A Savvy Salesman
"Finally, we have what I would view as a genuine effort to appoint a mainstream person with superb education credentials, a genuine education agenda, and no personal ax to grind,'' says Denis Doyle, a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute and a seasoned education observer.
Doyle's accolades are echoed by many, but generally not by teachers in Alexander's home state. Both the Tennessee Education Association and its national parent organization have given lukewarm responses to Alexander's appointment.
"I trust that in his new position, he will seek the advice of practitioners more than he did here,'' says Cavit Cheshier, executive director of the TEA. And, in a brief statement, the National Education Association noted that teachers "have not always seen eye to eye'' with the former governor; the union also stated that it would have preferred someone with classroom experience.
Alexander, who has been president of the University of Tennessee since 1988, served as governor from 1979 through 1986. He was among the first governors during the 1980s to take an active interest in education, pushing through the state legislature an ambitious package of reforms called the Better Schools Program.
Some educators still complain that the 1984 plan was "imposed from above'' with little consultation and did not address their real concerns.
Among other things, the package strengthened requirements for teacher certification, provided money for large numbers of computers and other supplies, and lengthened the school year from 175 to 180 days.
But attention was riveted on one particularly controversial component: a "career ladder'' that allows teachers evaluated as "outstanding'' to earn as much as $7,000 a year more than their peers.
The TEA vigorously opposed this "master teacher'' idea, arguing that all teachers, not just a select few, need their pay raised to a suitable level. The union grudgingly supported the overall reform package when the pay plan was made optional for existing teachers.
The system has since been substantially altered, and a large majority of the state's teachers are participating. Still, educators agree that the system is far from perfect, and some criticize it sharply. "It depends on who you ask,'' says the TEA's Cheshier. "Those who apply for it and make it speak highly of it. Those who don't make it have problems with it. Many teachers feel that what's evaluated is irrelevant to what they're doing.''
Alexander's national prominence peaked in 1985 and 1986, during his tenure as chairman of the National Governors' Association; he was the driving force behind Time for Results, the highly publicized NGA report issued in 1986. That report called for a comprehensive package of education reforms, some of them-- merit pay for teachers, for one--highly controversial.
Observers who worked with Alexander in Tennessee unanimously praise his intellectual and managerial abilities. Even Cheshier calls him "a very capable man, articulate and a good organizer, a relentless worker with a great capacity and a great memory.''
Many of Alexander's acquaintances predict that he will be an adept occupant of the "bully pulpit'' and that his political skills will make him more successful in selling his proposals to educators, the public, and Congress than his predecessors.
"He's no rookie,'' says Nelson Andrews, chairman of the Tennessee Board of Education, noting that Alexander began his political career as an aide to then U.S. Senator Howard Baker and later worked in the Nixon White House. "He knows the Washington situation, and he will be a player.''-----Julie A. Miller, Education Week