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The State of Education in the U.S.


Ohanian Comment: Spellings' spin contains so much disinformation that it is numbing. And then there are the outright lies.

  • Forty percent of our high schools donít offer advanced placement courses, which are the requisite for college admission and so forth.
  • (Where are they requisite?)

  • . . .prior to No Child Left Behind, we basically hoped for the best. And we didnít really have any clear measures or understandings about what the standards were, what the expectations were for students or for teachers, frankly.

  • (Ohmygod, in my 20 years of teaching, we gave standardized tests every year; we had standards, etc. Spellings would have the public believe that she invented accountability and expectations.)

  • But, you know, as a mom myself, I want to know, you know, is my child reading on grade level or not. And the only way really to find that out very effectively is through a test or some measurement system.

  • (Has Spellings ever heard of parent conferences? Report cards? We had to write the reading level on the kids' report cards every grading period.)

  • Ask folks in the states, they love Reading First.

  • (Just pick yourself up off the floor. I wish Madame Spellings could know even a smidgeon of the rage teachers feel toward the destructive force of Reading First.)

    And on and on. I just can't do any more. BUt note this spin about the fastest growing jobs requiring a college degree is getting put out in just about every U. S. Department of Education appearance. How to lie with statistics.

    MICHEL Martin, host: This is TALK OF THE NATION. Iím Michel Martin in Washington. Neal Conan is on vacation.

    When President Bush went looking for a new secretary of education to take the lead on his sweeping school reform law, No Child Left Behind, he turned to a long-time friend, fellow Texan Margaret Spellings. For almost two years, her job has been to oversee what is arguable the biggest overhaul of American education in a generation. Among her goals: increase accountability, raise standards, and offer parents more options in the way their children are educated.

    Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings joins us today to talk about what sheís achieved so far with No Child Left Behind, as well as her new initiative focused on higher education. Both programs also have their critics, weíll talk about that as well.

    And we want to hear from you. What should be the goal of education reform? What is the most important thing the federal government can do to improve the education system? Our number here in Washington is 800-989-8255. Thatís 800- 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is talk@npr.org.

    And with me here now in Studio 3A is the Secretary of Education of the United States, Margaret Spellings.

    Secretary Spellings, welcome to TALK OF THE NATION.

    Ms. MARGARET SPELLINGS (Secretary of Education): Michel, itís great to be here. Thanks.

    MARTIN: I just want to start with something that may not be strictly considered to be within your purview, but itís on the minds of many listeners, certainly, which is the horrible school shooting in Lancaster, Pennsylvania yesterday, and following on another school shooting just days before.

    As Secretary of Education is there anything you can offer parents to let them know that their children are safe, or what steps are being taken to ensure that their children remain safe?

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Yes, we can and do. Weíre working closely with the Justice Department, with law enforcement officials, naturally. But the first thing I would say is, you know, our heart goes out, like every Americanís, to those families who lost those students. And I think is what we call in education, a teachable moment for American families everywhere to talk about this incident. To tell you children, reassure them, make sure they have a trusted adult to talk too. Tell your students that theyíre safe at school. That lots of grownups care about them and are working hard to do that.

    But itís also a call for communities to again look at the plans theyíve made to respond to such crisis. And itís also an important opportunity for parents to ask, you know, if this happened here what would we do? What would happen? And so I think itís a teachable moment, as I said, in education. We at the Department of Education reach out immediately to these communities. We provide immediate resources in the way of planning to get school back underway, working with counselors and various other resources that we bring to bear.

    MARTIN: Now, often time when we have these kinds of incidents, you know, horrible incidents, but they happen back-to-back. Sometimes we get the impression that there is an increase in this type of activity going on around the country. Is that accurate?

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, thatíll be borne out of the investigations, whether these are copycat sorts of incidents or not, what the actual specific circumstances surrounding each of them. They appear to be quite independent at first blush, but thatíll all net out over time and weíll be looking to law enforcement to provide those answers.

    MARTIN: But is your overall view that there is a school violence problem that we need to address as a society? Or do you believe that these are, in fact, horrific but isolated examples that don't demonstrate some larger trend?

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, I think we work at it from both fronts, really, Michel. And the president will be convening educators and law enforcement groups to ask some of those questions of them; what they see on the ground. And thatíll happen next week. But I think, you know, mostly whatíve seen, what the facts bear out are that they are happily, you know, fairly isolated incidents in the many millions of children who go to thousands of schools every single day. Schools are safe places for kids, typically.

    MARTIN: And this is not just a hypothetical to you. Because I think, most people know this, that in addition to being - or perhaps I should say your most important job, alongside being the secretary of education, is being a mom. In fact, youíre the first secretary of education who is the mother of school-age children. So this is not a hypothetical to you.

    Ms. SPELLINGS: It's not.

    MARTIN: And I think - I also want to point out that youíve got one daughter in high school and you have another who just went to college. And that gives us an opportunity to do Ė wheel around and talk about the Higher Education Initiative, which is one of your most recent projects that youíve announced.

    So Iíd like to ask you, as a parent, you know, what was the college application process like for you and your daughter? What about it struck you?

