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The School of Spellings

The School of Spellings

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings talks about her push for a major overhaul of higher education.

Tough, passionate and perhaps “terrifying,” U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings has been described in many ways during her 14 years working in education for former Texas governor and current U.S. President George W. Bush.

Now, higher education officials will learn for themselves what all the talk has been about. In her final two years as Education Secretary, Spellings is shifting her focus from K-12 to colleges and universities. Much like No Child Left Behind’s unprecedented scale, Spellings is pushing for a major overhaul of financing, assessment, accessibility and perhaps even coursework in higher education. 

In an interview with Diverse’s Christina Asquith, Spellings talks about bringing her “business-style accountability” to colleges and universities.

Margaret Spellings

Born in Michigan, raised in Houston

Résumé: Education Reform Commission for Texas Gov. William P. Clements, 1988; Lobbyist, Texas Association of School Boards, 1988-1994; Senior advisor to Gov. George W. Bush, 1995-2000; Assistant to President George W. Bush for Domestic Policy, 2001-2004

Education: B.A., Political Science, University of Houston

DI: A New York Times article last year called you “terrifying” because of the forcefulness with which you pushed No Child Left Behind. Do you take that as a compliment or an insult?

MS: Moi? (laughs) Oh, it’s a compliment. Are you kidding? Absolutely. Well, I went to the “George W. Bush school of public policy management,” which says, “when there are too many goals, there are no goals.” 

We have to have priorities and do a few things and do them well. We are very vigorous and righteous, if I may say so, in this national imperative of educating every person. And now we are paying attention to higher education. It’s very critical. It’s gone from being a ‘nice to have’ to an absolute ‘must have’ if you’re going to be employed in this flat world.

DI: You’ve been U.S. Secretary of Education since January 2005. Where are we now and where are we going with No Child Left Behind?

MS: I’ve been very clear in what the non-negotiables are in No Child Left Behind: annual assessments, disaggregated data, every kid up to grade level by 2014. But having worked on school boards and for two governors, I understand that this has to work in the real world and we have to acknowledge that this isn’t a one-size-fits-all kind of country. I’m all about results over process.

In fact, I was just meeting with 100 Black Men. They’re very important leaders, and I want to understand what’s working and what isn’t. If it makes sense to get tutoring help for kids before they leave, then let’s give that a whirl.

DI: No Child Left Behind requires a trained, certified teacher in every classroom, but in recent years, school districts have been given extensions and exceptions in meeting this goal. Is that what you are referring to? 

MS: Yes, that sort of thing. What is enhancing student achievement? This whole thing I hear about is people wanting to get credit for progress they’re making instead of being held to an absolute standard. And I’m allowing North Carolina and Tennessee to experiment with the value-added approach. But that kind of system only applies to people who have a rich assessment base and have been doing annual measurements and can track cohorts of kids, so we can compare you to yourself in the third, fourth and fifth grade as opposed to a snapshot of the third-graders this year and a snapshot of the third-graders next year. I’m trying to be sensible and reasonable. 

DI: Still, here in Washington and elsewhere, there is the sense that inner-city schools are still underserved, under-funded and failing.

MS: Some are, and some are not. It’s as simple as that. There are some islands of excellence, but also there are those that are a cause for concern. Half of our minority students don’t get out of high school on time. It’s shocking. It’s outrageous in the United States of America, and I say that as a parent of a high school student. Do I want one of my two children in that high school? Heck no. Some schools do an excellent job, and some have a long way to go and that’s why we need to start talking about high schools. 

DI: You called No Child Left Behind “Ivory soap — 99 percent pure.”

MS: Oh, I rue the day I said that! (laughs) But I do believe that. I’ve been involved in public policy for a long time, and we’ve never passed a perfect bill yet. This is an organic process. We’re learning and improving all the time and have come a long way in five years. In my temporary home state of Virginia, five years ago they tested three times in three grades. I literally walked into an elementary school when I was shopping for public schools and said, “How are your Hispanic kids doing?” And they said, “I have no idea.” Well, now they know. We have annual assessment. We disaggregate data. We know how the schools are doing. We’ve come a long way and learned a lot. We need to do a better job of providing supplemental service options to families. We need to talk about highly effective teachers. How are we allocating our most effective personnel? What’s the effect of personnel on student achievement? We’ve done a lot of work on reading – it’s the heart of No Child Left Behind – but we haven’t paid enough attention to math. We’re learning all the time.

DI: In the summer of 2005, you formed a 19-member Commission on the Future of Higher Education, which made its recommendations last month. Are you planning to take No Child Left Behind into the colleges?

