Margaret Spelling: Small Signs of Progress, But, Then, There She Goes Again Into Orwell's Realm
by Gerald Bracey
Margaret Spellings and I did not get off to a good start as she assumed the mantle of Secretary of Education. Her first act as Secretary was to protect American children from ... a bunny rabbit. Buster, by name. Buster stars in Postcards from Buster, part of a PBS early-learning series. He visits families of different life-styles. Before Spellings whacked him, he had visited Mormon, Evangelical and Muslim families. He had been seen clogging, rodeo barrel racing, monoskiing and grooving to the Arapahoe grass dance.
In "Sugartime!" Buster visited two families in Vermont to learn how they make maple syrup and cheese. The six children he talked to lived in two families where both parents were women. Uh-oh. The adults are very much in the background and neither "lesbian" nor "gay" is spoken, but Spellings killed the episode and disinvited Buster's executive producer, Carol Greenwald, from speaking at a conference on children's television. And demanded that the money spent on "Sugartime!" be returned.
That was then, a time when the Bush administration had the popularity and clout to be as vindictive as it wanted to be, and, brother, did it want to be. This is now with not only Bush's popularity at an all-time low but a time when her own department is suffering the Reading First and student loan scandals. But in her op-ed in the Washington Post on June 9 [see below], Spellings showed signs that maybe the Bushies are now aware that they don't create reality after all (in an October 17, 2004 New York Times Magazine article, a Bush staffer actually argued that they did). The signs are faint and, as usual, Spellings litters the landscape with fractured images and mixed metaphors and other language outrages, but I think the signs are there.
First, Spellings referred to the "tough NAEP standards." To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that any administration official has used any modifier in front of "NAEP standards." Let's hope it's a first step towards saying "unrealistically tough NAEP standards" or "outrageously tough NAEP standards." That's what they are as indicated in my blog "A test everyone will fail" last month.
Second, she wrote, "According to NAEP, more reading progress was made by 9-year-olds from 1999 to 2004 than in the previous 28 years combined." In her many, many previous repetitions of this mantra, she had always said "In the last five years," implying a more current time frame than 1999-2004. As I have noted before, NCLB became law only in 2002. All of the gain could have happened on Clinton's watch. We can't tell -- these are NAEP trend data only framed every so often. No data were gathered in 2000, 2001, 2002 or 2003. The implementation of NCLB during the 2002-2003 school year can charitably be described as "chaotic." The 2004 NAEP data were gathered in February. That means that NCLB only had the fall of 2003 to work its miracles.
But, after these small signs of candor, Spellings loped off to double-think land. Her article announced her opposition to national standards. Her first argument was that "[National Standards] goes against more than two centuries of American educational tradition. Under the Constitution, states and localities have the primary leadership role in public education. They design the curriculum and pay 90 percent of the bills. Neighborhood schools deserve neighborhood leadership, not dictates from bureaucrats thousands of miles away."
It always makes me a bit dizzy when a bureaucrat in Washington rails against bureaucrats in Washington. And this from an architect of and Chief Flagellator for the largest federal intrusion into this state and local function in the nation's history. Takes one's breath away.
She also revealed a new dictate from The Decider: "The president's plan to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act calls on states to post their scores side-by-side with the NAEP results." This is a great way to destroy NAEP. NAEP's integrity rests largely on the fact that people don't pay much attention to it. Attach high-stakes to it and it will lose whatever utility and validity it has.
Anyone interested in reading more about the Maggie and Buster saga can do so at www.america-tomorrow.com/bracey/EDDRA. Go to the "Rotten Apples in Education Awards 2005." Spellings received the "Jimmy Carter Amphibious Killer Rabbit" award. The U. S. Department of Education has just published its Condition of Education 2007. Perusal of the Rotten Apples over the last three years will give you a good idea of the condition of the U. S. Department of Education.
A National Test We Don't Need
By Margaret Spellings
The Washington Post, June 9, 2007
A quiet revolution of accountability is sweeping public education. We're measuring students annually, breaking down scores by student group, and insisting that all children be taught to achieve at grade level or better.
A new study by the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy, revealing improved student performance and a narrowing achievement gap across most of the country, shows that we're on the right track.
But while test scores are up, has the academic bar been raised? An Education Department report released this week found that state standards for reading and math assessments were generally lower than those of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP, also known as the Nation's Report Card). In most cases, the knowledge required to reach the "proficient" level on state tests was comparable to the "basic" level on NAEP. Other studies have echoed these findings.
This may fuel a Beltway-based movement for "national standards" and a national test created and mandated by the federal government. Such a move would be unprecedented and unwise.
National standards are not synonymous with higher standards -- in fact, they'd threaten to lower the academic bar. And they would do little to address the persistent achievement gap.
Why do I believe this approach is wrong?
First, it goes against more than two centuries of American educational tradition. Under the Constitution, states and localities have the primary leadership role in public education. They design the curriculum and pay 90 percent of the bills. Neighborhood schools deserve neighborhood leadership, not dictates from bureaucrats thousands of miles away.
The proper role of the Education Department is in helping states, districts and schools collect data to drive good decision making. Information is our stock in trade. President Teddy Roosevelt understood this when he called on the federal government to provide "the fullest, most accurate [and] most helpful information" about the "best educational systems."
States that have shown true leadership, such as Arkansas and Massachusetts, can inspire others to act.
Second, the debate over national standards would become an exercise in lowest-common-denominator politics. We've seen it before, most recently during the divisive fight over national history standards in the 1990s.
The landmark 1983 report " A Nation at Risk" called for "standardized tests of achievement . . . as part of a nationwide (but not federal) system of state and local standardized tests" to stem the rising tide of mediocrity in our schools.
Rather than top-down mandates, we are encouraging a race to the top.
Five years ago, many states did not regularly measure their students' performance against the tough NAEP standards. Today, all 50 do. The president's plan to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act calls on states to post their scores side-by-side with the NAEP results. This would increase transparency and drive up the political will to raise state standards.
We are already seeing heartening signs of change. States are aligning high school coursework with college and employer expectations. Many have adopted a core curriculum of four years of English and three years each of math and science. Recently, nine states announced a common Algebra II assessment, the largest such effort ever undertaken.
In addition, all 50 governors have agreed to adopt a common measure of graduation rates to help solve the dropout crisis. "There is more momentum in the states now than at any time since . . . the release of 'A Nation at Risk,' " reports Achieve Inc., an alliance of governors and business leaders dedicated to high standards.
Our approach is working for students. According to NAEP, more reading progress was made by 9-year-olds from 1999 to 2004 than in the previous 28 years combined. Math scores have reached record highs across the board. History scores improved in all three grade levels tested -- fourth, eighth and 12th. And the number of students taking an Advanced Placement exam in high school has risen 39 percent since 2000.
President Bush wants to build on this progress. His plan would train more teachers to lead advanced math and science classes. It would offer incentives for the best teachers to work in the most challenging environments. It would also provide more choices and options, such as intensive tutoring and scholarships, to help children in underperforming schools -- measures opposed by the big teachers unions.
Accountability can light the way forward. But only higher standards can take us there. We've knocked down the blackboard wall that once stood between schools and parents. Now we must work with Congress and the states to share and replicate best practices, not scrap them for an untested system.
Our goal is a public education system that is transparent and responsive to the needs of parents and children -- not to the whims of Washington.
The writer is the secretary of education.
Gerald Bracey commenting on Margaret Spellings
Huffington Post and Washington Post
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES