July 14, 2015

Sen. Whitehouse Delivers Remarks in Support of the Every Child Achieves Act

Mr. President, I wish to join Chairman Murkowski in expressing my satisfaction and pleasure with this bill we are on and join her in commending the leadership of Ranking Member Patty Murray and Chairman Lamar Alexander. As a result of their work, we have a significant piece of legislation before us. It received bipartisan support in the committee, and I think the secret of their success was that they knew how to let Senators be Senators and work on a bill, really on the merits of it, without a lot of partisan gun slinging. As a result, the legislation before us creates a tremendous improvement in K-2 education over the failed No Child Left Behind Act. The process that led to this was bipartisan, substantive, and thorough. They really listened to a wide array of viewpoints. The result is this strong bipartisan proposal. As one of my senior colleagues on the committee said, this is what happens when you have committee leaders who really know what they are doing.

By now, most Americans certainly my constituents are familiar with the failures of No Child Left Behind. It overemphasized a peculiar form of testing, a form of testing in which the student took the test but wasn’t graded on it. The subject of the test really was the performance of the school itself. Schools became frantic to heap up student performance to protect themselves. As a result, there was a lot of drama in the schools around these tests. If you did not do well, that pitched you into a narrow, one-size-fits-all approach to fixing the low-performing school. That combination served neither students nor communities well.

The Every Child Achieves Act is based on a very simple idea that I think has broad support in the Senate: Less classroom time spent on this frantic test preparation for the high-stakes exams means more time actually learning. The Every Child Achieves Act allows States to take a whole range of factors into account to gauge how students are doing and how the schools are doing, not just one test. I call that the data dashboard. It can include things such as graduation rates, college performance rates afterwards, how many students are taking AP classes and SAT tests, incidents of violence or bullying, and even working conditions for teachers. It is something we have worked on in Rhode Island through something called the InfoWorks Program. It is a commonsense way of understanding school and student performance without creating this massive distraction and drama.

Less emphasis on this peculiar high-stakes testing regime means more time for teachers to teach a more balanced, well-rounded curriculum, giving attention to important subjects such as history and the arts, which, because they weren’t covered under these high-pressure standardized tests, fell out of the curriculum. So what parents ought to see after we pass this bill is a much richer curriculum for their kids and one that some kids simply need in order to stay interested in school. If arts are your passion as a child and if that has fallen out because of this testing regime, you really have been hurt. If history and the stories of what happened in the olden days are what really gets you excited about education and if that gets squeezed out so you can do the math and the reading test better, you really have been hurt as a student. So that has changed.

 I am glad we have language in this bill that supports civics and American history education so that beyond reading and math–the tested subjects–students who graduate from public education have a real understanding of what it means to be an American citizen. It means something to be an American citizen. They need to understand the trajectory of this country so that they can fill that role as American citizens better.

The bill supports school libraries, which is an issue my senior Senator, Jack Reed, has long championed and which I was proud to support in committee.

It includes an initiative I supported that was led by Senator Mikulski to provide support for gifted and talented students, particularly those who are in high-poverty schools. It can be hard to keep a high-ability child engaged and motivated if they are not challenged. I believe Senator Mikulski’s language will be a big help to these kids, their teachers, and their parents.

When a school does fall short, the Every Child Achieves Act rejects the overly punitive interventions of the No Child Left Behind Act. Instead, it allows communities, parents, and teachers to work together to improve their school in ways that make sense for the students and give them the tools to succeed.

In my experience, I have learned that the greatest unmet area–at least in Rhode Island–is in middle schools. When I talk to people from other States, they see the same thing. Those middle grades are a tipping point in the lives of many students, especially those at risk of dropping out. When I was Rhode Island’s attorney general, I saw hundreds of juvenile cases that had a common thread, which was catastrophic levels of middle school truancy. In order to get a better handle on what was happening in the middle schools, I adopted one–the Oliver Hazard Perry Middle School in Providence. We worked hard to create a real relationship between the police department and the school. We helped get truant kids back in classrooms. We began a mentoring program between students and the attorneys in my office. We brought in community groups to start afterschool programs. We did a lot of different things.