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, I found it confusing. And, you know, itís interesting to me and Iím, you know, very happy and she is too with the situ Ė with the institution that she ended up choosing. But I think parents are confused, as are students. You know, you can go to Barnes and Nobles or any bookstore and find books on, you know, schools that rock. You can read a lot about Greek life and local jazz clubs. And thatís all fine and good.

    And, of course, thereís U.S. News; a lot of self-reported data from the institutions thatís kind of a beauty contest. If institutions are happy with it if theyíre at the, you know, lead the list. And theyíre not so happy with it and tend to discount it if theyíre at the bottom of the list.

    But I think itís confusing. And I think thereís not very much comparable information. I found that in my own family, you know, my daughter either got the feeling or didnít at an institution. And Iím sorry that she didnít get the feeling at a state-supported schoolÖ

    (Soundbite of laughter)

    Ms. SPELLINGS: But because affordability clearly is an issue for all of us, no matter where you are in the income spectrum. But I think we can do more. You know, weíre in the information age, people in every endeavor of life have come to expect to knowing a lot about what theyíre getting, and what the value of it is when they make a big purchase like this.

    And this is the frequently very important decision, not only from a financial point of view, but really can set a young person or an old personís course in life about what theyíre studying and where, who they met, how they engage, what community are they in, and on, and on, and on. So itís really, really critical that we have more information.

    MARTIN: Which is why you convened this commission on higher education. And the report that was issued last week called for affordability. Well, the themes were: affordability, accountability, transparency. So why don't we take those in turn?

    First of all: affordability. Why is college so expensive? I mean over the last 20 years, the rate of increase in tuition has been about twice the rate of inflation. Why?

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, thatís a good question and I wish I had the answers to that, because we really don't have a lot of data about what is driving cost so much more than even healthcare, or housing, or every other purchase that Americans make. And so that gets us quickly into transparency and accountability, more data, information. And not just as for us as consumers, but for institutions themselves to better manage and better understand, you know, what are the cost drivers in their own institutions.

    But I would say that, you know, part of it has been that weíve been chasing our tail at the federal level, a little bit on price. Weíre a one-third investor in higher education compared to about an eight percent investor in K-12 education. Our strategy has basically been to kind of put the money out, hope for the best. You know, weíve tended to, potentially, some scholars say, to drive the cost up just by virtue of putting more money in the system. And I think those are the things we need to ask.

    One thing Iím very trouble by is that American families, especially poor families, are actually losing ground in affording college. And that is a obviously a dire state of affairs, when 90 percent of the fastest growing jobs in our country now will require a post-secondary education. Weíre getting about half of our minority kids out of high school on time, college is less and less affordable for those students, and the job market is ever more demanding with respect to the knowledge, economy, and education that is required.

    MARTIN: But you don't call for increasing the Pell Grant. You didnít embrace that specific recommendationÖ

    Ms. SPELLINGS: WellÖ

    MARTIN: Öat the commission. I mean, is that Ė and which the Ė which now, as I understand it, only covers about half, less than half of the cost of the average sort of tuition grant. And there is a proposal to raise that to about 70 percent. But you didnít specifically embrace that plan.

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, obviously, weíre in the budget negotiation process with O and B right now and the president will be unveiling his budget in January. He has long been a supporter of Pell. We have asked for increases many, many years to increase Pell. In fact, when he ran for office in 2000, suggested it be raised to $5,000. Itís been raised once. We have more students getting benefit of it.

    This particular year, another billion dollars went into programs to support students who were studying in the math and science fields, and who have Ė who are capable of being successful in college.

    So weíve done some things, weíve made some progress. The Congress has made some progress but there are certainly more to do.

    But I think one of the things I want to know, as a policymaker, before we start putting more money out is, you know, who needs it? Where? And one of the things this report found and is that a need-based aid like a Pell grant is critical.

    And, unfortunately, we are seeing sort of a retreating of those sorts of policies at the state level and the institutional level. Actual need for more affluent families has increased faster than our neediest families.

    And Iíve already given you the troubling statistics about what our world requires or somewhat our country requires. Itís really more than just Ė you know, higher education is seen as a public good. You know, a societal good as well as a private good. I mean, certainly, we individuals who are educating, know obviously, it sets us on a course for a profitable and enjoyable and successful career.

    MARTIN: Letís talk about accountability. Youíve talked about the need for parents to be able to compare what theyíre getting. I mean you talk about this for yourself, that it was hard to figure out, you know, what was the best deal for you child. What, ideally, should parents be able to know and kids be able to know in making a decision about higher education? What kind of indices would you like to see be available that arenít available now?

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, one of the things - actually that the commission makes two really important recommendations that are somewhat distinct, and that I pledged to find some resources to bring some of these to bear.

    The first is, they believe that institutions at the institutional level ought to measure a learning Ė ought to measure the value added with those students. I, certainly, am not Ė do not intend to prescribe this from the federal department.

    But they ought to be able to evidence to their state legislatures and to their students and to their families. You know, does my child, after four years, have the requisite writing skills to be successful in law school if thatís her choice of career? If she chooses to go into the workplace, what kind of starting salary might she expect? What are the opportunities for postgraduate study? You know, what are the job placement opportunities? The various metrics that families really are concerned about.

