The Education Week Interview: Margaret Spellings

February 09, 2005 17 min read
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Includes updates and/or revisions.

On Feb. 4, Senior Editor Lynn Olson and Assistant Editor Erik W. Robelen interviewed U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings in her office at the Department of Education’s headquarters in Washington. Here is an edited transcript of the interview.

Q: Could you say a little bit more about the proposed “high school intervention” fund [a proposed $1.2 billion in federal money] and what you envision doing with this money?

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A: Well, a lot of that [President Bush] talked about last summer and through the campaign. And there will be additional details forthcoming. …

Obviously, the assessment piece of it is well known. He’s called for two additional grades of assessment. Basically, we believe that the same sound principles that undergird [the] No Child Left Behind [Act] in grades 3-8 ought to be extended in the high schools, and that includes regular measurement and reporting that data in a disaggregated way.

We recognize that it’s a little bit more complicated when there are different kinds of course offerings and class structures by state and by district. Sometimes they give algebra in 9th grade, sometimes in 10th, you know, all of that. To that end, we want to allow an adequate phase-in time. Just as is the case with No Child Left Behind, the federal government will pay for the cost of those assessments. But that’s the notion—use the same principles in the high school.

As for intervention, [the president] called for a couple of things: a 9th grade intervention initiative, where we can have a more individualized approach with each kid as to how we’re going to get this 9th grader from this point out of high school. … We obviously need to do a much better job of getting them in and out and ready to compete in college or in the workplace. Likewise, the Striving Readers initiative that [the president] has talked about previously basically builds on the principles of Reading First and Early Reading First, and talks about extending those. How do we use the research base that we have with young children to extend into middle and high schools? One of the things we know is that, frequently, it’s a reading deficiency that is keeping kids from being able to do more rigorous coursework. If you can’t read a 10th grade textbook, then you’re kind of on the downhill slide. …

Q: But there’s going to be $1.2 billion in a special pot, as I understand it, that is for accountability, that’s separate from Striving Readers.

A: You’ll see all of this in the budget: …the high school [initiative], … Striving Readers, 9th grade intervention, assessment, a major focus on math and science, … teacher loan-forgiveness. …”

Q: The strictest consequences under No Child Left Behind right now are in section 1116, which really applies only to schools receiving Title I funds. Given that most high schools do not receive Title I money, what’s your vision for how to make the same NCLB-type accountability apply in secondary education?

A: Well, these are the things that we’re going to negotiate with the Congress, obviously. One of the things that I think is encouraging is around the country, Governor [Mark] Warner [of Virginia], Governor [Haley] Barbour [of Mississippi], to name a couple—a Democrat and a Republican—are starting to talk about high school proficiency and readiness [for work and college] and completion in their own states. And I know we have, we put in place, in Texas … a completion exit test that’s now at the 11th grade level, not at the 10th grade level. All of that was enacted under then-Governor Bush. And so what I’m saying is, I think there are states who are dealing with this now. I’m anxious to see how they’re doing these things. Obviously, in Texas, and I know that it is the case or Governor Warner intends it to be the case in Virginia, [accountability] doesn’t apply just to Title I schools. It’s all high schools. So, I mean, those are the sorts of things we want to learn about and understand as we negotiate this on their behalf and with the Congress.”

Q: Is your goal, though, that all high schools would have to meet, or fall under, those explicit consequences?

A: I don’t know yet, is the short answer.

Q: One of the other things that happened this week was that the Education Department reversed its earlier ruling on North Dakota regarding “highly qualified” teachers, and I wanted to ask you why you changed your stance?

A: Well, I wouldn’t characterize it as a reversal by any stretch. … As I understand it, and I just showed up, … you need to talk to Ray Simon [the assistant secretary for elementary and secondary education] about the particulars of this, who has met with the delegation repeatedly, and had some of his folks out there on the ground, and has worked with the governor’s office, you know, et cetera. There are a lot of details. But I do know that for the first time, they [state officials] have put in place a HOUSSE [high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation] process, which they did not have for elementary school teachers. I mean, I think where we started out, as I understand it, is they wanted to basically grandfather each and every teacher that was currently in the classroom. And, as you know, No Child Left Behind does not provide for that.

