Margaret Spellings: Too Many Still 'Left Behind'

For a different point of view on education reform, host Michel Martin speaks with former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. She served under President George W. Bush, and is critical of some of the Obama administration's education policies.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Now we turn to the former Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings. She served under President George W. Bush. She's now the founder and leader of Margaret Spellings and Company. That's a consulting firm in the Washington D.C. area. Madam Secretary, welcome to you. Thank you so much for joining us.

MARGARET SPELLINGS: Glad to be here, Michel. I'm sorry I'm not seeing you face to face. Hurry back.

MARTIN: I know. We'll have to rectify that.

SPELLINGS: We will.

MARTIN: So now that you're out of office, a little out of the pressure cooker, what can you tell us now that you couldn't say then?

SPELLINGS: Well, you know, and I just heard Arne Duncan say some of the things that I used to say in more nuanced ways than I would say them now. And to pick up on his very last point, for example, on the opportunity gap, what he is saying is we need to get serious about how we allocate resources. Sometimes I say if you have a Ph.D. and loads of experience, you are at Cream Puff High teaching AP, one of 25 AP classes offered in suburbia, etc.

And if you're in the inner city, then you have, you know, very meager offerings. Some of our brand new most challenged teachers sent to do the hardest work and then we're surprised at the results. So I think what the secretary and I agree on is, we've got to really get serious about closing this achievement gap and that includes putting our money and our resources and our best teachers where our mouths are.

MARTIN: You know, there's a recent survey from the Gallup polling organization about No Child Left Behind, which was the signature education initiative of the George W. Bush administration. You know, 67 percent of parents of school age children said that the policy made no difference or made American schools worse. How do you respond to that and why do you think that is?

SPELLINGS: Well, you know, I look at polls just like the one that was conducted around Ed. Nation - Education Nation - a couple weeks ago and they found that 88 percent of parents, and particularly minority parents, support testing and accountability. They know that it is their children that have been left behind, that have been swept through the system.

And so, you know, can we find dueling polls about how parents feel about these things? I know for sure that if we don't measure and find out who is left behind, they will not be served adequately and we will continue to bury the problem and it'll be a, you know, kind of a silent killer.

MARTIN: It's interesting though that same poll which shows - the Gallup poll that I cited - says that adults in lower income households, those earning less than $30,000 a year, are far more likely, than those in higher income households, to believe that the law has made public education better. And I'm wondering why you think that is.

SPELLINGS: That's right. Because, you know, No Child Left Behind spoke to those particular children and it is this allocation of resources and focus and attention. I mean, it's not a mystery that schools have focused on, you know, cut scores and, you know, attended to the needs of poor and minority and special ed kids as never before because that's what got measured.

I am big what gets measured gets done kind of gal and that clearly was the focal point of the law and it had never been before. We had a lot of happy talk and very little reality around those goals.

MARTIN: But people like yourself - and you just heard Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, again, talk about the - let's call it the resources gap. I mean, the fact is that most local schools are generally funded locally and there's a big difference in the kinds of resources that are available and...

SPELLINGS: And here's why.

MARTIN: I mean, what's the answer?

SPELLINGS: Here's why. We largely, especially in our urban centers, have teacher union contracts that allow the teachers to choose where they work. And so where do you want to work, you know, if you're an experienced teacher? Do you want to, you know, work in your own neighborhood and drive across town to kids who are very advantaged and off on spring break and this and that? Or do you want to go into our inner cities and work with the most challenged kids and families in our system?

And so, that's why we end up with these results that we have. We have teachers deciding where they get to place themselves.

MARTIN: But, I mean, isn't that most people? I mean, don't most professionals decide where they work? I mean, are you thinking the teaching profession should be like the military, where - that, once you sign up, you go wherever you're told? Is that how you think it should be?

SPELLINGS: No. I don't think that most people who are employed get to decide, you know, when and where they apply their profession. In fact, I think just the opposite. We pay and reward people in the private sector to do the most challenging work. We pay them more to do it.

MARTIN: Finally, what would you like to have accomplish that you didn't? What would you most like to see? Whoever has the post in the next four years, what would you like them to focus on most?

SPELLINGS: What I am so, so worried about in these waivers that Secretary Duncan has just granted - and I'm the first person to say No Child Left Behind needs to be updated. It's been, you know, way overdue by the Congress, but I am heartsick that we are walking away from these high expectations for all of our kids.

When I see Virginia, my home state, get a waiver that allows the state to serve 59 percent of the African-American kids and 79 percent of the Asian kids, that is what President Bush used to call the soft bigotry of low expectations, and what I see us doing in order to make adults comfortable is to kind of give up on and sort of admit defeat.

MARTIN: OK, OK. All right, Margaret Spelling. She served as U.S. Secretary of Education under George W. Bush. I hope the conversation will continue and you'll join us once again...

SPELLINGS: Me, too.

MARTIN: ...from our studios in Washington, D.C. or wherever you happen to be. Madam Secretary, thank you so much for joining us.

SPELLINGS: Thanks, Michel.

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