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Al Franken: Education Reform 'Most Important Thing I'm Working On'

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AL FRANKEN
AP

WASHINGTON -- While developing his positions on education policy, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) turned to his roots: He consulted with teachers throughout Minnesota, and he chatted with his daughter.

"My daughter became a teacher right out of college," through New York City's Teaching Fellows Program, Franken said. "She had a really good principal. It made an enormous difference."

That's why he introduced the School Principal Recruitment and Training Act, a measure that would fund a federal program that offers school districts competitive grants for principal training.

The legislation came from "research on principals and research on what made a good school, and how ... the ethos of the school was created by the principal," Franken told The Huffington Post in an interview in his office.

Franken is a member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions committee, which is currently tasked with overhauling the decade-old, sweeping No Child Left Behind federal education law. The law has been up for reauthorization since 2007.

NCLB's rough measure of school performance has led to failing results for more and more schools: In New Mexico, 87 percent of schools did not make "adequate yearly progress" under the law this year.

In March 2010, President Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan proposed a blueprint for overhauling NCLB.

Senators Tom Harkin (D-Iowa) and Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.) have been meeting regularly to produce a markup on the bill, which Harkin said at a hearing Wednesday he hopes to have ready "this year." Meanwhile, Franken has been meeting with committee members, sharing his thoughts on the bill.

"I have made it a point to meet with different senators and meet with Senator Enzi, Senator [Lamar] Alexander, making sure that they know what my feelings are about this," he said. "I care very much, very deeply about this. This is the most important thing I'm working on now."

As senators work on a markup, Franken said the most disagreement has come on the role of states and that of the federal government in running education systems.

"There may be disagreement on whether things should be optional for the states," Franken said. "In the reform of No Child Left Behind, how much flexibility or how much leeway the states have in what they do, versus how much is prescribed by the federal government," he said, is being debated.

Harkin told HuffPost that his talks with Enzi focus on "accountability, evaluations, comparability." Without specifying any further, Harkin said he is confident about progress in the Senate, though he questions movement in the House.

Franken said he generally likes Sec. Duncan's policies, which have often relied on competitive grant programs, but he disagrees with Duncan's prescriptive turnaround plans -- currently in effect in districts that have taken federal School Improvement Grants.

"I have some disagreements in terms of what you do with the bottom 5 percent of the schools," Franken said.

Some of these models call for swapping out teachers or principals as a remedial intervention.

"The four models for how to transform the schools I don't think fit terribly well with rural schools because there just aren’t that many teachers or principals available," Franken said. That scenario could mean "two failed schools will switch teachers."

In addition to the principal training initiative, Franken has also introduced a measure that would bolster science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) teaching. He hopes to roll it into the bigger markup bill.

He said he crafted the STEM initiative in part because he and his brother studied math and science, and because of his appreciation for logic, whether as a politician or as a comedian on Saturday Night Live.

"While we didn't go into math and science careers, I felt that there's actually a lot in my career that has to do with logic, like writing a joke," Franken said. He had also noticed that in Minnesota, STEM teaching jobs went unfilled.

Franken also introduced a measure that would prohibit discrimination in public schools on the basis of gender identity or sexual orientation.

One thing most NCLB stakeholders, including Franken, agree on is the need to change testing and test reporting. The current law measures student scores, but not student growth -- so schools that are improving can still labeled as failing. Franken wants to move to a growth model.

"Some of the schools that aren't getting annual yearly progress are schools that are doing a really good job, and they're taking kids who may have been not up to grade level or far below grade level and bring[ing] them close to grade level, and [they're] be[ing] considered a failure," Franken said.

Testing, he said, must change to reflect ongoing learning. In Minnesota, Franken said a principal he met called the current tests used to measure NCLB "autopsies."

Franken said he asked the principal to elaborate. "The kids take them in late April, you don’t get them until late June, and by then they're out of the school," he recalled the principal saying. "All we do is aggregate the data, and that's it."

Franken is calling for more frequent, less pressurized exams that show progress throughout the year.

"These [current] tests are teaching these little discrete skills and teachers are trying to drill those things," Franken said. "It's drill and kill."

CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article did not specify Franken's reference to STEM jobs in Minnesota.

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