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NCLB Outrages

Secretary Spellings Highlights No Child Left Behind Reauthorization in Remarks to Members of the Business Coalition for Student Achievement

"It's the euphemisms that kill you in this business."
--Congressman George Miller, who cloaks all his remarks about NCLB in euphemism.

September 5, 2007 Contact: Samara Yudof
Casey Ruberg
(202) 401-1576

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings today delivered remarks on No Child Left Behind to members of the Business Coalition for Student Achievement in Washington, D.C. In No Child Left Behind: Moving Forward, Spellings highlighted how the No Child Left Behind Act is working to raise student achievement and accountability in America's public schools and discussed the need for Congress to strengthen and reauthorize it this year. Following are her prepared remarks.

Thank you Art Ryan, Chairman Miller and Representative McKeon, and to all of you educators, policymakers, business leaders, civil rights leaders, and parents for joining us today. Education is an issue that brings together a unique alliance of people who might not ordinarily work together. I appreciate the fact that you've joined this compact for economic progress.

In honor of back-to-school season, I'd like to start with a story. You might know it—it's called Clifford the Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell.

Here goes: "I'm Emily Elizabeth, and I have a dog. My dog is a big red dog."

My question to you is, do you think it's a reasonable goal for your 8- or 9-year-old child to be able to read this book and others like it?

I certainly think so, and I bet most people agree. I've yet to meet a parent who didn't want their child learning on grade level. And thanks to No Child Left Behind, for the first time, families have a right to expect that their child will be performing at or above grade level—by 2014.

That's 7 years from now—plenty of time, especially since we set this goal in January 2002. We're talking about grade-level work. Not nuclear physics—just fundamental, grade-level work. For example, Indiana's standards say that by the end of the third grade, students should "understand the basic features of words" and "apply this knowledge to achieve fluent... reading."

In other words, at bare minimum, your third grader should be able to read Clifford or Curious George or Paddington Bear.

If somebody told me I had to wait until 2014 to have my daughter learning on grade level, I'd ask why not now? And I can't think of a single reason why poor or minority parents would feel otherwise.

Yet all across America, less than half of African American and Hispanic fourth graders have basic reading skills as defined by the Nation's Report Card. That's more than 700,000 children who can barely read! So it's really no surprise that half of our minority students don't graduate from high school on time.

If that's not cause for anxiety, concern, and action, I don't know what is. But as Bill Gates has told me, if the speedometer says you're going too slow, you don't really need a new speedometer. You need to speed up.

So I find it amazing that we're actually debating whether or not it's reasonable to give every child the bare-minimum skills they need to participate in our democracy and our economy.

Instead of making excuses or blaming the law or talking about the speedometer, we should be supporting kids and teachers. To me, that means two things. First, we must target funding and support to the schools that need help the most. And second, we must refuse to make any changes that would make us less accountable for educating every child to grade-level standards in reading and math—the gateway subjects for all other learning.

First, helping schools improve. NCLB isn't perfect. We passed the best law we could in 2001. At that time, only about half of states had annual assessments, only a handful were disaggregating data, and very few had high-quality tests for English language learners and children with disabilities.

Since this act became law, nearly 500,000 more students have learned to do basic math. More than 500,000 others are getting free tutoring that was never before available. And the parents of 50 million students have more information, more control, better teachers, and more choices when it comes to their children's education.

The latest results show more than 70 percent of schools met annual progress goals last year. In other words, they're doing it!

Do we still have room for improvement? Absolutely. Can we do a better job of challenging kids with advanced math, science, and rigor? Can we do a better job of getting kids and schools extra help to improve? Can we make accountability, assessment, and measurement systems far more effective and more sophisticated?

Absolutely. And we can and will do more. My department is already partnering with more than half of the states to make the law more flexible and workable—including finding better ways to measure student progress and help more kids get tutoring.

In January, the President released a plan to strengthen NCLB by incorporating all of these improvements and more. I appreciate the fact that our friends in the Congress share many of the same goals and have heard the same issues raised across the country. I look forward to working with them to reauthorize the law this year so that educators have the flexibility and resources they need to be more innovative and more effective.

