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Secretary of Education Staying the Course on NCLB


Test scores are up and the achievement gap is shrinking under the federal No Child Left Behind Act, according to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Staying true to the law is the best way to ensure quality education for all students, she told Education World. Included: The secretary's goals for U.S. schools.

After almost five years, the federal No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act already has made a significant impact on U.S. schools, based on improved test scores and a narrowing of the achievement gap, according to U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. Despite dissension from some groups and states, Spellings, who helped draft the law, made it clear in an interview with Education World she thinks that NCLB offers the best opportunity for continued improvement in schools across the U.S.

Since entering office, Spellings has spent a considerable amount of time traveling the country, speaking about her goals for education and how NCLB can help ensure all youngsters receive a quality education. Spellings' first year in office was marked by some controversy, including a heated dispute with Connecticut officials who requested a waiver from some NCLB requirements and her criticism of an episode of a children's show on public television that involved a lesbian couple raising a child.

A longtime supporter of education issues and aide to President Bush both in Washington, D.C. and Texas, Spellings also is the first mother of school-age children to head the education office.

She responded to questions from Education World about the plans for her administration.

 "The days when we could make excuses and look past the millions of children falling behind are over It's time to focus on results. That's why we must stay the course with No Child Left Behind," says U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

Education World: What is your vision for the nation's schools?

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings: I want to make sure that each and every school provides all its students with a quality education. As a mother, I know how important it is for parents to know that their child's school values every child and strives to give everyone a quality education, regardless of their skin color, spoken accent, or street address. That's why President Bush proposed and Congress passed the No Child Left Behind Act. The law sheds light on how schools are doing and sets an expectation that every child can read and do math on grade level. We know every child can learn, and our schools can and are getting the job done.

EW: What are your priorities?

Spellings: We need to stay the course on No Child Left Behind. And we need to extend the benefits of high standards and accountability to our high schools. The president has proposed a $1.5 billion High School Initiative to ensure every student graduates ready to get ahead in the 21st century. We have a responsibility to make sure every student has the skills to succeed in higher education and the increasingly competitive global economy. In addition to the focus on our K-12 system, I'd like to start a national dialogue on higher education.

EW: What do you think U.S. schools do particularly well? What areas need the most improvement?

Spellings: I'm really impressed by the way most of our teachers and principals have responded to No Child Left Behind. They are working harder than ever to help every child get ahead in school and life. And we are starting to see the results. Across the country, more students are learning; test scores are rising; and the achievement gap that once set minority and disadvantaged students behind is shrinking. According to a recent study by the Center on Education Policy, 73 percent of states report improved student achievement.

Now we need to focus on our high schools. Only approximately two-thirds of incoming ninth graders will graduate from high school on time. And far fewer actually will leave school prepared for college. That's a real problem when you consider that 80 percent of the fastest growing jobs require some postsecondary education.

EW: Opposition to the No Child Left Behind Act, or at least parts of the law, continues to grow. How do you plan to address the challenge from the National Education Association and some states that districts should not be required to comply with provisions for which no federal funding is provided?

Spellings: No Child Left Behind simply asks states and schools to measure progress to make sure all students reach grade level standards in math and reading. And we've made sure states and schools have the money to get the job done. Since taking office, President Bush and Congress have increased funding for K-12 education by almost 40 percent. And several independent studies have found that funding is indeed adequate to implement No Child Left Behind. As a nation we spent an estimated $536 billion in 2001 for K-12 education, which is more than the gross domestic product of Russia. The days when we could make excuses and look past the millions of children falling behind are over. Money is not the issue. It's time to focus on results. That's why we must stay the course with No Child Left Behind.

EW: You have said that states with strong accountability systems already in place would be given greater flexibility in implementing the No Child Left Behind Act -- sort of like credit for what they've already accomplished. What kind of tools or information will you use to assess accountability systems to determine if a state gets credit?

Spellings: We'll be looking to see which states are making real progress raising test scores and closing the achievement gap. Of course, states can't show progress unless they keep annually assessing students and breaking down the results into student groups.

Once we have this information, we'll focus on the big picture and ask states questions such as: Are more students reading by the end of the third grade? Are graduation rates rising? Is there a strong plan in place to make sure all children are on grade level by 2014?

In short, we'll let the results speak for themselves. When we passed No Child Left Behind, we wanted to ensure that every child learned to read and do math on grade level. If states can show that students are making progress toward this overarching goal, we'll give them the room to keep doing what works.

EW: You started your term with some controversy, raising objections to an episode of the public television children's show Buster the Bunny in which Buster visits a child with two mothers. Can you explain why you chose to get involved with that issue?

Spellings: Congress had appropriated federal tax dollars for the Ready to Learn program with the goal of helping to prepare pre-school students for school in an age-appropriate way. The focus is on reading readiness and other literacy issues. After viewing the Buster episode, I felt that the program had strayed from that mission. There is a public trust -- that's why they call it Public Broadcasting. Television is an intimate medium -- it comes right into your home. I think it's appropriate for parents to deal with lifestyle issues as they see fit and in their own way and in their own time. I believe that as a mother, and I believe that as a policymaker.

EW: How did you become interested in education issues?

Spellings: I've always had a passion for education. I'm a product of the public school system, and I've spent most of my professional career working on education issues at the local, state, and national levels. I'm also the mother of two school-age daughters, so I have a real stake in the system. I understand how much the work we do matters to children and parents across this country. Our nation's future depends on the quality of education we provide to our children today.

This e-interview with Margaret Spellings is part of the Education World Wire Side Chat series. Click here to see other articles in the series.

Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
Copyright © 2006 Education World

Originally published 10/17/2001; updated 10/09/2006