Lamar Alexander’s No Child Left Behind Rewrite Will Not Rein in Federal Control of Education

Lamar Alexander falsely claims his No Child Left Behind Reauthorization bill, labeled the Every Child Achieves Act (ECAA), will rein in the federal government. Like its House counterpart, ECAA has superficial “prohibitions” on what the U.S. Secretary of Education may do. Those prohibitions merely replicate existing prohibitions and, in any event, lack any kind of enforcement mechanism for the states.

What the bill does do is set up a structure that will guarantee minimal, nonacademic, workforce-development standards (such as Common Core) and enforcement of these standards with Brave New World assessments that essentially create psychological profiles on children.

Sen. Alexander’s recently released defense of his bill is unpersuasive.

To begin with the assessments issue, ECAA continues NCLB’s onerous testing mandates. (In his opening statement during debate on the bill, Alexander described this requirement as “two hours a year.” Teachers and parents may want to contact him to correct that misimpression.) But the problem with the mandate goes much deeper than the time commitment and the “teach to the test” mentality. Under ECAA, states will have to adopt and implement very specific types of assessments: those that measure “higher order thinking skills” using “Universal Design for Learning” Sec. 1111(b)(2)(B)(vi) and (xiii). This may sound good until you realize what those phrases mean.

Higher order thinking skills (“HOTS”) have little to do with factual, academic knowledge of a subject. Instead, they include supposedly critical, reflective, and creative thinking and “are activated when individuals encounter unfamiliar problems, uncertainties, questions, or dilemmas.” Universal Design for Learning (“UDL”) means, in its most modern, cutting-edge form, embedding into computerized programs sophisticated assessment tools that actually map and analyze a child’s brain function. These tools will be able to measure a student’s non-cognitive attributes and mindsets, such as whether he is easily bored or frustrated. Whether he actually knows the material is secondary.

This is what ECAA requires of state assessments – psychological profiling of students.

It is possible to assess HOTS with a paper-and-pencil test, but it is much more “effective” (from the government’s point of view) to use a computer assessment. Especially facing the UDL requirement, states will invest in these enormously expensive and problem-prone assessment systems to make sure they get their federal money. This does not sound much like state control.

How did Alexander respond to this criticism? With silence. He did not even mention the assessment provisions of the bill at all.

His responses to some of the other numerous criticisms were little better than his silence about the assessments. Confronted with ECAA’s requirement that state standards align with Common Core-type standards, and with federally approved workforce and early-childhood standards, Alexander simply restated the multiple prohibitions the bill contains on the Secretary’s dictating specific standards. But as we have explained, the bill itself demands this alignment; the Secretary will not have to dictate anything.

For one thing, the Race to the Top and NCLB waiver programs have already coerced colleges and universities into agreeing to accept Common-Core-trained students without remediation. ECAA requires standards that align with these college entrance requirements. So guess which standards states will stick with?

As “proof” that a great diversity of standards will be acceptable, Alexander cites that states received NCLB waivers despite their not using Common Core. But in fact, except for Texas (which received only a limited waiver), all of those states are using standards that are highly aligned with Common Core. Their legislatures may have rejected Common Core, but their state education departments made sure the “new” standards are, for all intents and purposes, Common Core.

Another problem with Alexander’s argument that the prohibitions on the Secretary are airtight is that these same prohibitions, with only minor changes in wording, were already present in NCLB. Yet under NCLB, we saw the Secretary coerce states into adopting specific standards and assessments and impose illegal waivers from the statute’s provisions. Because there was no enforcement provision – no recourse for the states that were on the receiving end of the bullying – the Secretary got away with it. Similarly, ECAA contains no enforcement provisions or appeal avenues for the states. So if the Secretary does under ECAA exactly what he did under NCLB, what’s a state to do? Call Senator Alexander? Congress has not distinguished itself in standing up to a lawless administration, and there is no reason to think it will start now.

Finally, consider who is supporting ECAA: the same organizations that created (and in many cases are profiting from) the Common Core standards, such as the National Governor’s Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Is it even rational to conclude that these organizations would support a bill that completely upends their lucrative applecart?

The bottom line is that Alexander is determined to give Barack Obama and Arne Duncan a bill they will like. They won’t like anything that reduces their power. Members of Congress got a pass on Common Core because they did not vote on it; they won’t get a pass on this.

Emmett McGroarty is American Principles Project’s education director.
Jane Robbins is a senior fellow at American Principles Project.


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