    MARTIN: But how do you that in a country in which we know we Ė kids study everything from dance to computer science, to trumpet, to, you know, critical feminist theory?

    Secretary SPELLINGS: Well, that gets us to the second part. One of the things thatís important - in addition to institutions being able to evidence to their consumers, to their customers, how well they do individually - but the federal government, in my mind, needs to have a policy database thatís really very much like what weíve done in the K-12 arena through No Child Left Behind. You know, I can tell you, by campus, you know, who are the good readers? And what are the Ė you know, how well do African-American third graders read on the campus thatís, you know, across the street from this building and so forth.

    And what are the policy implications? I mean, what are the strategies that are Ė or is the problem in math at middle school, you know? So we have more data to better-manage the system. And those are the sorts of things we need to bring to bear to higher education. Thatís why the commission recommended, and Iíve embraced, the ability for a privacy-protected student database so that parents can get some of that information by virtue of customized searches. So if you want to stay local, you can do that.

    MARTIN: We need to take a short break right now. Weíll talk more with you, Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, when we come back. And weíll be taking your calls at 800-989-TALK. You can send us e-mail. The address is TALK@npr.org.

    Iím Michel Martin. Itís TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

    (Soundbite of music)

    This is TALK OF THE NATION. Iím Michel Martin in Washington.

    This hour, weíre talking with Margaret Spellings, U.S. Secretary of Education and a key architect of the No Child Left Behind Bill. You are invited to join the discussion.

    What do you think should be the goal of education reform? What is the most important thing the government can do to improve education in America?

    Give us a call at 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is TALK@npr.org.

    And letís go to a caller in Mount Airy, Maryland. And Joe.

    JOE (Caller): Yes. Hi. Madame secretary, I have a question for you, if I may. What are your thoughts on the layers and layers, and levels and levels of bureaucracy in the school system where essentially educators Ė highly paid educators Ė wind up becoming the highly paid administrators?

    MARTIN: And, Joe, may I ask, are you thinking about the elementary and secondary level or are you thinking of the higher ed level when you asked that question?

    JOE: Maíam, every level. You know, all the way up to college, universities - it just seems like a onion Ė there are just so many layers of bureaucracy. If you look at an org chart or go to the staff directory of a high school, thereís just so many layers of highly-paid educators who, unfortunately, are not educating Ė theyíre administrating.

    MARTIN: Okay.

    JOE: Thank you.

    MARTIN: Okay. Thanks, Joe.

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Thatís a great question, Joe. And I think, one that, you know, all taxpayers wonder about. With respect to higher education, I think I would say that thatís why we need more information about the system.

    And thatís why institutions need more information about the system. Frankly, there Ė we havenít provided many incentives from the federal government level or really any governmental level, to try to enhance productivity in higher education. And so thatís really, kind of at the root of why we need to know more.

    And with respect to K-12 education, the secondary education, I think I would say that one of the things thatís, you know, in the simple but profound part of No Child Left Behind is, as we have set very clear goals with the schools about getting at least grade level proficiency for everyone of them by 2014 - that is causing schools to do a serious hard look at how they allocate personnel. And one of the dirty, little secrets in education Ė in fact, not so secret - is that some of our most-effective, most-senior, highest-paid personnel are often in our least-challenging educational environments. And vice-versa.

    We send our least-experienced, least-skilled, least-supported personnel, many times, to our most challenging educational environments, and itís really tragic. Forty percent of our high schools donít offer advanced placement courses, which are the requisite for college admission and so forth.

    And so, I think those are the things that have been netted out and are brought to bear because of the profound data that has emerged from No Child Left Behind.

    MARTIN: Letís go to Paducah, Kentucky. And, Ron. Ron, hello?

    RON (Caller): Hello. Hello. Yes. Thank you for taking my call. I am a father of three children who are thankful for the higher educational system. And I do some off-time tutoring - Iím an engineer - and I have yet to talk to a teacher who thinks that No Child Left Behind is anything but a disaster.

    My experiences is, teacher are teaching to the test because the test is everything. And Iíd also would like to make a comment that my feeling is that if you extend this process to the college level and restrict to the freedom of professors to teach, that thereíll be even a larger disaster.

    MARTIN: Ron, thank you for your question. I think that, that point of view is one that Iím sure youíve heard as you travel around the country. Itís still a very controversial proposal.

    Ms. SPELLINGS: I have. Ron, weíreÖ

    MARTIN: Piece of legislation, I should say, because it is policy.

    Ms. SPELLINGS: First, let me say, you know, thank you for mentoring students and we need more people like you - engineers, and particularly folks of the mass science fields to do that work. So thank you for doing that.

    Let me first say about teaching to the test. And, you know, I think weíre in the early stages of some of these things but, you know, prior to No Child Left Behind, we basically hoped for the best. And we didnít really have any clear measures or understandings about what the standards were, what the expectations were for students or for teachers, frankly.

    And, you know, frankly, good measurement suggest that Ė and, of course, testing has been a part of the educational enterprise since Socrates. And so, you know, are tests have been improved over time? Should they be rich and richer as we develop assessment systems? You bet.

    But, you know, as a mom myself, I want to know, you know, is my child reading on grade level or not. And the only way really to find that out very effectively is through a test or some measurement system.

