Opinion  /  Rick Hess Straight Up Blog
Lamar Alexander's Lesson in Education Leadership

Over at Education Next, the invaluable Checker Finn has penned a predictably magisterial account of Sen. Lamar Alexander's remarkable career. Alexander, who is stepping down in January after three terms in the U.S. Senate, has been at the forefront of efforts to improve American education for four decades—as governor of Tennessee, U.S. secretary of education, president of the University of Tennessee, and prime mover of the U.S. Senate's education committee.

Surveying Alexander's career, one which Finn saw first-hand and frequently abetted, Finn highlights key lessons deserving of careful attention. As we look to 2021, foremost among these may be Alexander's remarkable record of success driving change in a purple state and then in a divided Washington. After all, in just the past five years, in a Congress where observers lamented that nothing was getting done, Alexander worked across the aisle with Sen. Patty Murray, D-Wash., to enact the Every Student Succeeds Act, major career and technical education legislation, and FAFSA reform.

Alexander's legacy is particularly deserving of note because it's not like his success relied on Obamaesque star power or devious machinations. Indeed, rather quaintly, Finn observes, Alexander "followed some simple advice that he had found in a book about the presidency by LBJ press secretary George Reedy: a leader should do three things: 1) see a few urgent needs, 2) develop a strategy to meet each of those needs, and 3) persuade at least half the people that he is right.'"

For those curious as to what state-level leadership looks like, Finn recounts in some detail Alexander's successful fight to enact his pioneering Better Schools plan back in February 1984, funded by a boost in Tennessee's sales tax. The plan focused on the challenges then at the forefront of the agenda: "basic skills, computer literacy, stronger adult and vocational education, summer residential programs for gifted high schoolers, and a substantial investment in university 'centers of excellence,' " but, Finn relates, the "heart of the plan was an innovative and intricate merit-pay design called the Master Teacher Program." The tale of how Alexander won enactment in the face of union opposition is a revealing insight into what it looks like for policymakers to stand their ground while seeking common ground.

From that effort, Finn shares one lasting conviction that came to inform Alexander's thinking on school improvement:

Within Tennessee, Lamar came to understand that, regardless of what the state might do, schools wouldn't get much better unless their communities wanted them to, which often meant cultivating an appetite for change from outside the usual school establishment. This prompted him to travel the state to urge creation of what became "better schools task forces" in every one of Tennessee's 127 districts. Lamar came to understand that public schools ultimately express the educational priorities, dreams, and capacities of their communities, and that, while state and federal governments—and other external forces—can influence, inspire, and assist in various ways, the quality of the school supply won't improve unless there's local demand for it.

The whole piece is worth a careful read. But I especially liked Finn's summation of Alexander's upbeat but realistic assessment of what it takes to improve schooling. Finn writes:

Over the decades, Lamar has often quoted a maxim of the late Alex Haley, author of Roots: "Find the good and praise it." In reflecting on the course of K-12 education in the United States over his decades of involvement with it, Lamar tends to see the good and celebrate it. Yet, he also recognizes how limited are the gains the country has made so far, how implacable is the resistance to change, and how complacent (or oblivious) are many communities toward shortcomings in their schools and their children's achievement. He's keenly aware of the limits on what Washington can—and should—do to rectify this, the more so at a time of intense partisanship.

From that experience, Finn distills an operating philosophy that has served Alexander remarkably well, and that is worth careful reflection by so many avidly trying their hand at improving our schools: "See a few urgent needs and develop a strategy to meet each of them. Then stick with it until at least half the people agree that it's right."

Divided nation or not, that's some pretty sensible advice for would-be school reformers.