Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings spoke with reporters over coffee to mark the start of the new school year and to provide her perspective on the federal efforts to manage education. The hallmark policy of the Bush administration, No Child Left Behind, has accomplished what it set out to do, Spellings said, and just needs minor course corrections:
“I like to talk about No Child Left Behind as Ivory soap. It’s 99.9 percent pure,” Spellings told reporters over coffee. “There’s not much needed in the way of changes. . . . As much grist as there was for the mill five years ago on various fronts . . . we’ve come a long way in a short time in a big system affecting 50 million kids.”
In a casual meeting at the agency, and with no particular agenda, Spellings said she believes NCLB — a law that requires annual student assessments — simply needs tweaking, and she emphasized that it is time to take it to the next level of development. Critics have long complained that the compliance requirements for NCLB puts too much stress on state resources and educators, many of whom say they must teach to the test at the expense of other learning.
“We need to take a look at our data across the whole spectrum and we ought to say — for people who say, ‘Wah, wah, we can’t have spelling bees because we have to focus on math and reading’ — let’s measure the spelling,” she said. “Let’s ask ourselves not how many are barely getting over the bar, but how many are acing the test. . . . Now that we have the infrastructure in place, we can ask ourselves a fuller range of questions about kids and how they are doing.”
My perspective on education is that it should be left to local school districts and the states as a last resort. Part of the reason that we have so much trouble with literacy in our schools today is because of national movements that changed schools five decades or so ago, using untried teaching methods in math and reading that replaced proven strategies that had created a fine system of public schools over a century. Increasing federalization only means that the same kinds of impulses that transformed public schools from places of learning to self-esteem workshops will continue to impact our children and grandchildren.
However, at least NCLB has the right idea, even though it represents another poorly-funded federal mandate that drives conservatives batty. Objective testing of skills should continue, but even that would not be necessary if our schools did not rely on social promotion. Teachers flunked students who weren’t ready for the next grade level before schools started worring about socialization ahead of education. The plethora of high-school students who cannot read or write above a grade-school level demonstrates the damage that these policies have created, especially considering the amount of teacher involvement it takes to handle the low-performing students. That takes away from the students who are ready to improve themselves to their grade level and beyond. Most high schools now have to offer at least three tracks of coursework: remedial, normal, and advanced placement. Remedial education tracks exist at the high-school level because of a failure to address the problems in grade school.
We have increased education spending by over 130% in the Bush administration. For that kind of money, Spellings and Bush had better hope that Johnny can read, write, and earn some of that money back.