    MARTIN: What about the argument that I think Ron made, or implied, that youíre narrowing educational offerings by insisting on these Ė sure, of course, everybody believes in testing - but that these tests have become so important to the survival of these schools, that they are narrowing educational offerings that may offer greater chances for success for a diverse array of students. What would you say?

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, I hear that and I guess I would say a couple of things. Obviously, you know, reading and math assessment - which is dictated in the law - are the bare minimums. Obviously, we can and do support - and many states have done this - have assessment systems that are more fully-rounded than that. That have measure social studies and science and measure grades beyond those required in No Child Left Behind, which is essentially, grades three through eight.

    So you know, Iím very supportive of that sort of approach. But I think what we also know is if students canít read on grade level, or cipher on grade level, you know, opportunities in social science or really in any field of endeavor are very limited. That those are the bedrock, entry, gateway courses for participating in other areas of study or in society, frankly.

    MARTIN: Ron, thank you for your call.

    RON: All right. Thank you.

    MARTIN: But talking about reading, a final question on accountability. On September 22nd, your own inspector general released a scathing report about the Reading First program. Itís a billion-dollar-a-year program to help low-income students adopt the most effective teaching strategies and now it appears, according to the report, that the money was stirred to cronies of the then program director regardless of the evidence demonstrating the effectiveness of these programs.

    Now, of course, you know, you Ė this person was appointed before you got there and youíve said that youíre taking the I.G.ís recommendation seriously. But these programs are now out there. So are the kids being shortchanged and having been stirred programs where the data really wasnít there.

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, thatís not true. These programs are run by states. They use programs that are selected by states. And reading achievement is higher over the last five years than it was in the previous 28 years of our national education report card.

    Ask folks in the states, they love Reading First. It is ensuring that more students are reading on grade level, no doubt about it. Now, having said that, were mistakes made in the administration of this program? Yes, there were.

    As you said, this happened, kind of, in the 2002, 2003 timeframe. But Iím not one to throw the baby out with the bathwater. I mean, weíve spent now $5 billion to enhance reading instruction and itís bearing fruit to the good of students. Itís supported by states. Itís implemented by states.

    And I have embraced every single one of the inspector general recommendations. Thereís nobody more concerned about the integrity of processes at the department than I am. And, you know, I want to do all the work that we can do to provide that integrity, but I darn sure want to make sure weíre going to teach every child to read as well.

    MARTIN: Okay. But do you dispute the core finding of the I.G. report that this directive was stirring contracts toward persons that had his particular narrow point of view about the appropriate program? Or that who were - he was associated with?

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, let me say this. The law says that programs funded by Reading First have to be rooted and are research-base. Rooted in our best science, rooted in the recommendations of the National Reading Panel, the premier, blue chip, nonpartisan community that developed the core strategies and the core principals for reading.

    And we funded programs that had those characteristics. States implemented programs that had those characteristics. Some Ė you know, obviously, anything with this much money attached to it theyíre going to be winners and losers.

    But the point is, what we need to fund and what we ought Ė did fund and will continue to fund is programs that have those core research values attached to them.

    MARTIN: Okay. But Madame Secretary, if I may, just one more question on this point. The I.G.ís report says that those panels that selected these were stacked deliberately by persons who share the directorís point of view, that these were not kind of objective panels with diverse points of view, that they were deliberately stirred and stacked to produce a certain outcome.

    Ms. SPELLINGS: And thatís why I have committed to review every single one of the 50-state plans. Iíve just sent a letter to each state, asking them to tell us their experience - not only with respect to the results but with respect to the implementation of this plan.

    But I know that states want to do what works, Iíll tell you that. And they are required to do, under the law, programs that are rooted in research.

    MARTIN: Okay. Letís go to a caller in Washington, D.C. and Bill. Bill, whatís your question?

    BILL (Caller): Yes. Hello, everyone. And Madame Secretary, I would like to say itís a privilege to speak to you today.

    Ms. SPELLINGS: You, too, Bill.

    BILL: I wanted to ask you a question in reference to kids with special needs and the No Child Left Behind. I wanted to know, what are you plan on doing for kids with special needs.

    Currently, my son - heís a special needs student - and he works better as far as, you know, smaller classrooms. But I know we canít get away from the regular public school system. And, you know, for instance, he went to summer school last year. You know, he get Bs. But in a regular school system, he struggles to get a C.

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, Bill, I have to tell you that some of the strongest advocates for No Child Left Behind are parents and families of special need kids. Because, really, for the first time in a long time - first time ever I would suggest - weíre having conversations about how best to meet students needs because there is accountability and consequences attached to serving the needs of students like your son.

    I have provided some flexibility to states to have a better understanding around the needs of particular special education students. When I arrived at the department, it was thought from our brain researcher community that about one percent of the student population was so profoundly handicapped that they could not and should not be included as part of the No Child Left Behind requirements.

    We have now learned that thereís really an about additional two percent of the students - for a total of about three percent - that really fall across a spectrum of ability. And that we ought to Ė with that additional two percent Ė allow them to take more time, use different instructional strategies, different assessment strategies and be more sophisticated with approaches that we bring to bear with these young people.