Those years of working with middle school stakeholders helped me realize how much the middle grades bear on a child’s future. It is an age when the child is beginning to make his or her own decisions, which can be dangerously bad ones at that time. But they can still be influenced by positive adults and by enriching experiences in their lives. Many students who fail in high school showed the warning signs in middle school. We need to be reaching back into middle school to help them stay on track.

That is why I am so glad to have partnered with our friend Senator Baldwin on a measure that requires States to identify and support students at risk of dropping out in middle school and not wait until they are in serious trouble in high school.

I am also proud that the bill includes key elements of the Community Partnerships in Education Act, the House version of which was championed by my House colleague Congressman David Cicilline. The outstanding success in Rhode Island of the Providence After School Alliance shows that schools and their students can thrive with help from strong community partners focused on sustainable and coordinated afterschool learning opportunities. PASA is really a model. Community-based afterschool has long been underappreciated, and I am glad it is on an even basis in this bill with school-based afterschool.

The Every Child Achieves Act also makes progress in educating students who have become involved in the criminal justice system. As with the juvenile justice reauthorization that I am working on with Chairman Grassley in the Judiciary Committee, this bill tries to break the cycle of troubled kids who enter the juvenile justice system, who get marginalized, who fall further behind in their education, leading to more trouble and ultimately to crime. This phenomenon is referred to as the school-to-prison-pipeline, and it is tragic and it needs to end.

I have also seen and heard how Federal, State, and local regulations can get in the way of innovative reforms. Over the last 2 years, I have worked closely with Rhode Island educators, who have told me time and time again that they could achieve much better results if not for the layers of professional education bureaucracy stifling innovation at multiple levels.

I am working to include an amendment to establish an innovation schools demonstration, giving teachers, parents, and school leaders, who have a unique understanding of the students and communities they serve, the flexibility to turn those ideas into action.

In Rhode Island, I have heard from school leaders who would like to extend the school day for struggling students, reboot their curriculum, take ownership over their school’s budgeting and financing, or better manage their school’s human resources. But they can’t because existing rules and regulations get in the way. They are often daunting because if you try to get after the local regulations, you still have the State regulations. If you try to go after the local and the State regulations, you still have the Federal regulations. So they give up.

My amendment establishes a fast-track process to give public schools relief from barriers to school-level innovation relief from local, State, and Federal regulations.

Here is what Victor Capellan, superintendent of the Central Falls, RI, School District, told me: “As a leader, having more flexibility to design the learning around the needs of my students and teachers and within the local context that exists–and not based on old and fixed conditions–makes all the sense in the world to me.”

Overall, the Every Child Achieves Act returns more decision making authority to public schools, gives them tools to help every student succeed, and promotes greater flexibility in achieving high standards.

As I prepared at home for this bill, I worked with a lot of Rhode Islanders to learn what was needed. I am grateful to the groups who gave me so much time. Many of us met over and over to work through these issues and lay the foundation, particularly for the middle school part of the bill and for the innovation schools part of the bill. There was a lot of good Rhode Island work that went into those, and I appreciate it.

I believe this bill responds to the needs and concerns of the many Rhode Island teachers, reformers, students, school administrators, and union officials I worked with. I am proud to support it.

I will close by saying one last thing. There are many issues we deal with where we experience a lot of confrontation. Often we come into a situation thinking we know what the confrontation is. Before we even get to it, we anticipate the confrontation. What I learned from sitting down and spending real time with teachers who are in teachers unions, with reformers who are determined to make schools better and able to innovate, administrators who work in public schools and the administrators who work in charter schools, you put them all together and they agree on so much of what is in this bill.

If you treat people involved in this system with the respect they deserve individually, and if you listen to them, the agreement is far greater than the disagreement.

I will close where I began. What Chairman Alexander and Ranking Member Murray did was to create a process where we could be Senators, and as a Senator I was able to bring those voices from Rhode Island into this process in a meaningful way. My ability to bring that voice in a meaningful way empowered me to be able to bring those voices together back in Rhode Island and find the kind of agreement that has enabled these successes, so I am very grateful to them as well.

With that comment, I yield the floor.