TOPICS > Education

Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings

April 7, 2005 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Now a newsmaker interview with the secretary of education, Margaret Spellings. Today she announced changes to the No Child Left Behind law. Preferential treatment will be given to states that demonstrate a commitment to raising student achievement levels. She joins us now to talk about that, among other issues.

Welcome, Madam Secretary.

MARGARET SPELLINGS: Thank you, Ray.

RAY SUAREZ: What do the changes that you announced today require of the states?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: Well, it basically said three things. It said that we’re going to respect the bright line principles of the No Child Left Behind law which require annual assessment and reporting student data by sub group, by student achievement. And we’re going to look at results. The first question we’re going to ask every state is: how are the kids doing, are you closing the achievement gap. And if they’re on track, having met both of those two conditions, then we’re going to take a more outcome-oriented approach, a less bureaucratic approach with them, so long as they are reaching the goal of closing the achievement gap.

RAY SUAREZ: You’ve called these changes in various announcements a common sense approach to No Child Left Behind.

Were these changes in part made in response to things that you were hearing from the states about how the law was working as it rolled out and different parts took effect?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: Well, certainly in part, that is one factor. I have worked at the state level, the federal level, and the local level, and I understand different people’s vantage points. This law is now three years old. We’ve learned some things since that law has passed. And we can refine and learn from our experience; we can learn from the research and inform this law as we move forward in the implementation.

RAY SUAREZ: One interesting passage talked about figuring out whether states were serious about reform, committed to reform. Aren’t those sort of subjective analyses? How do you measure whether one state is and decide another one isn’t?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: Well, that’s what’s so important about the core principles. There’s nothing objective about whether states have annual assessment of every child in grades 3 through 8 in reading and math in place, either you do or out don’t, and whether you’re reporting that data to parents and families and policy makers, by student groups so that we can focus on the needs of particular children who have so long been ignored by our system.

So those are very objective standards and are very bright lines, as I call them, that we can evaluate at the Department of Education.

RAY SUAREZ: One of the features of the new reforms is to allow children who have learning problems to be assessed in a different way, or at least a portion of them. And over the years, educational activists have complained loud and long about the clumping of black and brown children especially in learning disabled categories, in special ed categories.

Might this open the door to a kind of gaming of the numbers, putting your weakest students in those categories so they can be tested by a different standard?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: Actually, Ray, quite the contrary. This additional flexibility is based on our sound science, and is based on what practitioners tell us are the number of kids who actually need much more intensive instruction, more, a different kind of assessment, and a different approach in order to meet their needs. For too long, actually, we have either said you’re this or that.

This recognizes that not all special education children are created equal, and they’re going to need more time, they’re going to need different and more intensive and extensive instruction, and they’re going to need more and better prepared teachers that can help meet their needs. And this is a more sophisticated approach to meeting those kids’ needs that we’ve ever had.

We at the Department of Education are going to provide technical assistance; I’ve committed $14 million to show states how they might meet this more sophisticated approach. We have some pioneers, some leaders around the country, in Massachusetts and Kansas to name a couple, that are doing some of the best work. And I want to share that around the country.

RAY SUAREZ: Would it make it easier, would the downstream effect be to make it easier for some districts to attain the targets set up by No Child Left Behind?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: What this new regulation will provide for states who are committed to providing additional instruction, teacher training and much more sophisticated assessments, it’s going to make it easier for them to serve kids better.

The requirements that those kids still be included in the accountability system and still be proficient by 2013-14, as I said in the core principles, the bright lines of this law, will still be in place. This just provides a practical way for them to meet those goals.

RAY SUAREZ: States have been complaining throughout the No Child Left Behind time period about the fact that they’ve had to come up with a lot of tasks and haven’t always had all the money from the federal government that they would need to develop those new standards and new tests.

Does this set of regulations announced today carry with it some money to help make those new tests for let’s say learning disabled children?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: That’s why the Department has pledged $14 million to gather the best practices among the states and to better assess and better measure these kids.

But the General Accountability Office has found that No Child Left Behind and the requirements as it relates to the additional assessments that states must do are very adequately funded and that has been found both within the government and by sources and studies and experts from outside the government as well.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, GAO notwithstanding, Connecticut I think is getting ready to test just that proposition. They want to take your Department to court and are talking about having other states join them. And they gave as an example the fact that you’ve laid on them about $112 million worth of requirements for which you funded about $70 million. Is that a fair description of what’s happened?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: No. I think not.