    But Iím very confident that without No Child Left Behind in these conversations, we would not be committing resources. We wouldnít be having these discussions in the school community about how best to serve these learners. I know you feel, as a dad, that your son is - can get to grade level, can be productive. Itís going to take him more time, itís going to take a different approach, but he can get there.

    BILL: Okay. And thank you so much for that.

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Thank you, Bill.

    BILL: Okay.

    MARTIN: Bill, thanks for calling.

    BILL: Thank you.

    Madame Secretary, Iím intrigued by one of the themes that youíve raised several times, is that people need the information to make good decisions about what theyíre getting. And that the government, as well as parents, are investing tremendous resources in education. But I would like to ask, is education a consumer product like other consumer products? Like a car, you know, we can compare gas mileage, and thatís a reasonable thing to do. Can we really do that in education?

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Yes, I think we can, Michel, and we have to. I mean, on one level, obviously, there are intrinsic values that come with education that are Ė theyíre not completely measurable.

    But I think I would say, you know, whatís the alternative? The alternative is put the money out, hope for the best and be in a time when you know weíre graduating half of our minority kids from high school. I mean, that is a raging fire from a public policy point of view, if you ask me, and it, certainly, is a public policy crisis for our country.

    So what are the things that we need to bring to bear to find out who they are, what are their needs, you know, what happened. You know, weíre not going to do that without information and data. We certainly wouldnít treat health care like that. We use information. We use best practices. We use the right formulary and on and on and on.

    And so, I think when you deal with human beings, yes, itís more sophisticated than buying a car, but it can be done.

    MARTIN: Why do you think we have not to this point to take a data-driven approach?

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, because I think this is the first time that weíve really been serious about meeting the needs of every single learner. I think for a long time it didnít matter that we educated - or you know - every single student, every Hispanic student, every limited English student, every African- American student. But this is the knowledge economy. And if weíre going to be the worldís innovator, the worldís leader, every single one of our kids must be educated to high levels.

    MARTIN: Youíre listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

    Iíd like to read you an e-mail from a listener. I think itís Emilie(ph) in San Francisco, and I think itís Emilie. I think itís a male Emilie. And itís spelled I, E. And he asked, if possible, could you ask Secretary Spellings what she thinks of the increasingly popular charter school system? And how she sees or doesnít see that the kind of smaller school set-up and structure fitting into the administrationís plan? What are your opinions on the benefits and/or drawbacks to the charter school system?

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, Iím a big fan of charter schools and Iím watching it work and unfold really well in New Orleans at the moment. Charter schools have the opportunity typically, although these are governed by, largely by state laws, to be less bureaucratic, to be more tailored, more customized. To have more autonomy form the system generally, and frankly, when they donít work to have a systems in place where they can be shut down. They can be closed. Something we donít typically do in public education.

    They also have the value of people Ė of parents voting with their feet. And so they literally choose these schools, and yet theyíre public schools. Theyíre part of the system. Theyíre publicly funded. And here on the District of Columbia, many, many schools that are part of the District system are charter schools. Iím a big fan of them; I think they offer promise for innovation. They offer promise for parent engagement. And I think they offer promise for serving educational needs.

    MARTIN: Letís go to Wyoming, and a question from Renee. Hello, Reneť, whatís your question?

    RENE… (Caller): Yes. On about the fact that it seems these days like the schools are being expected to teach so much more, that we are expecting basically the schools to raise our children because weíre so busy. And that there are a lot of issues that are being taught in schools that would be best taken cared of at home, but weíre just too busy to do that. And I think that gets in the way of a lot of the education thatís going on these days. And Iíd like the secretary to address that.

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, clearly, the role of the family, you know, is important, and as critical as it ever has been. I think one of the things thatís important about No Child Left Behind is weíve really looked ourselves in the mirror as a nation, and said, are we going to serve the needs of every single student who shows up at the schoolhouse door, or not? And sometimes those students come from two-parent, highly-affluent families with all the support in the world, and sometimes they donít.

    And when they donít, I think our job in the public service business and the public school is to serve the needs of those students, so that they can, you know, be proficient and productive citizens.

    MARTIN: Reneť, may I ask you. In your school, do you have children in school at the moment?

    RENE…: My Daughter, she has graduated.

    MARTIN: Okay.

    RENE…: But we do have Ė we have a fairly good school system here in the city that I live in.

    MARTIN: So I guess what Iím wondering is if thereís some educational - is there some time being taken away from instruction that youíve seen during the years your child was in school that cause you to feel this way?

    RENEE: Yeah. Thereís, you know, there were a few things, you know Ė that seemed like we had addressed here at home. Like the sex education courses. Now I agree on sex education, totally. But it seems like they get too varied, and rather - and not to the point. And just other moral issues that I donít think schools should be addressing.

    MARTIN: Okay, Reneť. Thank you so much for calling.

    RENEE: Okay, thank you.

    MARTIN: Secretary?

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, happily, we at the Federal Department of Education are not engaged in those issues. Typically, those are Ė those are community school board decisions. The kind of curriculum thatís brought to bear with respect to character and mortal values, sex education and those sorts of things.

    And I think thatís right. And I think right just how I use to represent school boards. And if I were Renee and I had concerns, I think I would call my school board and share my concerns.