It does provide a way for current, experienced teachers to become highly qualified under the definition of the statute. And my understanding is they’ve put in place a way to do that through their HOUSSE system. You know, beyond that, you’ll have to talk to Ray about the particulars. …

Q: Can you say a little bit, in general, about the enforcement of the highly-qualified-teacher provisions, because I know there’s been some criticism that the department hasn’t been very aggressive on that front. … How are you going to handle that?

A: Well, first I need to know more about what the plans provide; what is at issue when people say we haven’t vigorously enforced it. I need to know, what do they mean by that specifically? And as I said, I just got here, and I’m anxious to do that. And, as you know, I mean it’s 50 different stories.

I do think we know that a teacher who knows what he or she is doing, knows their subject matter, and knows how to impart knowledge to kids is a critical piece of closing the achievement gap. And, of course, it’s in [states’] interest, it’s in all of our interest, to do that. One of the things I think we’re going to do through this teacher-pay-for-performance [initiative] is try to seed some things, like more qualified teach-ers in the neediest schools, rewarding teachers who enhance student achievement. And, you know, that’s a pretty rich half-billion-dollar grant program to put out there that, I think, will put some skin in the game in helping lead states and teachers into these more rigorous kinds of practices.

Q: I know another thing that perked up the ears of a lot of state peo-ple was your statement during the confirmation hearing that you want to find reasonable and sensible ways to implement the No Child Left Behind law. I wondered if you could be more specific about the areas where states might expect to see some new approaches or some flexibility?

A: Well, first I want to listen to what they want: What is causing them prob-lems and issues? You know, what are the facts? I will tell you that … there are some very … I don’t want people to think that No Child Left Behind is up for grabs. It’s not. There are some very bright-line pieces of this statute that are nonnegotiable.

Q: What are they?

A: Well, one of them is annual assessment in grades 3-8. It’s integral to the implementation of everything. And we have given lots of resources and lots of time to fully implement these annual-assessment provisions by 2005-06. So don’t be coming down here and telling me you haven’t done it. … But all of what’s at issue with LEP [limited-English-proficient] kids and special educa-tion assessment, and so on and so forth, I’ll just have to find out more. I can tell you one thing. Obviously, this is why we’re in an administrative arena, and not in a legislative arena, is that administrative authority is meant to have the capability to be refined and perfected and modified, if need be, without running to the Congress and asking for a statutory change. So I think we need to explore those possibilities.

Q: One of the approaches that Virginia took in its most recent request to you is to ask that you use your waiver authority under the law—their sense being that it’s a pretty broad waiver authority. [Former] Secretary [Rod] Paige had been pretty clear that he wasn’t interested in granting waivers. Do you share that sentiment?

A: I agree with Secretary Paige about the waiver provision. When we arrived [in 2001] … only 11 or so states had complied with the [1994] ESEA [Elemen-tary and Secondary Education Act] reauthorization. It was “waiver city,’”and I think people got, maybe, a little complacent. But again, let’s start with: a) I’ve got to get the facts. There is room to maneuver through the administrative process without waivers, which this department has done, already on LEP and special education and “highly qualified” [issues], particularly with rural teachers. So I think there are things we can do without waivers. But this “waive everything”—no. That’s a slippery slope.

Q: In your confirmation hearing, you mentioned some recognition of the challenges with the school choice provisions in the law, and how in some places supplemental services might be a more realistic option. Can you talk a little bit more about your thinking there?

A: Yeah, I think what we’ve seen, and, you know, we know some things now that we didn’t know when this act was put in place. That’s the way it’s supposed to be, that you learn things over time. And I think we’ve seen in urban districts, in particular, the capacity issues have some of the public school choice provisions be, you know, not a very vigorous or realistic option for parents, while supplemental services, although it takes an additional year for this to kick in, are more readily available.

Q: Would you consider, because I know this is one of the requests states have made in the past and that Virginia is making again, reversing the order, so that districts and schools could provide supplemental services before choice?

