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U.S. Secretary of Education Riley Reflects on Term

Share School Issues CenterAfter eight years in office, Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley told Education World that he is pleased education has became a priority during his tenure, but, he notes, there still is work to be done in the areas of assessment, testing, and early childhood education. The secretary comments on the incoming secretary, Rod Paige, and on vouchers, air quality in schools, and more!

Education World editor Ellen R. Delisio conducted a telephone interview with outgoing Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley on Thursday, just two days before the end of his eight-year tenure as the nation's top educator. Here, he shares his thoughts about his accomplishments and ongoing education issues.

Education World: Reflecting back on the past eight years in office, with what accomplishments are you most pleased?

Richard W. Riley: Well, I have to say there are a lot of things that I am very proud of, but I think one big thing is that the American people now have education clearly as their top priority. [At the start of my tenure] in 1993, there was a lot of concern. We've worked very hard through Goals 2000 to get all 50 states into the standards movement. All of that is going well, and we feel progress is being made all across the country -- not fast enough, but it is really moving in the right direction.

The Riley Years

In another article published today, Education World looks back over Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley's tenure as the nation's top educator.
Click here to read that story, which includes comments about the Riley years from President Bill Clinton and Senators Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Jim Jeffords (R-Vt.).

For other Education World articles about Secretary Riley, see these:

* All Aboard the Success Express: On the Road With the Secretary of Education
Education World travels with Secretary Riley as he highlights accomplishments in 20 towns in seven states along the Mississippi River.

* Education World Goes One-on-One With the Secretary of Education!
An Education World interview conducted in August 2000 aboard the "Success Express" bus tour of the Mississippi River Valley.

In 1995, there was real effort to eliminate the Department of Education, but [President Clinton] refused to sign the bill that would have slashed education. Then they closed the government down. Ever since the government got back in operation, there has been very little talk about closing the department down. This year, the education budget is the largest increase in education ever in the history of the country. So we've gone the whole circle. I'm very proud that it happened over my watch.

EW: Is there a particular goal you feel you did not meet?

Riley: The national effort to test for basic reading and basic math skills for all students was something I thought would be very helpful, and we have not been able to get that approved. The test would have taken about an hour for fourth graders and eighth graders and would have let parents know how well their children were doing on those basic skills. Then the test would have been put on the Internet so people could use it. We think it would have been a very good idea, and maybe in the next couple of years, it will come to fruition. But there were several people who opposed it who had a lot of influence, so we weren't able to get it passed.

EW: What are the most pressing issues facing the nation's schools over the next decade?

Riley: I think it is important to stay with the standards movement. We've got to work through the issue of accountability and testing. There is a lot of feedback now that some states have too much testing and some don't have enough. Those are natural reactions, but I think we have to stop and take a look at where we are in all 50 states ... and look at standards and assessments they need. They need to have more than one multiple-choice test to determine a child's capacity to reach standards. You need to have multiple ways of measuring success. Tests should also be a challenge, but they should not be traumatic. So probably over the next couple of years, we have to work through that; if not, the whole standards movement could get in trouble.

EW: In the past few years, early childhood education issues have received a lot of attention nationally. Do you see that continuing, or will the focus shift to secondary education?

Riley: I think early childhood education should be a clear priority over the next five years. I don't think there is any question about that. The brain research that has developed over the last three or four years makes it very, very clear that if young children are to reach high standards of learning, they have to start out right. That means ... experiences and developmental opportunities at very early ages. We know what to do and we know what works, and it's very important for us here in America to get about that business. That's very important, and it should be a clear priority.

EW: Are there particular concerns you have regarding the educational direction or priorities of the Bush administration?

Riley: The campaign brought forth some clear issues, and though I was a strong Gore supporter, I was pleased that both candidates talked about ways to improve education. That is a change certainly for the Republican side, because not too many years ago they were talking about eliminating the Department of Education. Now they are talking about how to improve education.

Although there might be some differences, I think those debates are very legitimate. So I am very pleased there is a positive, pro-education debate. I met with Secretary-nominee Rod Paige. He is a friend of mine. We've worked together on issues in the past, and I have respect for him and think he will do a very good job as secretary of education. He is a strong public school person. He has worked hard to improve the public schools in Houston, and I'm sure he will do the same thing for the country.

EW: How do you see the debate about school vouchers panning out?

Riley: That is one of the areas, of course, where I differ with the Bush administration. I don't know how serious they will be on that particular subject; I hope not very serious. I think you need to realize some things that have happened over the last year. ... In California and Michigan, voucher supporters are being well financed. The vote [on ballot initiatives] in California was 70 percent to 30 percent against vouchers and in Michigan 69 percent to 31 percent against vouchers. There were two clear voucher proposals; one was for vouchers for all children (that was the California situation), and the other one was just for those who were ... disadvantaged and that was in Michigan. And both of them failed by more than 2-1. That should be a very good indication coming into this year that the public certainly didn't favor that course of action in those two ... states.

EW: What is your opinion about high-stakes testing -- for example, the trend toward requiring high school students to pass standardized tests in order to graduate?

Riley: To work well, the standards movement has to have assessment of students so we can see where their weaknesses and strengths are and how we need to improve their education, especially each child's education. And those tests I think are extremely helpful early on to help determine how education might change to improve a child's progress. If you have a test at the end of their schooling, and it is a challenge for students to become prepared ... that challenge to most students would be somewhat positive. But then again you get back to the test. Is the test too hard? Is it too easy? Is it fair for disabled children? Is it fair for disadvantaged children? Is it fair for limited English-proficient children? You have all those issues to work out. But certainly, letting young people know they need to prepare themselves to reach a certain level in order to get a high school diploma can be very helpful.

One thing to look at as a possible resource is something I did in South Carolina when I was governor. I gave something like a five-year lead time so students could begin to take the test in middle school and then could take it every year and then in a diagnostic way know what they needed to work on in order to pass the test. I think if you use it in carefully thought-out ways and in fair ways, such a test can be helpful.

EW: If one of the goals of the department is to provide safe schools, do you think there should be national standards for indoor air quality and environmental contaminants for schools?

Riley: Of course, those are primarily local and state issues. Most localities have clear requirements for safety -- part of the building code that schools must meet. Many of our schools -- especially schools in our big cities -- are very old, and you do see a real need for modern wiring, for example, to handle technology and the Internet. You need more natural lighting, which research shows helps children learn, and you need good air quality so young people can be working to reach high standards instead of going to see the nurse for their asthma. I've seen really sad situations in public schools where air quality was poor and schools were questionable in terms of safety, and it breaks my heart to see that. In this day and time, in this powerful country, we ought to have our priorities ... to see that our children are able to study and learn in a good learning environment.

EW: What are your future plans?

Riley: I am not completely finished determining what I am going to do. I would say that I plan to have a Washington presence for about one-third of my time and a South Carolina presence for about two-thirds. Other than that, I can say that whatever I do, it will be very flexible, so I will have the freedom to get involved in some education things and some other things that I would like to get into. I have a wonderful network of friends --education professionals throughout the country and throughout the world -- and I want to maintain those ... relationships.

Ellen R. Delisio
Education World®
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