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Margaret Spellings, Former U.S. Secretary of Education, on Education Policy and Reform

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On Monday, President Obama called on Congress to revamp the "No Child Left Behind" education law by the time students start a new school year in September. In this timely interview with Margaret Spellings, former U.S. Secretary of Education and White House Domestic Policy Advisor, we discussed the way forward for U.S. education policy and reform efforts.

Spellings served as U.S. Secretary of Education from 2005 to 2009. In that role, she oversaw an agency with a nearly $70 billion budget and more than 10,000 employees and contractors. As a member of the President's Cabinet, she led the implementation of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Prior to U.S. Secretary, Spellings served as White House Domestic Policy Advisor from 2001 to 2005, where she managed the development of the President's domestic policy agenda.

Rahim Kanani: How would you characterize the quality of primary and secondary education in the United States as compared with the rest of the world?

Margaret Spellings: Our quality is not adequate.  Though unlike many nations we are committed to educating every student, we are not doing an adequate job in meeting this goal.  Results from 2009 NAEP and PISA assessments showed the majority of American students performing below proficiency in science, earning only average scores in reading, and scoring below average in math -- ranking behind countries like Brazil, Poland, and Estonia.  We spend more money per student than almost any other country, yet we're not getting a good return on our investment.

Rahim Kanani: What were some of the causal factors that led to the U.S' decline in education rankings?

Margaret Spellings: The Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) was first passed as civil rights legislation to level the playing field for disadvantaged students.  For almost 40 years we spent a lot of money without meaningful accountability for student achievement. States and districts often implemented systems that allowed countless students -- especially disadvantaged students -- to slip through the cracks. What gets measured gets done, and without measuring, public reporting, and real consequences for poor performance, a lot of things didn't get done for a lot of students.

Starting with No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the federal government began demanding results in exchange for the resources it invests.  It set broad requirements for states to set academic standards, test children annually in reading and math in grades 3-8 and once in high school, and get them to proficiency.   The law gave states and local districts the authority to determine most of the details, since they pay 90% of the bill to educate students.  By measuring and reporting student achievement, we're forcing things into the open, and that's where change happens.  But change isn't happening fast enough.  We must push much harder to get the results our children -- and the country -- need.

Rahim Kanani: Should we lengthen the school day and take fewer breaks to keep up with the rest of the world?

Margaret Spellings: We sit around and complain about our problems, debating them for months and years, with interest groups fiercely clinging to the status quo and fighting change - while India and China and other countries are working around the clock, plowing full steam ahead and outpacing us in many ways.  There is some research that supports lengthening school hours.  Citizen Schools is one organization that promotes this idea, and has data to support their approach.

The supplemental educational services (SES) provision of No Child Left Behind calls for free tutoring for students struggling to meet learning benchmarks.  This is another form of additional school time for the students who need it most.  Many of our most effective charter schools, like KIPP, use extra learning time as a way to get results.  We must embrace options for parents as we consider alternatives to the traditional school calendar and structure.

Rahim Kanani: The most important skill not being taught in schools is what? And why not?

Margaret Spellings: We are a long way from getting all students on grade level, a minimal standard, in reading and math -- I'd say it's pretty important that we get those skills mastered as soon as possible.  Everyone has a pet issue or topic that they want schools to emphasize.  And we all want children to be "well-rounded," critical thinkers.  But the fact is, you can't build on a weak foundation.  Reading and math proficiency must come first.

We're not at proficiency yet because our entrenched local politics have a stranglehold on education; too often, we are focusing on the adults in the system rather than the children.  And our antiquated teacher certification system is keeping new talent out of the classroom.  A young retiree from IBM is not going to go back to school for two years to get certified to teach.  We say we can make teachers into experts; why can't we make experts into teachers?

Rahim Kanani: What is at stake for the country, if we broaden the conversation out to the implications of a broken system?

Margaret Spellings: Education and prosperity go hand in hand. An inadequate public education system spells trouble for our national economy, for our global competitiveness, and for countless students.  It is simply not sustainable that one-third of our students are graduating college and career-ready.

McKinsey & Co. research suggests that achievement gaps are imposing the equivalent of a permanent national recession on our country.  If we think we have problems with our economy now, think what will happen with the next generation -- which is on target to be the first generation to be less educated than their parents.

We must remember that student success and the residual societal effects of an educated citizenry are the ultimate goals of education.  We must serve our students with efficiency and transparency so that we can improve individual lives, prosper as a nation, and remain competitive around the world.

Rahim Kanani: How would you rate the Obama administration's efforts towards reclaiming America's standing in education, such as the Race to the Top initiative, and setting new goals to boost national graduation rates?

Margaret Spellings: There is no question that states have responded to the competitive grant -- but the jury's still out on results.  We won't know what impact the money will have on student outcomes for quite some time, and that's because we still lack speedy, effective data that measures what works.

Goals to have students "college and career ready" and to boost graduation rates are well and good, but we have to face the fact that we still have countless students who can't read and do math on grade level.  We will not have students college- and career-ready by 2020 if we say it's impossible to get them to grade level by 2014.

The fact is, the path-breaking work of NCLB enables us to have more nuanced policy discussions today and to contemplate ideas that were impossible 10 years ago as we crafted the law.  The greater capacity for using data that NCLB generated is allowing the Obama administration to build on many of the initiatives we started and emphasized -- things like measuring student growth, effectively evaluating and rewarding teachers, and expanding successful charter schools and other educational options.

Rahim Kanani: Thank you so much for your time.

Margaret Spellings: You're most welcome.

Cross-posted with World Affairs Commentary