Education chief 'living' her job
Ohanian Comments: Note the determination to spread Federal interference to high school and college. Her restaurant analogy is bogus. With a B. A. in political science, she runs educational policy for the nation. That's the way politics works.
By Greg Toppo
WASHINGTON — You don't quite expect the U.S. secretary of Education to admit that she and her 13-year-old daughter have "been doing arithmetic out the kazoo." But that's sort of the point with Margaret Spellings.
The first Education secretary with school-age children retains her blunt Texan sensibility even as she works to convince governors and teachers that her boss's education plan is worth a serious try.
After four years in the White House as a top domestic adviser to President Bush, Spellings, 48, marks her first year on the job as Education secretary this month. She says her experience as the mother of two girls — one of them, Grace, a public-school eighth-grader struggling with algebra — has helped her understand what families want in a public school.
"I've talked to parents," she says, "and I hear moms who have anxiety about math and stressing out their kids. So I think it gives me an ability to relate, because I'm kind of living it." (Related item: Chat with Margaret Spellings, 2 ET Wednesday)
She also says she understands parents' concerns about the hours kids spend online. She's constantly monitoring Grace's computer time: "I am a hard-liner about that stuff."
At home, she says, the family PC is in the dining room. "She has to do all this in plain view."
But most days, Spellings has bigger fish to fry. When she took over the Department of Education last January, she faced growing discontent in many states over what lawmakers saw as the rigid, top-down approach of No Child Left Behind, Bush's ambitious education reform plan now in its fifth year.
The law aims to close a nagging "achievement gap" between high- and low-income students, mostly by pressuring schools to attend to basic skills. Spellings quickly moved to give states and school districts a measure of freedom in how they enacted the law — more time to get disabled students' performance up to par and more time to certify that teachers are "highly qualified."
Recently she extended an invitation for 10 states to measure students' progress. She did so not by a rigid yardstick that requires all scores to rise in lockstep but through "growth models" that measure how far students have come in a year. Several states, including California, had for years clamored for such a change. But it remains unclear just what effect Spellings' decree will have. (Related news: Testing industry overwhelmed under NCLB)
She also moved to put behind her the scandal surrounding the department's 2003 contract with commentator Armstrong Williams to promote the law. Calling the contract "stupid" and "ill-advised," she concurred with the findings of an internal inspector general's investigation and reorganized the department's public relations office.
In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Spellings took criticism for advocating a $1.6 billion aid package that allows families to send their children to private schools at taxpayer expense. She dismisses accusations that she is paving the way for a major federal voucher program, saying the aid is a "one-time emergency package."
Spellings faces challenges to the education law as a handful of states mount legal protests and Congress gears up to reauthorize it next year. She says unequivocally that the law is working and needs to be extended to high schools. The bulk of the law's reforms affect students and teachers in kindergarten through eighth grade.
Spellings spent much of last year trying to get Congress interested in high school, to little effect. Opinion polls have shown that the idea has limited appeal among parents, but she says, "I think that's changing."
The high school proposal, she says, is a natural extension of the law's focus on basic skills, testing and better use of test scores. "Part of our problem in high school is that we don't have enough data."
She'd like to add college to the mix as well, in no small part because in 2005 Spellings sent her older daughter, Mary, off to her freshman year at Davidson, a small private college in North Carolina.
Spellings pushed for the creation of a Commission on the Future of Higher Education that will examine whether college is cost-effective and whether colleges need a No Child Left Behind-type makeover, with skills tests and ratings.
Spellings envisions a way for parents to judge colleges by completion rates and effectiveness, less as a head-to-head comparison than a way to determine whether they fit a particular student's needs.
"To go out to a restaurant on Saturday night, you buy three guides and look at the stars and the dollar signs," she says. "You know all there is to know about it. To send your child off to a $40,000-a-year school, you just get 'the feeling.' "
Asked whether Mary's college is getting the job done, she says: "The truth of the matter is, I think it's good but I have no way of knowing that — that's my point. She seems happy. For this kind of money she ought to be."
One of the key architects of No Child Left Behind, Spellings says the law "is becoming kind of a way of life in schools."
"On the whole and in the main, I think people are very much on board," she says. "And a lot of administrators, and even teachers and principals, I think, are starting to see this work for them, help them improve the enterprise — and that's the point."
The file on Spelling
Title: Secretary of Education
Born: Nov. 30, 1957
Birthplace: Ann Arbor, Mich.
Education: Bachelor's degree in political science, University of Houston
Previously: Worked for six years as senior adviser to President Bush when he was governor of Texas; was associate executive director of the Texas Association of School Boards
Family: Married to Robert Spellings, 64, an attorney in administrative law; two daughters, ages 13 and 18
On taking risks: "If all you ever do is all you ever did, then all you'll ever get is all you ever got."
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