U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings said last week that there “is room to maneuver” through the administrative process in carrying out the No Child Left Behind Act. But, she cautioned, “I don’t want people to think that No Child Left Behind is up for grabs. It’s not.”
Ms. Spellings, who took office Jan. 20, emphasized in a Feb. 4 interview with Education Week that there are some “bright-line pieces of this statute that are nonnegotiable.” One of those, she said, is annual testing in grades 3-8, which she called “integral to the implementation of everything.”
President Bush’s administration has given a lot of time and resources to help states put the tests in place, she said, “so don’t be coming down here and telling me you haven’t done it.”
Despite many calls to amend the law in Congress, Ms. Spellings also expressed no desire to go that route. “I hope that the Department of Education will be the first place that people seek a solution,” she said.
But she maintained that refinements and modifications could be done through administrative actions “without running to the Congress and asking for a statutory change.”
At the same time, the secretary made it clear that states shouldn’t expect waivers from the law under her watch. She argued that before the Bush administration took office in 2001, “it was ‘waiver city,’ and I think people got, maybe, a little complacent.”
Many states had failed to comply with all the provisions under the 1994 reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. The No Child Left Behind law is the current version of the ESEA.
“There is room to maneuver through the administrative process without waivers,” Ms. Spellings said, noting that in some areas the administration has already done that. “But this ‘waive everything’—no. That’s a slippery slope.”
Overall, Ms. Spellings said she is glad that much of the conversation has turned to technical refinements of the law. “I think we’ve rounded the corner,” she said. “I think people think that this law is here to stay.”
At least when it comes to ensuring a “highly qualified” teacher in every classroom, the Education Department last week seemed to signal that there could be some additional leeway for states.
After extended negotiations between the agency and North Dakota officials, the two sides agreed that veteran elementary teachers in that state will be able to meet the law’s “highly qualified teacher” provisions if they have an elementary education major and are fully licensed.
“I wouldn’t characterize it as a reversal by any stretch,” Ms. Spellings said. She noted that the state now has a “high, objective, uniform state standard of evaluation,” or HOUSSE, which it had lacked previously.
Under the law, teachers already in the classroom can demonstrate that they are highly qualified either by having a major or passing a test in their subject, or by meeting alternative standards developed by each state based on broad federal guidelines. Studies have shown those standards vary widely across states.
North Dakota officials justified to the department that the state requirements for an elementary education major include more than 40 hours of coursework in the core academic subjects, sufficient to demonstrate subject-matter competency.
Ms. Spellings said she needed to review state plans for meeting the highly-qualified-teacher provisions of the law before she could respond to criticisms.
“I just got here,” she noted.
The secretary declined to provide many specifics about President Bush’s high school proposals, beyond what has been released thus far. The president has proposed greater accountability for high schools, in part through expanded testing, as well as additional supports and interventions for students performing below grade level. (“Bush’s High School Agenda Faces Obstacles,” this issue.)
“Basically, we believe that the same sound principles that undergird No Child Left Behind in grades 3-8 ought to be extended in the high schools,” the secretary said, “and that includes regular measurement and reporting that data in a disaggregated way.”
One issue is that since most high schools do not receive federal Title I money, they would not, as the law is currently written, be subject to the consequences spelled out in the act, such as the requirement to provide school choice and supplemental services.
Ms. Spellings said, “These are the things we’re going to negotiate with the Congress, obviously.”
She noted that many governors are starting to talk about “high school proficiency and readiness [for work and college] and completion in their own states.”
“I’m anxious to see how they’re doing these things,” she said, noting that state policies typically apply to all schools, not just Title I schools.
A version of this article appeared in the February 09, 2005 edition of Education Week as Spellings to Listen, But Not Retreat, on NCLB