MS: No, it’s a totally different enterprise. I do believe that, with one-third of higher education investment coming from the federal government, it’s right for me as the Secretary of Education and a parent of a college-age child and a taxpayer to know what the heck we’re getting for it. How’s it going out there? There’s a new report out from The Center for Policy on Higher Education that says our completion rates are not good and we are having a hard time getting kids out of higher education in America. We spend $80 billion in financial aid out of this department, and we just sort of hope for the best. We have accountability in this government for Head Start children, welfare mothers and elementary school children, but we ask no questions about what’s going on in higher education.

DI: In a speech you gave announcing this commission, you expressed interest in introducing some sort of national assessment testing in higher education.

MS: I’m not thinking about that. There is some leadership in the higher education community on this issue. I think more and more people are going to ask, when you pay $20,000 or $40,000, whatever it is, what is the value added to kids, and what are their prospects for employment or for continued higher ed? I think there’s a lot of discussion. This is doable and these are things that big state systems or universities themselves ought to be evidencing to their customers: that they are adding value. You can go to any bookstore in America and see a book on how to purchase cars, how to pick restaurants and very little on higher education.

DI: Is your intention to open up a dialogue on this, or are you considering implementing some sort of actual rubric? What, specifically, should college presidents expect from your office in coming years? 

MS: Clearly, we need more national discussion and national understanding because the policy implications are enormous for parents, students, policy-makers, the U.S. Congress, the K-12 system, etc. There’s a lot of room for improvement. People are asking questions about accessibility, affordability and value. This is right and righteous. University presidents need to be able to answer those questions for the public, whether their public is the state legislature or moms and dads trying to decide if they need to mortgage their entire future for this education. They need to be able to give answers for this very important consumer good, which is also a public good.

DI: Are there any diversity initiatives in your plans?

MS: To the extent that the people underserved in higher education and K-12 are mostly people of color, then yes.

We have a lack of articulation and understanding between the expectations in high school and readiness for college. We see a lot of rationing of opportunity in coursework. We’ll talk a lot about need-based instead of merit-based financial aid. That obviously affects low-income families. Transparency, a lack of understanding of financial aid process, debt burden, the usability of the system all of the things the commission recommended are more acutely felt and understood by minorities.

DI: Will Pell Grants be increased?

MS: The president has been calling for an increase in Pell grants, and that will be one of the commission’s recommendations. They’ve been increasing and should increase more.

DI: You have said that you’re not advocating a bigger role for the federal government, but, in fact, we are currently seeing one of the largest expansions of the Department of Education in our history. And this is from the same political party that once called for the abolition of the department. How is this going over with your fellow Republicans? 

MS: I hear less and less about that all the time. People understand there is a national imperative around education in our country, and about us being the innovator.

When you talk to business and policy people, they understand that if we don’t continue to have solid education, we can forget about being the world’s economic power and engine. [New York Times columnist] Tom Friedman writes about the education community being very fearful of this. And families know this and fear they’ll have their job outsourced and that they need to have higher skills in order to be employed. This isn’t mythology. These are things that affect people, and it’s a national imperative.

DI: Have you received much criticism for this?

MS: I’m a good Federalist and a good Republican, but here’s the thing: People want accountability for their money. What are we getting for our money? Until No Child Left Behind showed up, it was just put money out there and hope for the best. We didn’t even peel the onion and find out what was going on. Understanding the proper balance between states and federal government is something I understand, but I think we’ve found the right balance.

DI: School districts are going to court over whether they can redistrict to achieve racial balance. Where do you stand on this issue? 

MS: Well, race-based admissions have been controversial and are not supported by the administration. We think there’s a way to balance diversity and high-quality programs other than using race. We have looked at admitting the top 10 percent of the high school class and, in Texas, there are factors that aren’t race-based but have the effect of promoting highly diverse populations. You can do those things without using race-based admissions.

DI: As the United States becomes more diverse, are HBCUs still relevant?

MS: I think they’re more relevant than ever. I’ve seen what those institutions mean to the African-American community. And I’ve seen the high-quality opportunities they provide to those who may not otherwise have access to higher education.

DI: You refer to students and parents as consumers, and you have brought many business people onto the Commission for the Future of Higher Education. How do you prevent the corporatization of education and conflicts of interest from arising?

MS: I do think that having business people involved is one of the solutions to providing better access and affordability. Look at the University of Phoenix. [Traditional students] probably take classes between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. You can’t have a full-time job with that schedule. That’s fine, but does that meet the need of the laid-off worker? The old model of higher education is that you went to high school and straight to college and your parents paid. That’s so yesterday. We’re a nation of lifelong learners and getting Pell Grants and working part-time. We aren’t getting what we need in high school, and the private capital market is part of the solution.

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