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Spellings’ Worldview: There’s No Going Back on K-12 Accountability

By Alyson Klein — December 08, 2008 4 min read
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No one in the nation’s capital is more closely identified with President George W. Bush’s education policies than Margaret Spellings.

Ms. Spellings has served in the administration for all eight years, first in the White House as domestic-policy adviser, and then during Mr. Bush’s second term as secretary of education.

During the president’s first term, Ms. Spellings helped push the administration’s ideas for what would become the No Child Left Behind Act, including accountability through standardized testing, consequences for schools that don’t meet achievement targets, and expanded public school choice.

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Listen to Education Week reporters David Hoff and Alyson Klein interview Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

Ms. Spellings championed a stringent approach to accountability as a White House aide. But as secretary, she granted states broader flexibility in gauging student progress and in overhauling struggling schools.

As she prepares to leave office, Secretary Spellings said that she hopes the NCLB law will be viewed as an “important game-changer in American education.”

“It rightfully put before us the issues of the achievement gap,” she said in a recent interview in her office. She said she hopes she will be remembered as a “practical implementer of the law.”

Flexible Approach

Secretary Spellings took the helm of the Department of Education in early 2005, when states were beginning to rebel against what some viewed as the No Child Left Behind law’s unrealistic goals and the federal government’s overly strict implementation of its provisions.

The secretary sought to address some of those criticisms. She introduced a series of pilot projects designed to give states more flexibility in measuring student progress and overhauling struggling schools. (“Bush to have Lasting Impact on Schools,” Dec. 10, 2008)

Kevin Carey, the research and policy manager at Education Sector, a Washington think tank, gives Ms. Spellings generally high marks for making the right regulatory adjustments to the law without undermining its core principles.

“I think she was very consistent throughout her tenure at drawing bright lines,” he said. “There were elements where she was willing to compromise and those where she was not. She drew the line in about the right place.”

Many of the changes Ms. Spellings helped implement had agreement from nearly all corners of the education community, Mr. Carey said.

But those moves were a marked departure from how Ms. Spellings’ predecessor as secretary, Rod Paige, chose to enforce the law, said Eugene W. Hickok, who served as the Education Department’s deputy secretary and undersecretary under Mr. Paige.

“The first term was all: Hold the line, hold the line, hold the line,” Mr. Hickok said. “When she came in, she saw the need to be more flexible.”

Mr. Hickok has criticized Ms. Spellings for granting states too much leeway when she moved to the Education Department. He contends that she has overstepped her authority as secretary.

Although Mr. Hickok acknowledges that the changes Ms. Spellings sought had broad support, he believes that she has opened the door for President-elect Barack Obama’s education secretary to water down the law further through waivers and regulations. That is something NCLB’s critics will welcome, Mr. Hickok said. (“Commentary: Secretary Spellings’ Unintended Legacy,” Dec. 10, 2008)

Samara Yudof, a spokeswoman for Ms. Spellings said “Absent a reauthorization to further improve the law, the administration has used its existing authority to strengthen the law in a sensible and workable way.”

David L. Shreve, the senior education committee director for the National Conference of State Legislatures, saw Secretary Spellings’ willingness to permit states leeway in implementing the law as a move to salvage public opinion and states’ support for the measure.

“I think you see someone who was willing to do anything it took to save their policy child,” he said.

Global Traveler

Ms. Spellings may have racked up more international frequent-flier miles than any past U.S. education secretary. During her tenure, she has made multiple trips to nearly every continent.

Because of her close association with President Bush, Ms. Spellings was asked to participate in a number of delegations, including accompanying first lady Laura Bush on a 2005 visit to Afghanistan, where they met with women learning to teach in their villages.

Much of the foreign travel was related to the U.S. decision in 2003 to rejoin the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization, as well as other international forums, Secretary Spellings said. The U.S. had withdrawn from the Paris-based UNESCO in 1984.

Ms. Spellings has also led delegations of university presidents to help bolster connections, including student exchanges, between American postsecondary institutions and their foreign counterparts. She hopes her successor will be able to continue such global outreach.

“The university community is wildly enthusiastic about the U.S. government being for the first time ever their partner and helping to sell American higher education,” she said.

But Barmak Nassirian, the associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers, said some U.S. universities have difficulty attracting foreign students because of “totally dysfunctional visa policies. ... If the secretary wanted to be helpful to recruitment efforts, [she should] stay here and talk to” her counterpart at the Department of Homeland Security.

Secretary Spellings didn’t give much of a hint about her future plans. She plans to stay in the Washington area, at least for a while, in part because her youngest daughter is still in school here.

And she indicated that she will continue to advocate, in some capacity, for using strong accountability systems to close the achievement gap.

“I plan to continue to be a warrior in this battle,” she said.

A version of this article appeared in the December 10, 2008 edition of Education Week as Spellings’ Worldview: There’s No Going Back on K-12 Accountability

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