    MARTIN: Weíre talking to Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, when we come back from a short break. Weíll talk more about education reform and take a bigger picture of you of Americaís education system. Whatís the ultimate goal of education? (800)989-8255 or e-mail TALK@NPR.org.

    Iím Michel Martin. Itís TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

    (Soundbite of music)

    The separation of church and state has to mean separation of religion and politics. For many in public life, faith is the source of their values. Why shouldnít those values inspire public policy?

    Iím Michel Martin. Itís Part 2 of our discussion on religion and politics. Next TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

    (Soundbite of music)

    MARTIN: Today, weíre talking about education in America with Margaret Spellings. She is the secretary of education and she is with me here in studio 3A. And we want to hear from you.

    What is the ultimate goal of education? Should schools focus on individuality? On providing a competitive workforce? Should it be a combination of the two or something else entirely? Call us at 800-989-TALK. Our e-mail address is

    And, Madam Secretary, during the break, you and I were talking and youíre saying that No Child Left Behind focuses primarily on the lower grades but high school is still an important concern in an increasingly competitive global economy. So whatís your concern about the way high schools are structured in doing their job today? And what direction do you want to move then?

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, we need more data. We need more information. Grades three through eight have been the focus of No Child Left Behind and we know a lot more about those students, what they know, what they donít know, where we need help, where we need to focus. But what I think, you know, as I said, when weíre getting half of our minority students out of high school on time; when 90 percent of the jobs require Ė fastest growing jobs - require a post-secondary education; we simply need to have more rigor in the curriculum and we need to provide better opportunities for more people.

    I told you that only about 40 percent of our high schools offer advanced placement courses. Those are the gateway courses into college success and college proficience. We know that students canít learn what they havenít been taught. We frequently have teachers who donít have the requisite subject area expertise, teaching out of field - against their will, frequently - in our high schools. And we need to get at some of these issues. Weíre not gonna be able to get at some of those issues without more specific data. The accountability system in No Child Left Behind really is just one test at high school and we need to extend those, learn more, and start to better diagnose the specific situation.

    MARTIN: Some Ė there are lots of critics, particularly of high school, the way high school is structured. There are projects, in fact, like the Bill Gates Foundation is investing heavily in a project to look at the way high schools are structured to see if they really meet the needs of todayís workforce and citizens in the world that we live in today.

    And one of the criticisms is that these high schools are still Ė function too much like factories. You know, itís one-size-fits-all. And that itís really kind of training people for the world that was and not for the world that is - where people need resiliency, creativity, flexibility, and ability to work in teams.

    But there are those then, would argue, that the kind of mandates that the federal government is now requiring of schools - fights that, fights the individuation that schools really Ė fights the flexibility. What would you say to that?

    Ms. SPELLINGS: I think quite the contrary. In fact, NO Child Left Behind and the data thatís been brought to bear really is leading us towards more customization, more individualization. You know, one of the major givens in education these days are: itís a 185-day school year Ė thatís how we want personnel to show up. Itís, you know, six or eight hours a day. And, you know, you sit in your grade for a year, the nine months that youíre there whether youíre the most gifted learner in the classroom or, you know, a mainstream, special-ed student. And because of this data, because weíre Ė we know Ė we know how and where kids are learning, what theyíre good at, what they need more help in, itís allowing us to be more precise about the individual child.

    And we need to start using time more effectively so that we move students through the system more quickly, and not these arbitrary sort of set systems. You know, the Gates Foundation, youíre right, has looked at the grouping of high school students. Theyíve looked at small schools, smaller campuses with more connectedness to adults. Frankly, they lack data also and I think theyíre frustrated about that. Theyíve invested a lot of money but so far theyíre Ė the results are not conclusive that this is the cure.

    MARTIN: Letís go to another caller. Letís go to Saint Louis Missouri and Dave. Dave, whatís your comment or question for the Secretary?

    DAVE (Caller): Hi, good afternoon. Thank you for taking my call. Iím a former teacher and I just have to tell you Ė I think a lot of the problems with public education do not originate in the schools or with the teachers and the administration. Whatís wrong with schools, in fact - children over the last 10, 15 years have Ė a lot of them had not come to school prepared to learn - meaning they are well cared for; well nourished; have adequate medical care. Most of the kids I talked to were more concerned with survival than learning. I had to testify - not once, but twice - on behalf of a sixth-grade girl who was being raped by a cousin after school. I had to deal as the social worker. I wasnít equipped, but I had to step in and be there for these kids in ways which went far beyond the bounds of my training as a teacher.

    Now, I can tell you that all this testing that weíre doing to kids doesnít prove one iota of whether schools are doing their jobs or not. I have two kids: one in middle school, one in high school. And theyíre getting tested to death. I donít believe you measure education on what a kid does on a particular day on a particular test. The real outcomes of education, generally speaking, are not evident for many years after the instructional time has been spent. And I know this because I went through the schools; my parents took good care of me - both my parents happened to be teachers, I didnít become a teacher until my mid-30s - but I can tell you that one parent was at home. The economic situation was better; Kids felt more centered, more secure. And when they feel that way, they come into school with eager minds, theyíre willing to learn, you donít have the disciplinary problems that eat up a lot of instructionÖ

    MARTIN: Dave, Iím sorry. Youíve given us a lot to work with here, so why donít we give the secretary a chance to respond to your various points.