In Connecticut, my understanding, although I haven’t seen the actual litigation, is that they want to measure every other year and not provide annual assessment as is required in the statute.

And that law passed more than three years ago, we have been sending them resources to implement those annual assessment provisions since, and here they are on the eve of implementation telling us that they can’t do it. I think it’s regrettable, frankly, when the achievement gap between African-American and Anglo kids in Connecticut is quite large. And I think it’s unfortunate for those families and those students that they are trying to find a loophole to get out of the law as opposed to attending to the needs of those kids.

RAY SUAREZ: Well, there are gaps, and since we’re on Connecticut, I guess we can use it as an example, but there’s also very high degrees of residential segregation, places where the schools are 100 percent white and 100 percent black, very high concentrations in certain places of great wealth, very high concentrations of other places of poverty. What are the tests really tell you that you didn’t already know about a place like Connecticut?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: They tell us who needs help, they tell us who has been left behind, they tell us precisely and specifically in a good assessment system what kind of help is needed. They tell us what kind of teachers and what kind of teacher training is needed. And you know, I think it’s un-American — I would call it — for us to take the attitude that African-American children in Connecticut living in inner cities are not going to be able to compete, are not going to be prepared to compete in this world and are not going to be educated to high levels. That’s the notion, the soft bigotry of low expectations, as the president calls it, that No Child Left Behind rejects.

RAY SUAREZ: There have been complaints from some of the biggest metropolitan area school districts that they’re not getting enough credit for the progress that they are making that still falls shy of the mark.

The officer in charge of implementing No Child Left Behind in Chicago, for instance complained to a reporter it assumes you’re going to hit the same benchmark at the same time as everyone else, regardless of where you started. And we started a lot farther back than most people.

MARGARET SPELLINGS: I recognize the great work that some of our urban districts are doing, in fact I cited them in my remarks today. They are blazing the trail, they’re the folks that are not in denial; they are working hard to close the achievement gap and are seeing some of the best progress.

But I would say that no small part of that is due to No Child Left Behind, to this annual measurement, to paying attention to every child, every year, and to prescribing a cure, an instructional cure if you will, so that we can get kids on grade level by 2013-14, as the law requires.

RAY SUAREZ: And yet some of those individual schools that are making the kind of strides our talking about are still classed after two or three years as failing schools, rather than schools that are moving ahead.

MARGARET SPELLINGS: The word “failing” never appears in No Child Left Behind. What the law describes is schools that need improvement.

And I think that we in America need to understand that many schools need improvement, and particularly with respect to how they’re serving minority children. And it just, it highlights and puts them on notice that those are the particular needs at that school that must be attended to. And I think that’s righteous, I think that’s what parents want to know. They want to know what’s going right in the school, and what needs improvement, and that’s what this law does.

RAY SUAREZ: On quite another topic that we haven’t had a chance to talk to you about until now, the contretemps over Buster and the cartoon; this involved you complaining to PBS about an episode of Buster’s Postcards that involved a lesbian couple in Vermont.

Looking back on how that all rolled out, are you confident that your Department in asking PBS not to run it handled it the right way?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: I know that what the Congress asked the Department of Education to do was to work on early reading and early numeracy, and developmental skills for young children, in this case six- to eight-year-old children for this programming.

And I believe that public broadcasting has an important trust with the American people, it’s an intimate medium of television, and that we can do reading and language development for young children without getting into human sexuality. I think parents — I’m a mother of two school-aged children mysel — want to introduce those concepts in their own time, in their own way. And I think we owe them that opportunity.

RAY SUAREZ: Did you take the risk, of leaving the impression that it’s government policy that the hundreds of thousands of children being raised in homes like the one featured in the Buster episode are other than a regular family, other than a desirable family, other than a normal family?

MARGARET SPELLINGS: Well, I regret if that’s what’s been taken away from this discussion. All I know what is the Congress has asked the Department to do, what federal tax dollars are being supported to develop this programming for young children around early reading and around — for six- to eight-year-old children, and that’s what’s been asked of this Department and that’s what we’ll continue to do.

RAY SUAREZ: Secretary Spellings, thanks for being with us.

MARGARET SPELLINGS: Thank you, Ray, great.