Spellings: 'No Child Left Behind' Is A 'Toxic Brand'
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan will testify before Congress today. He's presenting details of President Obama's plan to rework the No Child Left Behind law. The new proposal drops the 2014 deadline for English and Math proficiency in favor of a goal and college and career readiness by 2020. And it focuses on the lowest performing schools with stringent remedies for the worst among them.
We asked Margaret Spellings for her opinion of the new plan. She was President George W. Bush's secretary of education. And she helped design No Child Left Behind.
Secretary Spellings, President Obama campaigned against No Child Left Behind, and even you have been quoted as saying that it has become a toxic brand. Do you think that rewriting that law was inevitable, that replacing it was just going to happen?
Ms. MARGARET SPELLINGS (Former Secretary of Education): Well, I think it was ripe for retooling. I mean, that's why we have reauthorizations in Washington, so that we can build on what we've learned over the last eight years.
The name No Child Left Behind sadly did become a toxic brand, but you know, it also describes the policy. If they change the policy and leave kids behind, we ought to change the name.
WERTHEIMER: Do you think that the new proposal is a repudiation of No Child Left Behind?
Ms. SPELLINGS: You know, too soon to tell. There obviously are some details lacking. This is just a broad frame. There are some serious things that I'm worried about. But while it, you know, rightly puts a lot of concentration and more vigorous tools with that bottom 10 percent of our schools, those chronic low performers, I worry that in the tradeoff weve let the other up-to-90-percent of the schools sort of escape any kind of pressure, particularly on behalf of minority, poor and special ed students.
WERTHEIMER: One of the things that the Obama plan does that - it's obviously going to get a lot of attention, is that the lower group of schools, the constant underperformers, instead of giving them tutoring or allowing parents to move kids out of those schools to other schools, what the administration is proposing is basically letting some of those teachers go, changing that school.
What do you think of that?
Ms. SPELLINGS: I think that's absolutely fine and dandy, and I support those notions. I dont think those countermand public school choice or options or tutoring that currently flows to the kids, so those things absolutely could lay on top of No Child Left Behind.
WERTHEIMER: Now just as a general thing, the notion of doing something pretty drastic to chronically failing schools...
Ms. SPELLINGS: Absolutely. I support that. You know, we have a few thousand schools that produce half the dropouts in this country. Because of No Child Left Behind, we'd know where they are. You know, we have 2,000, you know, fires raging that are chronic, and we ought to go put them out.
WERTHEIMER: One of the ways in which No Child Left Behind sought accountability was testing in math and reading, and the new plan brings in other subjects. It gives states considerably more flexibility on how to make that judgment. What do you think of that?
Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, the important thing to know about testing is that it's worthless if they're not valid and reliable and comparable-type measures. So long as those criteria are accommodated, I'm a big proponent of the notion of what gets measured, gets done, and I think rounding out assessment systems with other subjects makes sense.
WERTHEIMER: What about the notion of teaching to the test, which has always been one of the big, big criticisms of No Child Left Behind?
Ms. SPELLINGS: Right. But really, you know, there's really nothing pedagogically flawed about teaching to a test, as long as what the test is measuring is what you want the kids to know.
WERTHEIMER: When No Child Left Behind passed, it had broad support. But one of the things that was interesting about it was that here we had a Republican president presenting, I think, a largely unprecedented role for the federal government in local education, George Bush did.
Ms. SPELLINGS: A different kind of Republican.
WERTHEIMER: Right. And I - the president now says he is re-envisioning the federal role, maybe leaving much more discretion to states and local districts. I mean, are we...
Ms. SPELLINGS: Well, I dont think you can assert that yet. I mean, they talk about rewards and sanctions. They talk about teacher-paper performance. I mean, all of these things are going to have some sort of federal role. I do think people understand that we spend a lot of federal tax dollars on education. That has increased dramatically in the Obama administration. Our need to educate everyone to much higher levels is very acute and is a national security issue. Its a national economic issue. In a global knowledge economy, we must do a better job as Americans, if we want to lead the world as innovators. And I think people understand that that's a national imperative.
WERTHEIMER: Margaret Spellings is a former Secretary of Education, who now runs her own public policy consulting firm.
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