans and Democrats. Arguments over one issue or another are, sooner or later, usually distilled down to how much, or whether, Washington should get involved.
And recently, few issues have put the role of government on display — or on trial, some would argue — like education, especially when it comes to the No Child Left Behind Act. The contentious, 13-year-old legislation expanded Washington’s role in American education with annual testing mandates, teacher development programs and a multitude of accountability standards.
The law was supposed to be revised in 2007, but those efforts have stalled over the last eight years, largely due to disagreement in Congress over what role the federal government should play in K-12 education.
But with the GOP back in control of the Senate, Republicans are making a renewed push to reauthorize the law — and pare down Washington’s involvement in it.
And, it turns out, Democrats may be on board with that effort — at least to a point. During a hearing on Tuesday of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee, they appeared to give ground on one key issue. The panel’s ranking member, Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), made clear that while she believes teacher and student success must be measured in a clearly defined way, she wants to move away from the Obama administration’s recent efforts to tie teacher evaluations and pay to student test scores.
“I am wary of using [evaluations] as the sole factor in setting salaries or using testing as the sole indicator in an evaluation,” Murray said.
Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.), chairman of the committee, was especially critical of the White House’s “Race to the Top” program, which offers grants and exemptions from certain No Child provisions, but only to those states that follow a strict set of criteria laid down by the Department of Education. No Child requires schools to evaluate educators but does not tell states how to do it.
Alexander noted that some states have had their waivers denied or revoked for giving local school divisions more control over how to weigh teachers’ effectiveness.
“Washington [state]’s waiver was revoked in April, simply because they wanted to allow local districts to decide which tests to use to evaluate teachers,” said Alexander, who served as secretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. “Whether or not this kind of interference offends your sense of federalism, as it does mine, the fact is, it has proved impractical.”
Obama’s efforts to exempt states from some of the more unpopular aspects of No Child were laudable, Alexander said, but the mandates the administration replaced them with are just as onerous, if not more so.
“The federal government, in a well-intentioned way, has said we want better teachers and we’re going to tell you how to do it and you’re doing to do it now,” he said. “It’s created an enormous backlash.”
Limiting Federal Influence
Alexander’s draft proposal to revise No Child would allow states to implement their own teacher evaluations, and limits the power the secretary of education would have on educator benchmarks. It also would expand education funding to states, including billions earmarked for teacher training. The proposal would not, however, specifically require states to spend those funds on programs for teachers.
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) has a problem with that, saying Washington shouldn’t just give states funding specifically for teacher training — but then tell them they don’t have to spend it on teachers.
“This Republican draft proposal doesn’t do a single thing to make sure that states will actually use this federal money to help teachers do their jobs,” Warren said.
Teachers and policymakers who testified during Tuesday’s hearing, which focused on how best to support those in the trenches of K-12 education, touched on that point, saying educators must have the resources, whether from the states or the federal government, they need to do their jobs effectively.
Christine Handy-Collins, principal of Gaithersburg High School in Gaithersburg, Md., said educators, including those in her position, face innumerable challenges and an equal number of expectations in their schools and their communities.
“[Principals] must be provided ongoing personalized professional development to meet their individual and school needs,” she said.
Murray agreed that educators and administrators are being asked to do more, and often with less.
“One major problem is the setting of unrealistic goals without giving teachers the adequate resources they need to succeed,” she said.
But Sen. Richard Burr (R-N.C.) said the proposal does ensure teachers and schools get the support they need. Instead of having the federal government dictate what’s needed, though, it lets educators on the local level make those decisions.
“I trust the teachers, I trust the principals, I trust the parents of students,” Burr said. “Let’s open it up so each [division] can apply those resources to what they think makes the best impact for their students.”
Terry Holliday, Kentucky’s commissioner of education, said the federal government’s role is a balancing act. On the one hand, he said, states’ plans to improve education and support their teachers “do not need review or approval from the U.S. Department of Education.”
Yet he agreed that Washington has a responsibility to make sure the programs are being funded — and getting the job done.
“If the federal government does play a role in evaluations, it should be to ensure these systems are strong and effective,” Holliday said.
Testing Their Patience
Several senators touched on one of the more contentious requirements of No Child: testing. Or rather, the amount of testing required by federal mandates.
Members of both parties — along with a growing number of teachers, parents and policymakers — have said the law also gives too much weight to student testing in deciding everything from teacher performance and student competency, to funding levels and school-wide report cards.
“I’m worried that the amount of testing is impeding teachers’ ability to teach,” said Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.). “One educator in Rhode Island told me their school has 42 days of testing in a school year.”
Both Alexander and Murray said they want the revisions to No Child to address the amount of testing, and the weight it is given in evaluations.
But Dan Goldhaber, director of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research, said proposals to scrap testing mandates would be a mistake.
“[It] would greatly shrink and possibly even eliminate our knowledge of educator effectiveness,” he said.
He said it’s also important to have uniform test standards with which to compare schools in different cities and states.
“We can compare the learning in one locality to another only when the yardstick measuring learning is the same in both,” he said.
“No ‘Average’ Student”
Rachelle Moore, a teacher from Washington state and a member of the National Education and Seattle Education associations, implored the committee to keep one thing in mind as they and the rest of Congress debate the revisions to No Child: There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the nation’s education challenges.
“There is no way to measure the intangibles in a student’s life,” Moore said. “There is no ‘average’ student. Each student is shaped by individual experiences. And those experiences must be taken into consideration when shaping [education] policies.”
Democratic support for revising No Child is key as President Obama is likely to veto a measure that waters down the government’s role in ensuring education standards are met. With Republicans holding a 55-45 seat margin in the Senate, they would need 12 Democrats to support the measure for a veto-proof two-thirds majority.