A: My understanding is we don’t have the authority to do that. I mean, that’s a bright line in the statute that I think … obviously, you could talk to members of Congress about that, but if we had known what we know now, they might have done that. Although, I will say also, now that this act is matured—we are in year three in many places—just the passage of time has caused the supplemental-service option to kick in. So, it’s sort of healed itself.

Q: I know the department has said previously that it would oppose any legislative changes prior to the next reauthorization of ESEA. Is that still hard and fast, or is there some room to consider minor legislative fixes?

A: I’m seeing no need for them at this moment, I’ll say that.

Q: So you would oppose them?

A: Yeah, I think we would oppose any at the moment, but I’m not aware that there are any proposed. … I do hope that members of the Congress and interest groups, … I hope that the Department of Education will be the first place that people seek a solution. They might not find it here, and if and when they don’t, then it’s still a free country. But … the Congress has lots to do this year. …

Q: We’ve just heard a lot of rumblings, and I’m sure you have too, that members of Congress might pursue changes in the law, which any number of groups have suggested. The National School Boards Association just put out their package of proposals, … and the National Conference of State Legislatures is preparing to put out their package. There will be a lot of noise.

A: Well, maybe they’d like to call the department first. I’m not implying that we’re going to listen, necessarily. I mean, I am going to listen. I don’t know what their changes are, but …

Q: Going back to the high school issue, another thing that has come up in the implementation of No Child Left Behind is this whole issue of high school dropout and graduation rates. Do you foresee the department, as part of this new high school initiative, trying to get some more common definitions in that area, or being stricter in how states approach that part of the law?

A: It is really a vexing problem, having lived with that at the state level. I mean, it’s a hard thing to do, to figure out. And there are some legitimate reasons that states want to make sure they get credit, or whatever the right word is, for a kid not being a dropout, when they get married and move… or they join the military. Whatever.

So, I just need to look at the definitions, how they vary, what the practice is. Again, the truth of the matter is we haven’t paid that much attention to high school accountability. I think that the things the president has laid out will undergird a better understanding of dropouts and, I hope, will mitigate this. If we do a better job with this whole 9th grade thing and so on, then it’ll be less of an issue, in that I hope to God there will be fewer. …

Q: One of the first things you had to deal with as secretary was the controversy regarding Armstrong Williams [and payments to that commentator for promotion of the No Child Left Behind Act]. Could you talk a little bit … about what you’re currently doing at the department to make sure there aren’t any similar issues that have gone on and that they’re not going to occur in the future?

A: Well, as I’ve said, there’s nobody who cares more about the credibility of this department and the credibility of No Child Left Behind than me. And … as the president said, we want our policies to stand on their own two feet, and believe that they do—particularly, this new law that was passed by huge bipartisan margins. And I’m gratified to know that Senator [Edward M.] Kennedy [D-Mass.] and Congressman [George] Miller [D-Calif.] are still completely behind the goals and the policies and so on. …

As to Ketchum [the public relations firm that subcontracted with Williams], I mean we’ve put in place a stop-work order. Obviously you know that. We have an inspector general’s investigation going on. We are cooperating fully, obviously, with that. The GAO [Government Accountability Office] is doing an investigation. We’re cooperating fully with that. I am going to get all the facts first, and put some systems and procedures in place to guard against that sort of thing in the future. To me, the PBS-contract issue [concerning an episode of the show “Postcards from Buster”] and the Ketchum-contract issue are not dissimilar in that we need to know what our federal tax dollars are being spent for, and we need to exercise all good stewardship to make sure that we do. ...

I also want to say that it’s important for this department to communicate about this law: to educators, to chiefs, to parents. And that’s righteous and appropriate. And so, I don’t want to just throw the baby out with the bath water, obviously. But do we want to make sure that we’re not paying for pundits, and that it’s properly done and well overseen? Absolutely.

Q: How does career and technical education fit into your high school agenda?