    DAVE: Right.

    MARTIN: Youíve made two distinct points here. Why donít we let the secretary take them in turn.

    DAVE: Okay. Thank you very much.

    MARTIN: Thank you.

    Ms. SPELLINGS: And I hope he didnít say he was a former teacher.

    MARTIN: I think he did. Dave, are you a former teacher?

    DAVE: Yes, yes.

    MARTIN: And what are you doing now?

    DAVE: Iím a musician.

    MARTIN: Okay.

    DAVE: Iím a liturgical and pop musician.

    MARTIN: Groovy. Okay.

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, I hope that someday youíll come back to the classroom, Dave, because you sound like youíre really committed to kids.

    DAVE: Thank you.

    Ms. SPELLINGS: But let me say, with respect to the family issues that you raise: I mean, I do agree. I mean, I think schools are, oftentimes, asked to do more than teachers are trained to do, in mental-health services and in, you know, family intervention and all the sorts of things like that. And you know, I think schools do the very best they can at serving those needs and filling in those gaps and reaching out to other services in the community.

    In fact, Mrs. Bush has been very active in a program called Helping Americaís Youth that have provided some tools so that there can be more coordination between the social service sector and public education - so that we donít call on our teachers to be mental health counselors and so forth. So I hope weíll make some progress on that.

    But I also want to say this about families - and I know you certainly donít mean this this way. Certainly, Iíve never met a teacher who, you know, didnít love kids. But I think we canít let kind of societal ills be an excuse for us to say well, they canít do it; theyíre not going to do it; and weíre not going to hold ourselves accountable. We the grown-ups - whether weíre at the classroom level or in the federal government - you know, that that becomes sort of an excuse for serving the needs of these very challenged young people, no doubt about it. So thatís just my general commentary on that.

    With respect to testing, you know, I think, you know, it ainít perfect, but we all - itís what we have. I mean, I think one of the things that we know are very extreme challenges in education. If weíre going to have every-single young person reach his or her full potential, we have to know more about what their needs are. We have to know where they are, we have to know where they need help, we have to know that early.

    And you know, I think this is a journey, not an event. You know, No Child Left Behind was passed five years ago. For many states, it was the first time they did assessment. And I think thereís initial anxiety with teachers and with administrators about what that means. They are high stakes, as some have observed, with respect to rating campuses and that sort of thing.

    But I think, you know, educators and principals and teachers are starting to see that this can be an effective tool for them. I mean, you know, when I walk into classrooms and I see teachers tell me well, so-and-so needs a little help. Thatís why weíre doing this-or-that after-school tutoring, as opposed to kind of the one-size-fits-all sort of monolithic lack of feedback that teachers have had to deal with for so many years. And weíre on our way to improving this.

    MARTIN: Okay, Dave, thank you so much for calling.

    DAVE: (Unintelligible) You know, there was after-school tutoring when I went to high school 30-something years ago.

    MARTIN: Okay, DaveÖ

    DAVE: This is nothing new.

    MARTIN: Okay, Dave. Thanks for calling.

    DAVE: Thank you.

    MARTIN: Letís go back to Wyoming and Pete. Pete, you have a question.

    PETE (Caller): Yes, maíam. Iíd like to know what affect unions have in protecting teachers that are totally incompetent and incapable and shouldnít be in front of a classroom? What affect unions have on removing these inept individuals and placing true pedagogues in place who have the childrenís best interests in mind?

    MARTIN: Pete, you must come out of your shell one day.

    (Soundbite of laughter)

    MARTIN: Madame Secretary?

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, Pete, I know school administrators and, in particular, superintendents really struggle with some of those issues, and I think those are some of the big things that will be brought to bear as we discuss the reauthorization, the renewal of No Child Left Behind next year. You know, sometimes I say, you know, weíve done the easy work - and itís not been easy - in No Child Left Behind, looking at standards and measurements, assessments and the like. But now, you know, we really have to start tackling the issues of personnel. Whoís effective, where are they, who, you know, whoís getting results? And we have to have tools available for managers if weíre going to be true to ourselves about accountability and having young children served adequately.

    So those are things that are governed by local school boards as they enter into collective bargaining agreements with teachersí unions. My hope is that as No Child Left Behind matures, that teachers will - either their unions and their organizations will come to terms with some of the issues that Pete talks about. But itís one of the next big things: how weíre going to manage personnel around these results.

    MARTIN: Pete, no disrespect intended, and certainly not to you, either, Madame Secretary, but there is a partisan component to this, is there not - that the teachers unions tend to be more supportive of the Democratic party and, as a consequence, are not particularly favored by Republican policymakers. I mean, that is a fair statement, donít you think?

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, I really think thatís changing. You know, Joel Klein, who is the superintendent of New York, you know, was the lead lawyer in the Clinton administration in this Justice Department on Microsoft, and he has spoken out publicly about issues related to unions, the ability to manage his system. I mean, Iím telling him he has to get, you know, results by 2014, but he canít - you know, but his school board, or the structures there, say you canít manage your personnel. And so I think there are lots of Democrats who have observed this, and rightfully so, and itíll be before us next year as part of the reauthorization.

