Sen. Lamar Alexander, the new chairman of the Senate committee on education, walked into Congress this month with guns a-blazin’.
Twelve years after the passage of George W. Bush’s signature education bill, No Child Left Behind, and eight years after that troubled law was supposed to be revised and updated, the Tennessee Republican says now is the time for its long-neglected makeover.
He plans to take a revised version of the law to the Senate floor by the end of February, with hopes of pushing it through Congress “in the first half of this year.”
What exactly that makeover will look like is now the subject of hot debate on Capitol Hill.
The primary issue at stake is testing. Under No Child Left Behind, students are required to take a raft of standardized exams, each of which are used to assess whether schools are succeeding or failing, and, increasingly, to hold individual teachers accountable for their performance in the classroom.
Critics of No Child Left Behind—and there are lots and lots of them—generally hate the testing mandate. Conservatives and Tea Party activists decry it as “government overreach,” while liberals, local teachers unions and parents lament the reliance on “high-stakes testing.” Even Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has said that too much testing can “rob school buildings of joy.”
So far, Alexander says that while he sees the benefits of aggregating and breaking down federal testing results, “the jury is still out” on whether an updated No Child Left Behind should require federal standardized tests at all, and if they do, whether the government should be barred from imposing consequences on schools with bad test scores.
How Alexander and the Senate education committee ultimately come down on this issue could fundamentally alter the way that public education works in this country.
In a conversation with TIME last week, Alexander offered a peek into what he thinks might come next.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve said you’re not sure how you stand on the testing issue, but what is your thinking at the moment?
The thing that worked with No Child Left Behind is to take tests results, break them down and aggregate them so that we know that children really aren’t being left behind—so you can’t have an overall average for a school that’s pretty good, but still leave all the Latino kids in a ditch somewhere. But what’s increasingly obvious to me is that the biggest failure of No Child Left Behind has been the federal accountability system—the effort to decide in Washington whether schools or teachers are succeeding or failing. That just doesn’t work. But I think the jury’s still out on the tests.
What I didn’t realize when we started was the large number of tests that are required by state and local governments. [Former Florida Gov.] Jeb Bush’s Foundation of Excellence in Education in Florida found that there are between eight and 200 additional tests required by state and local government in Florida. That is a lot more than the 17 tests that No Child Left Behind requires.
So you’re not necessarily opposed to keeping those 17 federally mandated tests?
Dr. [Martin] West at Harvard [who testified before the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions committee last week] suggested keeping the  tests but making the decision about success, failure and accountability part of a state’s system. … Dr. West argues that that’s the real culprit—trying to [design accountability systems] from Washington—and I think that’s a pretty persuasive argument. I mean, it may not be the federal tests so much as letting someone at such great a distance assign so much weight to a single test and such arbitrary consequences to it.
So there may still be a federal testing mandate in a revised No Child Left Behind?
Most of the controversy that exists today is the result of Washington getting involved [in state education policy] over the last six or seven years. People don’t like that. Teachers and their unions do not like being evaluated from Washington, and communities do not like being told what their academic standards are, i.e. Common Core, from Washington. They might adopt it for themselves, but they’re not going to be told what to do. … [Washington’s involvement] actually creates a backlash, making higher standards more difficult to hold onto and teacher evaluation systems more difficult to create because of all the anger. … It’s just not the way you make permanent improvements in 100,000 public schools. The community has to own the change. The teachers in the school have to own the evaluation system and believe it’s fair or it’ll never work.
So keep the federally mandated tests, but leave the consequences portion to the states.
That’s right. That’s what Dr. West argues: you have to have the annual test. You have to disaggregate it. You have to report it, so we know how schools and children and school districts are doing. But after that, it’s up to the states, who spend the money and have the children and take care of them and it’s their responsibility to devise what’s success, what’s failure and [what the] consequences [should be].
You’re saying that Dr. West’s position, but it sounds like you’re pretty sympathetic to it.
The jury’s still out for me. What I know is the biggest failure of No Child Left Behind is the idea that Washington should tell 100,000 public schools and their teachers whether they’re succeeding, whether they’re failing and what the consequences of that should be. That hasn’t worked.