Outgoing Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings on her years in D.C.
Steven Hicks, a kindergarten teacher at the Accelerated School in South Los Angeles, is spending a year in Washington at the Department of Education. He interviewed outgoing Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who was relaxed and quite talkative about her tenure as head of the department. And she had some advice for her successor, Arne Duncan, too.
Steven Hicks: First, during your time here what were some of your personal triumphs and what were some of the challenges?
Margaret Spellings: Well, I’ll start with the challenges. I really think, and I know you’ve probably seen this yourself, I really worry about the expectations our country does or does not have for kids, especially disadvantaged kids. There’s this idea that with No Child Left Behind, it’s somehow impossible to get kids to read. What, are they crazy? And frankly I feel sad, and you see it in the newspaper when you hear teachers and educators -- administrators, plenty of them -- who basically say, “We can’t do that.” I mean it’s implied, it’s inferred. Isn’t it ridiculous that now that you know all the skunkworks? I mean the kids that are left in the accountability system ought to be the kids we’re accountable for after we’ve factored out 2%, English-language transitioners, academic year definitions, and sample size. And this idea that somehow it’s impossible to have these kids reading on grade level. We all know the bar’s usually pretty low and the proficiency standard’s pretty low. So this idea that we’ve asked people to play Paderewski or something is just not the case, and it’s a kind of defeatist attitude. [Paderewski is the Polish pianist whose name is synonymous with virtuosity]. I’m worried that we haven’t done enough to kind of focus on that, challenge it, to convince the American people of what’s at stake if we under-educate our kids. And we’ve been doing it for a long time. I mean, we’re in the knowledge economy and we’re an ever more diverse country. We just have to do this work. It’s the thing that I think we could have done better, and I hope I’ll continue to be part of. It’s just setting my hair on fire that we’ve got to do this. And yes, I mean obviously the economy, healthcare, the war, all these other issues are critically important.
SH: But those could just be excuses, right?
MS: Well, yeah, it’s like when are we going to get to educating kids? So I worry about that. But as far as the triumphs, this is not mine solely, but I’m certainly a part of it. I mean No Child Left Behind has changed the conversation, just as simple as that. Whether you love it or whether you hate it, it is a game-changer. We’re looking at the needs of poor, minority and special-needs kids as we never have before. It’s a household name. You may have heard me tell this story. I was watching “King of the Hill” the other day. Do you know that show? Anyway the whole show was about Bobby Left Behind.
SH: This year, you started the Teaching Ambassador Fellowship Program, which I’m a part of. Why do you think it’s important to have this program at the U.S. Department of Education?
MS: Teachers can learn a lot about policymaking that they don’t have a full understanding of when they’re in their classrooms trying to educate kids every day. Sometimes teachers are kind of victimized by, oh that’s because of so and so. It’s kind of the blame game, and by the time it trickles down to the teacher, they’re like, “What the hell are they thinking up there?” So I think we need that cross-pollination. I think also for us. And most importantly, we make a lot better policy when we know how it’s going to play in Peoria. Don’t you think?
SH: I do. All I would hear as a teacher in Los Angeles were the negative aspects of No Child Left Behind. I didn’t really understand the four pillars and how it was also about parent involvement and giving more information to parents. Basically it was trickled down as “you don’t get to have as much recess” and “all you can do is math and reading.”
MS: And teach to the test. I’m going to turn this around. What advice do you have for how we change that? Because no legislative body has ever passed a perfect law. Everybody’s all ears. I mean, Arne Duncan’s all ears. If the alternative is no measurement, we’ve tried that for 40 years. I mean, what advice would you have for Arne Duncan about where we go next?
SH: I think we need to do a better job of publicizing the tenets of the No Child Left Behind Act and conveying it to teachers. I think when we work toward the reauthorization, there needs to be a very public, visible presence of teachers.
SH: You mentioned Arne Duncan. He’s going to be coming in soon, filling your shoes so to speak.
MS: I told him he could be the second best secretary of education.
SH: That’s good. Well, I think you’ve set the bar high. What advice are you going to give him or have you already given him?
MS: You know we have worked together very, very well for the last four-plus years. I got to know him when I was over at the White House. The president is fond of [Chicago] Mayor [Richard M.] Daley and of course they have the whole mayoral control deal. We’ve done pilot programs out there with the Teacher Incentive Fund Grants, Supplemental Service district-in-need-of-improvement provider thing. We’ve done a lot together and I admire him as an educator and fellow reformer. So yeah, I’ve given him some advice about a variety of things, but mainly kind of stay clear and strong about your priorities -- kind of just good management stuff -- and to your point about the communications stuff. I mean we end up litigating these kind of, you know, Greek tragedy kind of issues: teaching to the test, too much testing, all the usual blah blah while Rome is burning. And we’re not having the right conversations, the serious conversations, about how we’re going to do it. And so I think the communication piece, the consensus piece, the buy-in, that moral imperative — whatever you want to call it — is a big part of this. And I hope that I’ll be part of it externally too.
SH: Are you going to work with your friend, Condoleezza Rice, on this international education piece?
MS: She’s going to be involved in K-12 education. She was before. She’s an educator. She’s a provost at Stanford. She started a whole mentoring thing when she was in Palo Alto. She wants to be part of our mighty cause. We say, “Great! Fantastic!” And she has a different flavor on it, what it means diplomatically and internationally. She thinks that if we don’t educate our kids adequately, then we turn inward and we isolate and we become afraid of the rest of the world. And we resist diversity and other points of view. So she thinks from a strategic world point of view that education is essential to our national security. But anyway, yeah, I’m going to continue to be involved in the movement, I suspect as one of many in the army. I’m going to stick around here because I have a daughter in high school. I alternate between exhilaration and terror because this is, as you know, the mother ship. I just feel like the cord’s being cut, and I’m floating around in outer space. I’ll probably do some consulting, speaking and some milling about, and finding out what life after public service looks like.
SH: So we haven’t seen the last of Margaret Spellings.
MS: Well, I hope not.
Photo: Paul Wood / U.S. Department of Education