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FIXING NCLB: Senate Education Committee Examines Federal Role in Supporting and Evaluating Teachers and Principals

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The contrast between Alexander and Warren strikes at the heart of a major difference between Republicans and Democrats in how to rewrite NCLB—whether to impose certain requirements in exchange for federal dollars or give states the flexibility to do what they want.

The Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions (HELP) held a January 27 hearing, “Fixing No Child Left Behind (NCLB): Supporting Teachers and School Leaders” during which senators expressed a mutual desire to rewrite NCLB while differing on what role—if any—the federal government should play in evaluating teachers and principals.

In his opening statement, HELP Committee Chairman Lamar Alexander (R-TN) made it clear that he wants to measure the progress of schools, as well as evaluate teachers and reward them for their performance. He also stressed that the federal government should not mandate such systems, preferring that they be developed by states and school districts.

“Given all of the great progress that states and local school districts have made on standards, accountability, tests, and teacher evaluation over the last 30 years—you’ll get a lot more progress with a lot less opposition if you leave those decisions there,” Alexander said.

Instead, Alexander would allow states to use the $2.5 billion under Title II of NCLB to develop, implement, or improve their own teacher and principal evaluation systems.

As U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) pointed out during the hearing, Alexander’s approach would also allow states and districts to use that money for other uses. “As I read the Republican draft proposal, states and districts would no longer be required to invest Title II funds in teachers and leaders,” Warren said. “Maybe it will happen sometimes, but nothing in this draft requires the states to spend a single federal tax dollar on strengthening teachers. This is a huge concern for me. We keep asking more and more and more of our teachers, but this Republican draft proposal doesn’t do a single thing to make sure that the states will actually use this federal money to help teachers do their jobs. Giving billions of dollars in federal aid to states without requiring them to spend a dime of that money on helping our teachers is not a responsible use of federal tax dollars.”

The contrast between Alexander and Warren strikes at the heart of a major difference between Republicans and Democrats in how to rewrite NCLB—whether to impose certain requirements in exchange for federal dollars or give states the flexibility to do what they want. The issue of flexibility has been a key issue for Alexander, who has charged the Obama administration with taking a “national school board” approach through the waivers it granted to states from certain requirements of NCLB.

In her opening statement, U.S. Senator Patty Murray (D-WA), the top Democrat on the HELP Committee, expressed her support for evaluating teachers, but she stressed that any evaluation system must include factors in addition to test scores in determining a teacher’s effectiveness. Murray also called for better pay for teachers, high-quality professional development, clear pathways for teachers to advance and grow in their careers, and recruitment and retention practices that would ensure that the most successful teachers are teaching the students more in need.

“Democrats and Republicans should be able to work together on something as important as making sure students have great teachers—and can access high-quality education, no matter where they live, how they learn, or how much money their parents make,” Murray said.

Witnesses who testified during the hearing were Dan Goldhaber, director of the National Center for Analysis of Longitudinal Data in Education Research at the American Institutes for Research; Terry Holliday, Kentucky Commissioner of Education; Saul Hinojosa, Superintendent of Somerset Independent School District (Texas); Rachelle Moore, a first grade teacher at Madrona K–8 School (Washington); and Christine Handy-Collins, principal of Gaithersburg High School (Maryland). Witness testimony and an archived video of the hearing are available at http://1.usa.gov/1tRMFf2.

In the next step in the process the Senate HELP Committee will conduct a roundtable-style hearing on February 3 on how innovation can better meet the needs of students. A list of witnesses and video of the hearing will be available at http://1.usa.gov/1wTqRut.

Looking further ahead, Alexander told Education Week that he expects the HELP Committee to finish its work to rewrite NCLB by March but is less certain when it could receive consideration on the Senate floor.

On February 4, the House Committee on Education and the Workforce will hold its first hearing on NCLB, titled “Expanding Opportunity in America’s Schools and Workplaces.” During a January 22 speech at the American Enterprise Institute, Education and the Workforce Committee Chairman John Kline (R-MN) outlined his priorities for fixing NCLB, and like Alexander, focused on shifting more responsibility to states and districts while providing additional flexibility in how they use federal funds.

Kline discussed his Student Success Act, which passed the U.S. House of Representatives last year and would have rewritten NCLB to permit states to develop their own accountability systems free of federal oversight. The Student Success Act would also have eliminated more than seventy existing elementary and secondary education programs, including the Striving Readers Comprehensive Literacy program, in favor of a Local Academic Flexible grant, which Kline said would give districts “maximum funding flexibility to support local efforts to increase student achievement.”

Both U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and House Democrats opposed the Student Success Act last year, with Duncan calling it a “retreat from high standards for all students” that would “virtually eliminate accountability for the learning of historically underserved students—a huge step backward for efforts to improve academic achievement. Duncan added that it would “lock in major cuts to education funding at a time when continued investments in education are the only way we can remain competitive on the world stage.”

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