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Interview With Margaret Spellings

The former education secretary is pro-NCLB, anti-waiver, and no admirer of RTTT.

By Alexander Russo | Winter 2013

It's been a busy decade for Margaret Spellings, and there's no slowdown in sight. The colorful Texan came to Washington with President George W. Bush, ran the process that created 2002's No Child Left Behind Act as a member of the Domestic Policy Council, and was subsequently appointed education secretary to replace Rod Paige.

Since then, Spellings has been an outspoken advocate for efforts to make districts and states accountable for student achievement—so much so that she felt she couldn't be on the Romney campaign's education advisory team—and is one of the few remaining defenders of NCLB. Agree with her or not, she is a straight talker who isn't afraid to say what she thinks-not an especially common trait in Washington.

Q You were a White House DPC staffer during the first Bush administration and education secretary during the second. Which role was more fun or satisfying for you?
A They were very different. I loved seeing the president almost daily and being close to decision making on weighty matters that the White House role affords, but I also loved being the boss and having a platform of my own to speak out for disadvantaged students.

Q What's the case you would make for NCLB, which has so few admirers?
A NCLB changed the way we look at education by putting student results starkly before us. The fact that it is pinching the system is a testament to its success.

Q If you could have changed one thing about NCLB or its implementation, what would it have been?
A I wish we had done a better job of framing the issue for the American people. When I think about how modest NCLB really is-kids working on grade level-I am outraged by the blowback. No one who criticizes the law would stand for the kind of underachievement we see for poor kids if it applied to them!

Q Between Race to the Top and the NCLB waivers, which is going to have more of an impact in the real world in the years ahead, and why?
A Race to the Top will ultimately be viewed as a big, fat waste of money with lots of promises and few results. But overall, it is not harmful and is basically hush money to keep educators happy. The waivers represent a major retreat from a real commitment to achievement for all students, wherever they are. The waivers will create a crazy quilt of accountability systems that are very opaque and incomprehensible to the public. It's a sad day for poor, minority, and special education students in the name of local control.

Q What concerns, if any, should state and local administrators have about the NCLB waiver program being implemented this year?
A School administrators have no concerns-they love it. The waivers are a way for them to turn back the clock, ignore the gaping holes in achievement, and conduct business as usual. It is the school administrator's relief program!

Q What would it take for education to get the kind of attention from the major parties that other issues seem to get?
A More interest in the issue from the public and more pressure from the civil rights and business communities to insist on meaningful improvements.

Q How would you assess the overall impact of the state education advocacy groups-Stand, StudentsFirst, 50CAN, etcetera-that have popped up everywhere over the past four years?
A I am glad they exist and I hope they will grow and spread. They know what I know: Our schools fall woefully short of meeting the needs of students and our country, and I commend them for joining the fight, calling out failure, and insisting on change.

Q Who might be the top contenders for Romney's education secretary?
A I hear rumors here and there, but I hope that he would appoint someone like former Minnesota governor Tim Pawlenty, someone with a good track record at the state level.

Q If there's an education question during the presidential debates, what do you think it will be? And what do you think the candidates should say in response?
A I think it will likely be about the role the federal government should play in education, with the Common Core, Race to the Top, and NCLB waivers used as possible exemplars. Both of the [candidates] will give lip service to the righteousness of local people having a lot to say about their schools. I will be listening for an answer that suggests real seriousness about closing the achievement gap and holding adults in the system accountable for dramatic improvements for kids, as opposed to the constant excuse making we see from educators and bureaucrats at all levels

 —Fall 2012—

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