    MARTIN: Oh, Pete, thank you so much for calling.

    PETE: Thank you.

    MARTIN: Youíre listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

    Peteís comment does stimulate a thought here, which is that, you know, we do live in a very polarized society. I mean, there are all kinds of ideological and political decisions that I think, you know, we all talk about. Are you seeing this kind of polarization in your world, I mean these sharp values differences in the arguments that we have over other areas? Do you find that that is being played out in the world of education, as well?

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I used to joke that, you know, public schools deal with usually most of our tax dollars and our precious children, so you bet. And I think there are divergent views around, you know, both of those issues - levels of resource, as well as how to best educate kids. And I think it also, you know, depends on where you stand, too.

    But I think those are very, very much at the middle of public education, which is why itís one of my favorite issues, because everybodyís been to school, either has kids in school, hires folks from school. Itís very much a populist issue because of that.

    MARTIN: But your department was one that conservative Republicans wanted to eliminate not too long ago. I mean, it was in the Republican platform. And I wonder if you think thereís still a suspicion about the federal governmentís role in education, whether the federal government belongs in it, that informs the way people are able to talk about your issues?

    Ms. SPELLINGS: There probably is, candidly. And you know, I think I would say that, you know, the federal commitment to education has always been to our neediest students for the 40 years since LBJ created the federal role in education. And, you know, that population - needy students - has grown over time. Thatís one thing. And so thatís provided a more vigorous federal role.

    But secondly, and we know this, as well, that our world is flattening. Itís globalizing. Itís becoming ever-smaller and the ability for people to be mobile with education and have understanding about competencies as they work around the - not only around the country but around the world - are important. And so, you know, even as we talk about some who want to abolish the Department of Education, many on the other hand are calling for more national standards; more uniformity, as we understand proficiency rates and so forth. So, you know, these are ongoing, perennial debates that make public education policy a lot of fun.

    MARTIN: Letís try to get a couple more calls in, if we can. Letís go to Jessica, in San Francisco. Jessica(ph), briefly, whatís your question?

    JESSICA (Caller): Yes. My question is I agree with the earlier comment of a need for more AP courses and - to prepare kids for success in college. But I wanted to hear the secretary speak to music and art programs that are being drastically under-funded are just are in a general horrible state of disrepair. And I feel that they are just as crucial as academic programs and that they foster a lot of healthy sort of attributes, such as diligence and discipline and an ability to focus in many other aspects of life, and just generally prepare students for success in whatever they choose to do.

    MARTIN: Okay, Jessica, thank you for your question.

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, I agree. Clearly, those are very important programs, and in fact, No Child Left Behind specifically says that the creative arts are affirmatively part of an education curriculum. Obviously, itís not one of the things thatís measured as part of No Child Left Behind. You know, it does trouble me when I hear people say, well, because of No Child Left Behind, weíve had to eliminate art or music. Thatís just flat wrong. If theyíve made choices such as that on the local level, that is their prerogative, but itís certainly not a federal mandate by any stretch.

    Smart administrators - and I talked to a lot of them - are learning that, you know, having engagement in art and music helps math and creative problem solving, teamwork, and so forth. And so I think, while there might have been an initial bit of lost ground as people started looking at math and science capability, now theyíre saying hey, if we want enhanced math scores, having our music program thriving is a good way to do that. And there is some evidence around those subjects.

    MARTIN: I think we have time for one more question, if both the questioner and you are brief. Steve in Binghamton, New York, whatís your question?

    STEVE (Caller): Yeah, thereís one part of No Child Left Behind - thereís a condition that kind of disturbs me. Itís the part that the high schools have to give the military information about high-school students, I mean, anywhere from what their parents make and their Social Security numbers and their ethnicity.

    MARTIN: Okay, Steve, thank you for your question. Is thatÖ?

    Sec. SPELLINGS: No Child Left Behind does provide that military recruiters have access, just as college recruiters or other types of recruiters that have access to our high-school campuses. So it does provide some opportunities from the military, which obviously is a - you know, many, many people have found a very powerful and important career, not only in service but with respect to, you know, becoming a doctor or a pilot or whatever - and so that is part of No Child Left Behind. With respect to the specific information thatís requiredÖ

    MARTIN: I think Steve was more concerned about the fact that itís compulsory, that that information be turned over.

    Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, Iím not familiar with the specifics of the kinds of information that are required to be turned over and what - and many of these things are also governed by local school-board policy - so Iíd have to get back with you on that, Michel.

    MARTIN: Okay, well thank you. Thatís all the time we have for today. I want to thank my guest. Itís been indeed a pleasure, Madame Secretary, having you here in the studio with us.

    Sec. SPELLINGS: Thank you, Michel.

    MARTIN: Margaret Spellings is the U.S. secretary of education. She joined me here in Studio 3A. Madame Secretary, thank you for coming in. Itís been a rich discussion. You can see that thereís a lot of interest in your work. So good luck to you. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. Iím Michel Martin in Washington.

    — Margaret Spellings
    Talk of the Nation, NPR

    2006-10-03


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