Friday, January 20, 2006

The Spellings Report: A Kinder, More Gentler Secretary?

Is it possible that The Queen Of All Testing might be changing course?
Taking over as education secretary a year ago, Margaret Spellings promised to enforce the No Child Left Behind law with flexibility not previously seen much from Bush administration officials, including her.

Spellings, who had served as President Bush's domestic policy chief, has not been subtle about her change in tone.

She has given state leaders leeway in how and when they measure student progress, improve teacher quality, test children with disabilities, provide tutoring to poor kids and cope with hurricane evacuees.

Open to question is whether Spellings' change will make the law more workable or weaker.

"We're on the way to keeping that promise," Spellings said in an interview with The Associated Press, talking about cooperation with states. What she wants in return is results, mainly better test scores among poor and minority children.

That's the academic goal. The political one has been to calm the storm that has threatened a Bush priority, the most aggressive federal school law in decades.

"It's clear she had a mandate, a mission, an understanding, that she needed to be more flexible," said Connecticut Education Commissioner Betty Sternberg, whose state is suing the federal government over the law's financing.

More flexible, that is, than Rod Paige, who preceded Spellings and took the heat for some messy, early implementation of the 2002 law.

The education secretary's work trickles down. The person in the job has broad authority to tell states what they can and can't do, affecting the lives of millions of children.

Educators remain frustrated about the law but tend to see Spellings' enforcement as reasonable. So far, she has won solid marks.

She was domestic policy chief in Bush's first term, when the administration showed far less wiggle room to states. During that time, the backlash over the bipartisan law took off.

"It's not that Margaret Spellings is more flexible than Rod Paige," said Michael Petrilli, who worked under both of them in the Education Department's school reform office. "It's that Margaret Spellings changed her policy when she moved from the White House."

Spellings defends the first years of enforcement. What's happened since, she said, has been adjustment, learning-as-they-go. "And what we do today will probably be not what we're going to do in three years from now," she said in the AP interview.

The law aims to ensure that all children can read and do math at grade level by 2014. Schools face penalties if they receive federal aid but do not improve.

Spellings sees support growing. She talks of teachers and superintendents who have more data to figure out what works, and parents who have more choices for their kids. "Accountability is their friend," she said.
Heh. I know the reporter indicated that a number of "educators" gave Spellings "solid marks," but I wonder if he or she bothered to talk to any actual classroom teachers who've had to implement all this test-obsessed standards-driven curricula? I sure couldn't tell by reading the whole thing.

And have you ever noticed that when Spellings speaks of "accountability," she's always talking of holding teachers and administrators solely "accountable," for student progress? The Chief EduCrat never utters anything about the need for parents and students to also share some responsibility for their own success.

It would be great if Spellings would add something like this to her standard speech:
Parents, you need to make sure that your kids get to school on time well-rested and prepared to learn. Help them with their homework and make sure that they do the reading that is assigned them.

Students, you need to do what is asked of you by your teachers. Put-forth your best effort. Go to school with a positive attitude toward learning. Don't misbehave in class, or waste time. Your future is in your hands. You are responsible for your own success.
I won't hold my breath waiting for Spellings to say anything even remotely similar to the above. In the insulated five-star world that is inhabited by her and her ilk, it's simpler to blame the schools when kids are left behind.

The next presidential election is in 2008. I think that it's highly likely that the next three years are going to bring quite a number of "adjustments" to the law as that election-cycle approaches along with a corresponding ratcheting-up of the rhetoric.

Tipped by: Darren of Right on the Left Coast
See our latest posts right here.