For a state with a small enrollment, Nebraska is looking at some big changes in education policy—and those who set it.
Earlier this month, a new, uniform statewide testing system was signed into law, despite objections from top state education officials who favored the existing system of locally developed tests. (“Nebraska Bill Would Boost State Tests’ Status,” March 26, 2008.)
Lawmakers had been putting the final touches on that change in late March even as state Commissioner of Education Douglas D. Christensen—an unabashed supporter of the homegrown tests—announced his resignation after 14 years.
Meanwhile, Sen. Ron Raikes, the chairman of the education committee of the legislature and sponsor of the bill establishing the new tests, is due to leave office later next January because of legislative term limits.
“I’ve never seen anything as far as politics … getting involved in education [so drastically] until the last twelve months,” said Fred C. Meyer, the president of the Nebraska state board of education.
Mr. Christensen’s departure this summer as commissioner will mark the end of an era for educational leadership in Nebraska, which has 290,540 public school students in grades K-12.
An outspoken critic of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, Mr. Christensen was known for his work on the state’s one-of-a-kind system of local student assessments, called the School-based Teacher-led Assessment Reporting System, or STARS. He was quick to deny that the imposition of a new statewide test drove him to step down, though he has sharp words for the new system.
The policy shift will make Nebraska the last state to join the other 49 in implementing such an assessment system—a move that Mr. Christensen, in an interview this month, called “the most horrible public policy we could ever put in place.”
“There is nothing good to come from … large-scale testing,” he said.
Such strong comments are typical for the long-serving state chief.
“He has been a tremendous voice for education in Nebraska,” Mr. Meyer said. “I can very truthfully say that he saw to it that education happened the way it should happen, without the interference of politics.”
Jess Wolf, the president of the Nebraska State Education Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, said Mr. Christensen “will be remembered as a commissioner who really had kids and educators at heart. He wasn’t afraid to ask for our opinions, and worked very well with us even though we didn’t always agree.”
Mr. Christensen said that insulating schools from political pressure has been a major priority for him throughout his tenure.
“Education is the only profession I know of that isn’t allowed to decide its own metrics of success,” he said. To be effective, the commissioner said, education reform has to come from the inside—starting with teachers, not lawmakers.
“Everybody’s trying to change it from the outside,” he said, “but it’s got to be the work of educators.”
Although while he is stepping down as state chief July 15, Mr. Christensen, 65, insists he will not be retiring. He plans to work on a book about leadership and teach administrators. He also wants to spend more time with his family and catch up on his hobbies: golfing, fishing, and restoring antique tractors.
“Something pulled me towards [the role of commissioner],” he said. “And it’s been great—a nice, long tenure. It’s been the most meaningful piece of my professional life.”
Before taking his position as commissioner in 1994, Mr. Christensen served as the deputy commissioner of education and the associate commissioner of education for the Nebraska education department and logged 12 years as a superintendent in both Kansas and Nebraska.
Mr. Christensen’s departure is especially timely, from the point of view of Sen. Raikes, who believes the state may benefit from having a new commissioner during implementation of the new testing system.
“It seems to me that it would be very difficult for [Mr. Christensen] to usher in … this new system, when I think he’s made it extraordinarily clear that he doesn’t believe in it,” said the senator, who is registered as an Independent in a state where legislators are elected on a nonpartisan basis. “In that stance, I think it’s better to turn the reins over.”
Mr. Raikes, who has butted heads with Mr. Christensen on several issues during the senator’s 11-year tenure in the legislature, views his own upcoming, term-limited exit from Nebraska’s unicameral legislature philosophically.
“[With both the chairman and the commissioner leaving,] it provides an opportunity for the legislature and the department of education to establish a whole new relationship,” Mr. Raikes said.
Over the course of his tenure, Mr. Raikes has been recognized for playing a major part in revamping the state’s school aid formula, as well as for his role in encouraging school consolidation and statewide assessments.
Mr. Meyer, the president of the state board which will choose the new commissioner, agreed that it would be beneficial to get new voices in the legislative education committee.
“Whoever takes over the education committee is going to be much easier to work with,” he said. “I have always been under the impression that when folks have a common interest at heart,” they can work toward a solution.
“That was not the case with Senator Raikes,” he added. “It was his way or the highway.”
But Mr. Wolf, from the teachers’ union, is not convinced the change in the education committee’s leadership will be that significant. “Most of the rest of the members of the education committee will be returning, so I don’t know if there will be a grand difference,” he said.
The most important thing, Mr. Wolf said, is cooperation between education officials across the state.
“Those individuals,” he said, “are going to have to get along with each other and work together with the governor and the whole education community to solve some of the problems facing our state.”
A version of this article appeared in the April 30, 2008 edition of Education Week as Nebraska Education Sees Policy, Leadership Shifts