In the 15th stop on her intermittent national tour to promote the No Child Left Behind Act, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings found both defenders and critics of the law here in West Virginia this month. And they turned out to be the same people.
The 6-year-old federal law has “been a wake-up call for all of us,” Ron Duerring, the superintendent of the 28,000-student Kanawha County school system, which serves Charleston and the surrounding area, told Secretary Spellings during a one-hour roundtable discussion in the state Capitol on March 7.
But, Mr. Duerring and other participants added, schools’ NCLB-spurred emphasis on getting students to reach proficiency in reading and mathematics has often come at the expense of other subjects and learning all subjects in depth.
“We’ve allowed ourselves to narrow what we’re teaching, and there’s a tendency for us to not pay attention to other subjects,” said state Superintendent of Schools Steve Paine. States should be encouraged, he added, to set standards that engage students in learning higher-order thinking skills.
“While they learn to read,” Ms. Spellings interjected.
In January, Secretary Spellings said she had decided to visit states this year to listen to educators’ and policymakers’ concerns about the NCLB law, which has generated more controversy and complaints than other recent versions of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.
Making It Better
Her comment in response to Mr. Paine, though, suggests that she won’t budge from her belief that the federal law should hold schools accountable for ensuring all students are proficient in reading and math. That’s a level of achievement she compared to grade-level expectations.
So far, Ms. Spellings has visited 16 states since January to discuss the future of the law, which is one of the Bush administration’s biggest domestic accomplishments and is awaiting renewal by Congress. On March 10, three days after her trip here, she and her team traveled to Syracuse, N.Y.
The trips follow a similar pattern. In West Virginia, the secretary arrived at St. Albans High School, a public school in nearby St. Albans at 11 a.m. to visit a classroom and speak at an all-school assembly.
At the assembly, Ms. Spellings spoke for six minutes, congratulating the students for helping the school reach adequate yearly progress, the key benchmark under the NCLB law’s accountability system.
She added that they should pursue a college education, regardless of the price, because the federal government and colleges offer financial assistance.
“Do not let affordability be a barrier to postsecondary education,” she told the 1,000 students at the school, which is part of the Kanawha County system.
Then, Ms. Spellings was on her way to the Capitol here in Charleston, 12 miles away.
U.S. Rep. Shelley Moore Capito, R-W.Va., acted as the secretary’s hostess at both sites.
At least one prominent Democrat also took part in the day’s events. Gayle Manchin, the wife of Democratic Gov. Joe Manchin III and a member of the state board of education, attended the school assembly. At the Capitol, Ms. Manchin sat next to Ms. Spellings during the discussion.
At the roundtable discussion, which included a box lunch for all participants, the secretary promised to do more listening than talking.
In other states on her current tour, Secretary Spellings has been the main attraction as a witness before a legislative committee or as the featured speaker to a community group.
One thing the West Virginia visit had in common with the other trips was that it was brief. By 2 p.m., the secretary and her entourage had left the Capitol for the Charleston airport to catch their flight back to Washington.
While the events suggest that the secretary is serious about hearing ideas on how to improve the law, her recent travels haven’t changed the tenor of the debate over it, said one critic of No Child Left Behind.
“It’s a fly-by. It’s going through the motions,” said Robert Schaeffer, the public education director of the National Center for Fair & Open Testing, or FairTest. The Cambridge, Mass., watchdog group has issued press releases in advance of Ms. Spellings’ trips to several states. The releases highlight data that FairTest says demonstrate that the law isn’t working.
“It can’t begin to parry the ongoing and rising drumbeat from educators about NCLB,” Mr. Schaeffer said. “One day of positive [media] coverage—even if it were all positive—can’t possibly compensate for that.”
A ‘Game Changer’
Secretary Spellings’ travels also have failed—so far—in advancing her goal of spurring Congress to act on the law’s reauthorization, which was due last year. Lawmakers have not made significant progress on an NCLB bill. Last week, Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., the chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, said that he doubted Congress would complete the task this year. (“Rep. Miller Joins Pessimists Club on NCLB Renewal,” March 19, 2008.)
After the meeting in the West Virginia Capitol, the secretary said her recent trips have shown her that she and many policymakers across the country agree on the issues that need to be addressed with the law, either through congressional action or rule-making by the federal Department of Education.
“It was affirming in the sense that there are a few core issues and a consensus around where we need to go next,” Ms. Spellings said in a press conference that concluded her stop in Charleston. “There’s a real recognition that No Child Left Behind has been an important game changer in education … and we’re focusing more intently on kids who have been left behind.”
During the one-hour discussion with educators, Ms. Spellings reminded participants that she has taken several actions to improve implementation of the law. To address concerns that schools are not getting enough credit for significant improvement in individual students’ achievement, the secretary has approved nine states’ applications to consider such growth in accountability decisions. Another 10 states have applied for the chance to use such “growth models” to determine schools’ and districts’ adequate yearly progress—a key measure of success under NCLB—in the 2007-08 school year, she said.
She also has allowed states to adopt alternative standards and assessments for up to 3 percent of their special education students.
But the regulatory moves haven’t done enough to address all the complaints.
Although most participants in the West Virginia roundtable supported the law’s goal of ensuring that students achieve proficiency, they said that focus has meant schools have dropped enriching activities for students who have met the achievement goals.
Rep. Capito said schools are working hard on reading and math instruction at the expense of other subjects.
“Short shrift might be a harsh way of putting it,” she said while introducing Ms. Spellings to the roundtable participants, who included state school board members, the presidents of both of the state’s major teachers’ unions, and business leaders.
Judy Belcher, a parent of a St. Albans High student, said that her children and community members tell her that schools aren’t giving up creative activities that inspire them to learn. “The low morale: That’s what I kept hearing about from teachers and kids,” she said.
Mr. Duerring, the Kanawha County superintendent, said he is hearing a similar message in annual focus groups his district conducts with high school students.
“There is no time in the schedule … to have an open discussion about things,” he told Secretary Spellings. “It’s all about time on task, … making sure we cover the curriculum.”
While the secretary acknowledged those concerns, she brought the conversation back to her bottom line: The law should live up to its name and leave no child behind.
The federal government won’t go back to policies “where we put the money out and hoped for the best for 40 years,” she said during the roundtable. “Lots and lots of kids were being moved through the system with little to show for it.”
“When do you want your child on grade level?” Ms. Spellings said, repeating a rhetorical question she often raises in Washington. “You want them on grade level today. This is something we have to do and we can do.”
A version of this article appeared in the March 19, 2008 edition of Education Week as Spellings, on Tour, Aims to Promote NCLB