Margaret Spellings, former U.S. Education Secretary during George W. Bush’s second term, still has strong feelings about the No Child Left Behind Act that will forever be associated with the Bush administration. Spellings, who now runs her own public policy and strategic consulting firm, has been writing and speaking about her concerns over President Barack Obama’s “blueprint” for reauthorizing and overhauling the education law, known more commonly these days by its original name, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA). She spoke with Liz Willen of The Hechinger Report about her latest efforts to preserve the law and shared her thoughts on the current administration’s education initiatives. The following are excerpts from their conversation.
Hechinger Report: U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan has called the iconic “No Child Left Behind” Act that was a signature of the Bush administration a “toxic brand,” and you have agreed. As the law comes up for reauthorization, what aspects of it do you feel should be preserved and why? And what are the most important lessons the U.S. education system has learned from it?
Spellings: The fact that it is a toxic brand is not an accident. Teachers’ unions spent a lot of time and money sullying the brand. Really, NCLB as a brand actually describes the policy. The Obama blueprint [for reauthorization] leaves a lot of children behind and they ought to change the name. They are going to double-down on the lowest-performing schools and that’s fine, but they are letting up to 90 percent of them escape the net of accountability. Today, every one of the schools feels its [NCLB’s] enduring legacy.
Hechinger Report: What should be preserved?
Spellings: Annual assessments and disaggregated data, having a deadline and a goal for grade-level achievement. Having that midpoint correction and deadline is important, and having consequences is important. My other main beef is they have killed off tutoring and public school choice options, so when you fail, unless you are horrifyingly low-performing, then really nothing happens to you. There are no consequences, and I think that’s terrible. … Parents want their kids on grade-level and we have given them 12 years, and we are not there yet. Grade-level standards are low, and now we have to change that as a goal and a deadline? The idea that we have college-level kids not ready to get on grade-level is mythical … NCLB and the notion of transparency and accountability have been huge game-changers. If you walked out your office building, people would know what NCLB is … My goal is to preserve elements of it. A bad law is much worse than the current law. This law is good and strong, and there is no particular urgency to remove the accountability provision. Are there things that ought to be changed and fixed? Heck yeah. Is there too much testing? What does that mean? Are we not going to have annual assessments? How do you tie teacher performance without measurement? These are red herrings. For the most part, we ought to stay the course.
Hechinger Report: You’ve been out working hard to publicize your views about what needs to be preserved and changed in the law, but what happens if it is not reauthorized this year?
Spellings: What happens? We keep a good strong law on the books – ’til 2014. The only reason we didn’t do a growth model was we didn’t have annual assessments, and now 15-20 states are doing it because they can … there are some things that can be changed, but there are rules on the book that set the table for what a new reauthorization would look like. The law will carry forward until it is reauthorized. It becomes more moot if we pass 2014. I don’t think reauthorization will happen this year. Bush campaigned on it [NCLB] nationally and he brought reluctant suitors around. He had to bring a lot of people around, and the economy was good and it was an area of strength. [Senator Ted] Kennedy wanted to get it done and there was a lot of planetary alignment. He began [the law] within the honeymoon period, in a great economy before 9/11. And we got it done but it took a full year, even with all that good will. With Obama, there is no bill draft, and we are pushing June in a political year with no legislative team willing to raise their hands.
Hechinger Report: It’s been a fascinating time for education since you left office, with President Barack Obama and U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan outlining unprecedented federal involvement and support in exchange for the reforms outlined in the Race to the Top competition, like common core assessments. Do you think linking federal money to specific reforms will be successful?
Spellings: It’s too soon to tell, in part probably because one of the things they need to calibrate is the very fine line between incentives and the command-and-control directive. When they try to tie it [education reform] to Title 1 funds, there is some unease in the field about how far they are driving policy. We did some of this with Reading First [a program that provided formula grants to states and districts] … but that was miniscule compared with what they [the Obama administration] are trying to do. I do think people are starting to think there is a little too much command and control. Yes, it’s tied to money, but some people might think there is a little coercion. So putting laws on the book is the first step, but what happens when they [states] don’t get the [Race to the Top] money? Will they go ahead and start charter schools, or let the laws languish? If they don’t get the money, will there be pressure to change? While he [Arne Duncan] was wildly popular and had a great year driving the policy debate and urging legislators to move forward … what happens when lots [of states] don’t get the [Race to the Top] money? I would have segmented the resources out … you’d have more winners that way. If he said, “Let’s have the teacher incentive pot competition,” some states would say “Count us in,” some would say, “We want to try.” I bet fewer than half will get it ultimately … a lot of people who spent all this state legislative [effort] to be eligible for the funds will be mightily irritated.