A: I think—and this is the president’s philosophy, and mine, too, since we started working on this in education at the state level—and that is, we’re about results. And, you know, if and when vocational education, career and technical programs, get results for kids to get out of high school with levels of proficiency in reading and math and science, who are college- or workforce-ready. … What we know is the workplace is more demanding than ever before. So it’s not this either-or college track versus workforce kind of notion that we have had previously. It’s we’ve got to have rigor. And the president has called for this. … The long and short of it is, we need more rigor in all kinds of programs. And when vocational education programs do that, if I were a school superintendent, I’d embrace that. But the other notion is, we also believe that those folks closest on the ground that we’re holding accountable for the results can decide, and ought to evaluate which programs get results.

Q: Going back to No Child Left Behind, can you say any more about specific areas where the department might do a little rethinking? You mentioned, at least with the testing requirements, that that’s not going to change. …

A: I don’t know yet. … I haven’t been here long enough—I’ve been meeting with you people this week—to sit down with the chiefs and superintendents and principals and see how it’s working. I mean, I expect to do that. I want to do that. I’m going to do that. I hope to do it, not just here in Washington, but around the country. I’m not afraid of doing that. I want to know how it’s working out there. I mean, one thing I know about change is we are not going to close the achievement gap without educators.

Q: I know that you mentioned testing special education students as one area where the department has provided some flexibility. … Do you see addressing some of those issues through the regulations around IDEA [the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act], which the department is trying to work on?

A: Yes. I think one of the things that we know about—you know, we’re in the early days, and again, I’m thrilled that we’re having these kind of “techno” discussions. … I mean, we’re talking about what are the best ways to assess special education students that are appropriate and that will measure their achievements in a way that is suitable. And there are some early pioneers around the country in doing that. … So I’m going to look at who’s doing the best work, and we ought to, obviously, foster more of that, and share that information with states who may not have come as far.

And that’s the other thing about this law—you know this—is that we’ve got some [states] that are well matured and who are pioneers. … I mean Texas, frankly, is struggling with the special education issue. And yet they’re one of the states that has the most vigorous accountability in the high schools. My understanding is that Kansas, Massachusetts, they’ve been more pioneers on the special education side. So, I mean, I think we ought to learn from each other.

Q: What are some of your biggest concerns about how the law is play-ing out?

A: Well, I think we’ve rounded the corner. I think people think that this law is here to stay. And … this is not really a concern, but we saw this in Texas. And I’m going to give a couple of examples about this: … that people start to understand that this is a useful tool for them—for teachers and for principals and for superintendents. So rather than being fearful of assessment and data, they now say, “Hey, this technology program is not getting as good results as the elementary school next door with similar demographics, and what should we be doing?” So, they’re starting to be able to use it to serve kids and to evaluate curricula and to do staff development in a more strategic way, and so on and so forth.

So, the story I was going to tell you is, you know there was a lot of discussion, obviously, and anxiety about the assessment provisions in the early days in Texas. And then we got to a place where people were demanding that we test science and social studies and the arts and other things, because it’s the “what gets measured, gets done” kind of notion. So there’s one way to make sure that we’re not narrowing the curriculum, and that’s measure across the curriculum. People who say, well, the test is too easy … the Scarsdale mothers kind of deal. ... Well, that tells me you need a more vigorous test, and you need, maybe, multiple assessment systems. You know, when you go to the doctor, we don’t say, “Fit people don’t have to get their blood pressure checked.” We don’t know if you’re fit unless we do check your blood pressure. ...

Q: Do you have your own vision for where you’d like to take this department, now that you’re here? Is there something we haven’t talked about that you really want to be sure to communicate … about the department’s face externally?

A: Well, … I had a little staff meeting yesterday … and I told them when I was at the state level, we’d hear the “We’re from Washington, and we’re here to help” kind of thing, and people would roll their eyes, and say, “No they’re not.”

We want to obviously foster a relationship that we’re a partner with states; that we all share the same goals of closing the achievement gap, just as the Congress does; and that we’re practical and sophisticated enough to understand what they’re talking about. That we are going to learn from them, and I hope they’ll learn from us. And that we can foster the learning from each other. … And then I hope we’ll build on, obviously, I want to advance the president’s agenda of extending these principles into high school. And I want to make sure that they’re embedded and here to stay after he leaves office. And I think we’re going to get there.

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