The Alexander Doctrine: Governors are Agents of Change

The former governor and senator reflects on the importance of engaging with state executives in education reform
Lamar Alexander, left, and Martin West sitting on stage
Senator Lamar Alexander and Education Next editor-in-chief Marty West discuss the origins of the National Assessment Governing Board at the board’s quarterly meeting in February.

In education you need to figure out how to engage governors. So said former Tennessee Governor, U.S. Secretary of Education, and U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander to the National Assessment Governing Board in February in advance of its quarterly meeting.

Senator Alexander sat down for a conversation with board member and Education Next editor Marty West in Nashville, Tennessee, to talk about the creation of the Governing Board 35 years ago and how he approached his work by prioritizing accountability, transparency, and communication.

The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Marty West: Improving K–12 education was arguably the dominant theme of your career in public service. What drew you to work on education in the first place, and what kept you coming back?

Senator Lamar Alexander: Why did I get involved? The bottom line is two things. One is that my parents were teachers. My mother was a preschool teacher, my dad a principal. So, I valued education. But when I became governor in 1979, Tennessee was the third poorest state, third poorest in family incomes. It’s kind of hard to think of that today. I mean, today we pat ourselves on the back for being a leading state in autos, but we didn’t have a single auto plant in 1979.

So I was trying to think about how to change that. We’re going to have to create the environment to grow jobs, not just recruit jobs, and growing jobs meant workers with skills. So better schools meant better skills, which meant better jobs. That was sort of the mantra. It took me a little while to figure that out, but that’s where I put my attention. And once I got into it, I saw it created results.

And then, as I moved along, I ended up as president of the University of Tennessee, and I’d seen how much a really quality university can help a state rise. Then President [George H.W.] Bush interrupted that, and I got to be the education secretary, and that was not long after when the governors and President Bush got together and created a set of national education goals.

And then in the Senate, I ended up on the committee in charge of education, and by that time there was a real need to fix No Child Left Behind. Almost every school in the country was, by definition, failing. Newsweek said everybody wanted NCLB fixed, and people said, well, your chances of doing that are 10 to one against. But working with President Obama, the Republican House, and Senator Patty Murray from Washington State, we succeeded in what President Obama called a “Christmas miracle” and basically turned authority back over to states with the passing of the Every Student Succeeds Act.

West: You just gave us several of the highlights of your career, but you left out your involvement in the creation of this body. In 1986, you agreed to chair a working group commissioned by the Secretary of Education to take stock of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. That led to the Alexander-James report, which you all put out in January of 1987 with the title “The Nation’s Report Card.” I’m told by Checker Finn, who was on that working group and who was the first NAGB chair, that you were the one who coined that term. Do we really have you to thank for that?

Sen. Alexander: With a name like National Assessment for Educational Progress, people are going to be asleep before you finish saying the name! Assessment is a dull topic to begin with, and you make it even duller with that, so I’d said, “Let’s call it the Nation’s Report Card, and somebody might pay attention to what you’re doing.”

West: The report’s most important recommendation was to begin assessing achievement not just at the national level, but state by state and for the District of Columbia. How did that idea fit into your vision?

Sen. Alexander: At the beginning of my second term as governor, “A Nation at Risk” came out from the U.S. Education Department. Well, the nation might have been “at risk,” but there was no way to find out if our states were. So, I was trying to say if we’re going to try to improve schools, we need to be able to measure results at the state level. Governors were saying in the early 1980s, “Give us some way to tell if our students are really learning.” And so we had the Alexander-James Commission, and it recommended state testing, it recommended an independent board to oversee the program—NAGB—and it recommended the system of achievement levels—basic, proficient, and advanced—that you use today.

And thanks to President Reagan working with Ted Kennedy, it was passed in 1988. That’s almost a world record. For coming up with a Commission in 1986, having a result in early 1987, and a law in 1988! That’s where this Board came from and the genius behind it is—I didn’t want the federal government involved in it because they’ll screw it up—and so the report said everybody on the Board needs to represent states and localities and needs to be from both parties.

West: You noted that governors in the 1980s were hungry for state-level results. We now give states the opportunity to participate separately on some NAEP assessments like history and civics. And when we give them that opportunity and say we’ll pay for it, we get only about a dozen states that opt in. What I think that tells me is that we need a new group of governors who have the same desire to learn about what’s working and not working and be transparent about it. It’s the same type of attitude that you expressed seeing with the education governors in the South back in the 1980s.

Sen. Alexander: Well, among other things, it’s good politics. I mean, when I was running for the Senate, if I would go into a room and say, “It’s time we put the teaching of American history and civics back in its rightful place in our schools so our children can grow up learning what it means to be an American,” people would stand up. And if you get a politician and you give him a line that will cause people to stand up, he’s likely to favor it and maybe even fund it.

Governors don’t really listen to each other that well. But if somebody comes up with a really good idea, they’ll go right back home and do it because it’s good for their state, and it’ll help them get reelected.

If a governor hears another governor say, “I found out that our kids were not doing what they should be doing in American history and civics. And we’re doing something about it,” you’ll find a lot of other governors doing it and paying for it. They might do the same with science.

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