Daniel Malloy, the AJC’s reporter in Washington, D.C., sat down with former U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings for an interview at an event in Washington today. Here are her answers to a series of questions on major education issues:
DM: Cheating scandal call testing into question?
Spellings: I think obviously the vast majority of educators and education leaders take assessment seriously and the integrity seriously and don’t cheat. When it does happen it ought to be addressed and attended to vigorously. Obviously, we saw that exact same thing play out in Atlanta and what encourages me when I think about the Atlanta case study, the business community, as you know, was very engaged, got a little sideswiped by the scandal, a little aggrieved by their engagement that was rewarded with this sort of behavior. I think to their credit they’ve stayed engaged and active and continue to be and are moving forward to the benefit of kids. Often we take our eye off the ball with students and achievement and get ensnared – in that case – in criminal activity, when we really need to stay focused on the mission. So I think it’s a good news story that bad things can happen and the business community can stay engaged and do good things.
DM: Is there a way to keep standards without incentivizing cheating?
Spellings: Accountability and assessment is a way of life. We need to isolate and attend to and be very vigorous in the way we treat cheating and scandal as we do kind of generally. But to say that we’re not going to have assessment anymore, we’re going to go back to the days of not caring enough to find out would be a very, very wrong direction in my view.
DM: So you still see national standards as a part of the future?
Spellings: Standards, accountability, transparency, absolutely. And when there are bad actors we ought to call them out, but we shouldn’t get rid of assessment.
DM: Does that fit in with your vision of more power at the local level?
Spellings: Absolutely. In the business community we want people who are capable of making it to the workplace. We are more concerned with the product and the outcome. The only way we’re going to know if we’re successful is if we have strong accountability. All the how-to that gets done at the local level, how teachers get paid, how they’re allocated, what the pension plan looks like, what the bus routes are, what the role of technology is and on and on. Those are all appropriate decisions for local policymakers. We in the business community — how are the kids doing, period.
DM: What are the prospects for NCLB reauthorization?
Spellings: Not anytime this year I wouldn’t think. We’re, as you know, in a heavy duty political year and I wouldn’t try to predict the behavior of the Congress but I wouldn’t go along on a bet for reauthorization.
DM: Why is this so hard to get done?
Spellings: Well, a variety of reasons. Obviously budget constraints, the toxic political climate that’s up there, the fact that it’s a major major piece of legislation. It’s 1,000-plus pages. It affects every community and every citizen and every kid in this country. What, frankly, is more compelling and interesting in my view is the fact that we passed the thing in the first place with these amazing bipartisan margins. I mean 87-10 in the Senate. You can’t pass a motion to adjourn 87-10 in the Senate. So, honestly, that’s one of the things I’m most proud of is that it was so bipartisan in the first place. We all know how easy it is to be partisan, what’s hard is being bipartisan.
DM: What’s the legacy of the law at this point?
Spellings: The fact that we’ve greatly enhanced a focus on poor and minority kids and we’re telling the truth about the state of affairs in our schools, which is sadly and woefully inadequate.
DM: Are you bothered by the amount of criticism and number of state waivers being sought right now? You mentioned you employed waivers when you were secretary?
Spellings: I think obviously it’s a tool and I think it has to be used judiciously and discreetly so I’m worried that we’re going too far when clearly the intent of the law is to have annual accountability and so when states are approved to go to every other year things like that concern me, absolutely.
DM: Was it unrealistic to call for 100 percent proficiency?
Spellings: On any given day there are plenty of kids who are out of the accountability system in keeping with the requirements of the law – they’re transitioning to English, they haven’t been in that particular school on campus enough, they are severely and profoundly disabled. So, every day a good number of kids are righteously and rightfully out of the accountability system. The question remains of the remaining 90 percent or so that remain in an accountability system: Should they ever get to grade level in reading and math — at a very low standard in most states? So, the idea that we’re now saying we can’t get to grade level in very, very crude basic measures over a 12-year period but we are going to get to international standards by 2020, I want to believe but these same folks that are making these same promises on the Race to the Top and the waiver applications are the same folks that have brought us down so far.
DM: Is it going to be possible to enforce national standards with politics moving to more local control?
Spellings: That’s why the business community and local accountability are essential ingredients for us not to lose track. We can raise the bar and some kids will get over it but what No Child Left Behind is about is opportunities for every kid, and right now we have half of our minority kids and poor kids getting out of high school on time – it’s shameful. And when I talk to parents and say, you know, I’ll just ask: When did you think your parents wanted you on grade level? When you were in the third grade, they wanted you doing third grade work. If I came into your parents sand said “I think we can get Daniel on grade level in 12 years” they would have had you out of the school by noon. And this idea that what we want for ourselves is different from what minority parents want is just wrong.
–From Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get Schooled blog