So, I’m set to meet the Secretary of Education, right? What should I expect? Stern school-marm? Sugar-sweet Texan teacher? I find a combination of southern style and Condi’s steel. Margaret Spellings, a mom of school-age children herself, and one of the architects of the 2001 No Child Left Behind Act, looks the part of a woman of this administration—fierce and feminine.
A sure tone and a bright-red blazer ensure that she can command a room and a conversation without succumbing entirely to either Washington’s drab spirit or its sad sartorial sense.
At any rate, she comes across, like any good principal, as a woman not to be messed with. But this is Washington, and here, everyone gets messed with. Right now, Spellings and the president are facing conservative opposition to the renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act—a national accountability program for public schools that the president calls a cure for the “soft bigotry of low expectations” and many conservatives call a hard boondoggle of big government.
Five years into the program, Spellings said it has given America a benchmark for success it’s never had before.
“Without assessment, we don’t know where we are… We’ve tried the ‘pass the money out and hope for the best’ strategy,” she said. “Now, you can use the information to improve and manage the system. We can be precise about the cure.”
But conservatives like Jim DeMint and John Cornyn believe NCLB’s method of getting such information has taken control away from those who know best how to solve education problems—cities and states—while imposing a mountain of paperwork on teachers. They’re proposing a conservative alternative to NCLB called A-PLUS that would give some of that control back. The bill has more than 50 co-sponsors.
Too often, what passes for educational reform results in mandated bureaucracy in education, thus creating a spider's web of federal regulations with which the states are required to contend. In Florida alone, former Governor Jeb Bush has observed, "Though the federal contribution to education in Florida is small—only about seven percent of total educational spending—it takes more than 40 per–cent of the state's education staff to oversee and administer federal dollars."
Spellings said the A-PLUS plan would be a set-back.
“What their notion is is to go back to they way it was before No Child Left Behind—send the money and no accountability.”
She concedes that there are improvements to be made with NCLB, but won’t concede the federal government’s role in education.
“I’m for more flexibility, too,” she said. “We’ve learned a lot and we ought to build on that experience. Now that we’re five years in, we need a more nuanced accountability process.”
She also said one of the most prevalent myths about the program is that, because it’s federal, it’s one-size fits-all.
“States set standards, devise their own success rates. All technicalities are decided by the states,” she said. “There is so much variety in No Child Left Behind.”
The A-PLUS plan, according to DeMint, would offer more than that:
What we're asking is that states have the option to stay under the No Child Left Behind regime or choose to take the accountability and standards of that regimen but have the flexibility to accomplish the goals in a different way. This would do what wel–fare reform did. If you remember, welfare reform did not start at the federal level, but by giving states the flexibility to create laboratories for change. Then the federal government saw what was working, and we did some things to allow more states to do that, and we changed the system.
We need to do that for education, because, first of all, what we're doing is not working.
Spellings, of course, cites stats to show that it is, in fact, working.
“My job is to be a steward for the taxpayers of this country,” she said, noting that the gap between African-American and white 9-year-old readers is at an all-time low, and that the gap between Hispanic and whites in math and reading is similarly shrinking.
I told the Secretary I know a lot of teachers—Bush-supporters and detractors alike-- many of whom I’ve heard gripe about No Child Left Behind. I asked her about some of their concerns. Chief among them is that teachers are using a lot of time teaching tests, test-taking techniques, and taking practice tests.
“If the tests are aligned with the curriculum and teaching what you want the kids to know, there’s nothing wrong with teaching to the test.”
But, she acknowledged, there is some adjusting that has to happen.
“In Texas, I saw kind of an adapting process,” and five years into NCLB, teachers are adapting to the new requirements, just as they did in Texas, she said.
Of course, not all parts of No Child Left Behind make conservatives cringe. Right now, Spellings is working to expand the parts of the law that make teachers’ unions cringe—giving kids in failing schools a choice.
One of the ideas for NCLB reauthorization is that failing schools set for restructuring could reopen as charter schools, and would not be encumbered by charter-school caps in the individual states.
Spellings also touted a plan to increase a federal Teacher Incentive Fund, which would allow states to reward good teachers with merit pay and escape the imposed mediocrity of collective bargaining.
Department of Education figures show that 65,000 children took advantage of the school choice portions of NCLB last year, up from 17,000 the year before.
“We have had some trouble with parents not being informed of options,” Spellings said, but reauthorization would require schools to spend all their funds for private tutoring and choice programs or risk forfeiting them.
For now, the administration and conservatives will continue to slug it out in Congress over No Child Left Behind. Just this week, Bush was publicly defending the law, and acknowledging frustrations with it.
And, then, one last question, of grave national security importance, because I couldn’t resist:
MKH: “Madame Secretary, are you familiar with ‘Battlestar Galactica’?’
Spellings: “A little.”
MKH: “Well, in ‘Battlestar Galactica, the whole government and much of the nation is wiped out in an attack, which means the Secretary of Education must take charge and save humanity from murderous, intelligent, alien robots.”
MKH: “I’m just sayin’, if it came down to it, would you be ready for something like that?”
Spellings: “I am ready and willing to do battle with anyone who would limit opportunities for the schoolchildren of America,” she laughed.