As the U.S. secretary of education, Margaret Spellings oversees the implementation of the No Child Left Behind law. In a recent interview, she defended the original law's focus on reading and math assessments but expressed support for an improved bill that makes better distinctions between chronically failing schools and schools that just need more help with particular groups of students. A believer that "what gets measured gets done," she remains confident that schools can bring all students to grade-level proficiency by 2014 but says progress is not being made fast enough.
What have been the major accomplishments of the law so far?
We're getting better results especially for minority and poor kids. That's obviously No. 1. The second thing is that you and I can sit here and have a conversation that we couldn't have five years ago. We know a heck of a lot more about how our schools are doing, and we can be smarter and more precise about how we intervene. For a long, long time we had this "throw-money-out-hope-for-the-best" strategy. Parents and teachers complain that the emphasis on reading and math assessments has narrowed the curriculum. Are these fair criticisms, and how should they be addressed in the reauthorization law?
Reading and math are fundamental basic skills without which you can't learn social studies, history, so on, and so forth. This is the right place to start. We now have all this infrastructure [data] in place. If I was governor, I would have a well-rounded system that measures across the curriculum, and some states have done that.... The people who criticize reading and math assessments, is their plan to go back to the good old days of just shoveling kids through the system and not knowing how they were doing? Let's go back to the ostrich approach? Some folks have criticized the law for not setting clear expectations about what children should learn. The pressure to meet federal proficiency requirements may in fact be driving some states to lower their standards. Is it time to set a single set of national standards?
For us to take x number of years to have a federal debate about intelligent design just seems like a real bad idea to me, particularly when we have a speedometer that says, "We're going too slow; we need to pick up the pace." The president has already called for us to start to report [the results of the National Assessment of Education Progress] to parents. Let's tell the parents of Mississippi that while their state test says 80-some percent of their kids are proficient, this is how they are doing on the NAEP test. Let the good people of Mississippi take that into account and say, "You know what? We probably need to raise the bar." And they are raising the bar.... I don't think the way to do it is a one-size-fits-all national standard that morphs into a national curriculum that morphs into national textbooks. It's the wrong way to go, and it's a giant time-waster. The accountability system judges a school's performance based on bringing enough struggling students to proficiency. That has caused schools to ignore high-achieving kids. Can a better accountability system keep this from happening?
We are seeing improvements at every [level on the 2007 nation's report card]. I would worry about it if it bore out in the facts. It just doesn't.... Every state, unlike six years ago, has the infrastructure in place that any governor any legislator can...find out how many kids are at mastery level. This is a necessary but not fully sufficient accountability system, and the people who are paying the bills ought to use it to move the ball, raise standards, and to pay attention to kids at the higher level.... Our federal commitment is about those disadvantaged kids, and, by damn, we're not doing right by them. But finally we're starting to care about them enough to find out how they are doing... That's what the job is. We don't have $12 billion for a gifted-and-talented program at the federal level. But that doesn't mean it's not an important priority for state and local districts.