People in the news media are missing the real story in education these days, according to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.
As she put it recently, broadcast and print news organizations should be focusing on how many states and schools are using the federal No Child Left Behind Act to improve student achievement and hold public schools more accountable.
Instead, many news outlets are focusing on what they view as a crisis in education, and the ways a few states and organizations have begun a backlash against the federal law.
Ms. Spellings, speaking May 6 at the annual convention of the Education Writers Association, held in St. Petersburg, Fla., singled out coverage of states that are being particularly rebellious toward the law. The EWA is a Washington-based professional organization for reporters and editors interested in education.
Utah, which may risk the loss of its federal education aid with a new law asserting the primacy of the state’s accountability system over NCLB requirements, “has one of the largest achievement gaps in the nation,” she said, noting disparities in Utah between white and Hispanic students. “They must explain their actions to the state’s Hispanic parents.”
In Connecticut, which is threatening to sue the Department of Education over the costs of the No Child Left Behind law, black 4th graders trail their white peers by dozens of points in reading on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, she said.
But while some states take issue with the law, “there are dozens of others that are quietly going about their business” and implementing it, she said. “I really wouldn’t call that a rebellion.”
She lauded Wyoming for high test-score targets under the law, and she cited the narrowing of gaps in test scores in North Carolina, Wisconsin, Illinois, and New Mexico.
Ms. Spellings, who noted that she had taken several journalism classes in college, also pointed out that nowhere in the No Child Left Behind Act is the term “failing school” used.
“Yet this anxiety-provoking term is commonly used in headlines and in the bodies of your stories,” she said. She noted that the statute refers to schools “in need of improvement.”
At one point, the secretary even joked about the flap over the Education Department’s public relations contract involving the commentator Armstrong Williams, which was signed during the tenure of her predecessor, Rod Paige.
“You don’t have to be paid off like pundit Armstrong Williams to like No Child Left Behind,” she said.