At the same time, we must not make the law so "flexible" that it loses its power or its urgency.

We all know that from AYP to n-size, there's a lot of alphabet soup in education policy. These terms are tools and levers that can be used to support student learning or to obscure and excuse very serious problems. The easiest way to rewrite history or ignore reality is to cover up what's really going on. We can't afford to pretend that a child who can draw a triangle is a child who can do geometry or that a child who tells great stories is a child who can read great works of literature.

Everybody knows that the more complicated the system, the easier it is to manipulate or obfuscate or confuse the bottom line. The law already includes reasonable accommodations for children with disabilities, those learning English, and those who start a new school in the middle of the year. But to move from reasonable accommodations to gigantic loopholes is a step in the wrong direction.

That's why I'm counting on you to stand up against policies that say some kids just can't learn or that some kids count more than others or that if some kids are improving, it's OK to let others fall behind. As I've said before, for the vast majority of students, grade-level learning is not too much to ask.

The beauty of NCLB is that it provides straightforward, unvarnished information on how students are doing. Parents want to know if their child is learning on grade level. I realize this can be a difficult and profound question. That's all the more reason that the last thing parents need is more complication and more Washington wonkery.

Fortunately, families have some leverage. If we don't reauthorize NCLB this year, the law does not go away. But it does stay in place likely without the added resources and flexibility that will help all our students improve.

So going forward, if a policy results in more kids getting more help and more kids performing at or above grade level, I'm for it. If it obscures or mitigates against our responsibility to educate every single child, I'm not.

Let me repeat: if it obscures or mitigates against our responsibility to educate every single child, I'm against it.

When I see proposals that would result in roughly 250,000 fewer children getting free tutoring, I wonder, does that mean they suddenly don't need help? Doubtful.

One proposed change would result in a 75 percent reduction in the number of Utah schools that need improvement. In my home state of Texas, the official number of struggling schools would drop by a third overnight. Does that mean those schools would get better overnight? I don't think so. At a time when half of minority students fail to graduate high school, I think it's reasonable to say we need to focus on improving more schools, not fewer.

When I was in Colorado a few weeks ago, I met Lawrence Hernandez, who is the founder and principal of a tremendous school called Cesar Chavez Academy. Years ago, when he was earning his doctorate, he tried to research the 1980 high school dropout rate for Pueblo—but no such data existed.

Did that mean no kids were dropping out? No. In fact, Colorado's dropout crisis costs the state more than 3 billion dollars every year in lost earning potential.

As Lawrence says, "we have been cheating... families for years by telling them everything is fine. And it's not." We all know Lawrence is right.

Fortunately, we're seeing hopeful signs. For example, take the 5 and half million kids in our country who are learning English as a second language. Between 2000 and 2005, their fourth grade reading scores jumped an unprecedented 20 points. That's 43,000 more kids with basic reading skills—thanks to the hard work of a whole lot of teachers.

These children are smart and capable, and they're our fastest-growing student population. And by the way, 2 out of 3 of them were born here. They're United States citizens. Yet I've seen proposals that would enable some of them to go from the third grade until the tenth grade before ever being tested in English.

That's unacceptable. As my friend Chairman George Miller has said, "You either have a tight system or a loose system, which works really harshly against poor and minority students... It's the euphemisms that kill you in this business."

And as my friend Representative McKeon has said, "After decades of failed attempts at real education reform, costing us hundreds of billions of taxpayer dollars with little to show for it, we're finally making real progress."

Gentlemen, I couldn't agree more. I know we have a tough job ahead and that policymaking can be a balancing act sometimes. But we've come too far to turn back the clock, or turn our backs on tens of millions of students. Instead, I look forward to working with you to fulfill the promise we made 5 years ago so that not only do we leave no child behind—we make sure every child is moving forward.

Thank you. I would be happy to answer your questions.

— Press Release
U. S. Department of Education


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