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Margaret Spellings at Jeopardy: A Commentary

Ohanian Comment: Susan Graham finds some telling parallels between Margaret Spellings' performance on Jeopardy and student performance on NCLB. Enjoy.

The one point of disagreement I have with Graham's comments is, for me, huge. She says: Setting high standards is critical. Sez who? As I tried to show in One Size Fits Few: the Folly of Educational Standards, getting sucked into the setting-high-standards game by the Business Roundtable and various corporate politicos who march to their drumbeat got us into this terrible mess.


by Susan Graham

TLN member Susan Graham dashed off this blog entry after a surprise development on her favorite quiz show last week.

I don’t watch a lot of TV, but after a particularly trying day of school, I sometimes just need the comfort of a round of Jeopardy. It’s classier than Wheel of Fortune. The contestants don’t jump up and down and scream, and I don’t have to watch Vanna try to grow old gracefully in four inch heels. I pop a cold Diet Coke, put my feet up, and yell out the answers without having to work the buzzer. I’m good at trivia, I win a lot, and when I’m wrong, Alex and the studio audience don’t know I messed up. It’s a great stress reliever!

On Tuesday, November 21, I left school late, but with everything graded and recorded. Thanksgiving shopping was done, I’d hauled out the dining table leaf and dusted off the big platters. From the kitchen, I heard Alex Trebec announce a "celebrity contestant" night. I am fond of these special editions because the questions are often easier. I can be right even more than usual and feel superior to people who are famous just because they are skinnier and prettier than me.

Alex was introducing the guests as I finished up the grilled cheese sandwiches and washed the pan. I didn’t know the handsome black man from the CSI-NY television series (Hill Harper, I later discovered). There was an older guy, Michael-something, who looked vaguely familiar. But who was that pleasant, rather plain woman with the glasses? Margaret? She didn’t have the polished look of an aging actress making a game show guest celebrity appearance. Then Alex said, “And a special welcome to Margaret Spellings, United States Secretary of Education.”

That got my attention. The No Child Left Behind Lady! Was she willing to put her money where her mouth was on accountability? Or had she lost her mind completely? During introductions she was smiling and relaxed. But when the game got underway, Margaret missed her first question and she was in the red $400. Her neck muscles tightened and her smile became rather grim. She answered an $800 clue correctly and managed to get out of the hole, although she struggled to remember to “answer in the form of a question.”

A moment later, she confidently answered “Who is Humphrey Bogart?” But wait, she had been distracted by Alex’s Bogie impersonation and jumped to a wrong conclusion; the correct answer was “What is Casablanca?” Margaret looked pretty annoyed with Alex. You could almost hear her thinking, “It’s not fair!” She was also struggling with her buzzer, doing that thing newbie Jeopardy contestants do, when they smash the button repeatedly as if to say, “This stupid thing isn’t working. I know the answer! Call on me!”

In the end, it wasn’t too bad. Margaret finished a distance second to Michael McKean, whom I now recognized as "Lenny," the not too bright neighbor in the Laverne and Shirley sitcom. Michael earned more than $30,000. Margaret managed to break $11,000. But hey, it was “Celebrity Jeopardy” so there were no losers! Michael’s charity got $50,000 and Hill and Margaret’s charities got $25,000.

When interviewed by the Associated Press, Secretary Spellings said that in preparation for her appearance, “she had read books and sought advice from a former show contender and her daughters,” but “she didn't realize how much skill went into hitting the buzzer at just the right moment." She also pointed out that “McKean had an edge, having been on the show before.”

Sorry, Margaret. When it's Accountability Showtime, we can accept no excuses.

Yes, it was hard for you, an adult who had taken time out from the most powerful education post in the world’s most powerful nation to prepare for a half hour of high stakes accountability under public scrutiny. Can you imagine what it might be like for a 10-year old who has no supportive family and who doesn’t have access to veteran test takers?

Alex went out of his way to offer you encouragement and consideration when you were obviously uptight about your performance. Yet the teacher of a 12-year old who is struggling with her state’s standardized language arts test could risk prosecution if she stepped over the line and offered similar aid and comfort.

On Jeopardy, everyone was a winner and went home with a minimum of $25,000 for a charity. But 18-year olds who don’t do well on one section of the high school graduation exam are bona fide losers who go home without a diploma. We call that Final Jeopardy on the frontlines of school reform.

Setting high standards is critical, and accountability is necessary. But somewhere along the way, the purpose got lost in the process. “No Child Left Behind” is good theory, but just like Jeopardy, it’s not as easy as it looks and judging people on a single performance is probably not a fair measure of what they are capable of doing. Personally, I don’t think the Secretary’s effectiveness should be based on her weak second place finish to a sit-com character. Unlike NCLB test results, these things have to be considered in context. (Insert ironic smile here.)

Secretary Spellings is a good sport. She even said she would “like to return for another try.” Of course, in our world of School, where NCLB is the top-rated show, the standard of performance is always moving upward. Under NCLB standards, she will need to reach new and higher AYP goals next time.

— Susan Graham
TLN Teacher Voices
2006-11-27
http://tln.typepad.com/tln_voices/2006/11/margaret_spelli.html


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