Harvard Educational Review
  1. Winter 2005 Issue »

    Interview: U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings (full text)

    Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings

    On November 3, 2005, the Harvard Educational Review interviewed Margaret Spellings, the eighth U.S. Secretary of Education. Spellings, who was confirmed as secretary of education on January 20, 2005, served as assistant to the president for domestic policy during George W. Bush’s first term, and was responsible for the development of various elements of the president’s domestic policy agenda, including the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Spellings’s first year as secretary has been especially active, marked by increased resistance by some states to NCLB’s school and student accountability requirements, the massive task of responding to the needs of children and families displaced by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and Spellings’s own calls to address what she believes are serious problems with the U.S. higher education system. HER invited Spellings to discuss these issues and to reflect broadly on her first year as secretary of education. HER Editors J. D. LaRock and Hanna Rodriguez-Farrar conducted the interview in Spellings’s office at the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C.

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    We know that you’ve spent a lot of time in the Gulf Coast recently, dealing with the aftermath of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita. First, we want you to just give us a sense of the human dimension of what you saw. How are the children faring, how are the families and parents coping? What are the things that stand out to you in your interactions with the kids down there?

    Well, Sully’s [Assistant Secretary for Communications and Outreach Kevin Sullivan] been with me down there, too, and it’s obviously a very emotional experience to go, if you haven’t. It’s emotional in the sense that people come up to you and say, “We are so grateful for all that has been given us.” I mean, these are people who have lost everything, and you’ve just been complaining about some minor thing that’s happened in your life, and they’re so grateful they’ve ended up somewhere, with a great teacher and a place and a community that’s welcomed them, and their child. So that is very heart-warming and kind of gut-wrenching, also.

    We’ve heard lots of stories about kids making transitions to schools, and teachers. We met an African American physics teacher who was teaching in a Catholic school in New Orleans who was trying to find a job. I think it was in Alabama — all of the states and stories run together after a while. But he was sitting there with a bunch of superintendents and he got about five job offers at the time. He was unemployed, but physics teachers don’t go wanting for jobs very long. It was just a very American kind of experience, how people are welcoming children and families into their communities.

    Houston — obviously, Houston has tons of students — Texas has [taken in] about 45,000 students that are displaced. So, of course, I wanted to inform the policymaking that we are doing around here [in Washington, D.C.] and find out what’s going on on the ground. What are they finding with respect to curriculum linkages and gaps and standards and so forth, if there are any. We had kind of a wonky discussion in Houston, and one of the teachers — who I think was a first-year teacher — said, “I don’t know what you all are doing up there, but what I’m gonna do this year is make sure that these students get an education.” And it was just sort of emphatic, like, “That’s all noise to me; I’m going to make sure that the ten kids that are in my class from New Orleans are well educated this year, to our Texas standards.”

    Of course, we’re doing some policy things that are a little wonkier, obviously. We’re asking for resources, raising from 9 to 90 percent the amount of federal aid that will flow this year for the education of those students.1 I’ve issued many letters to the states about the kind of policy flexibilities that I’m putting in place for them this year, including opportunities to be more flexible about how they use resources, carrying over deadlines, and so forth, and asking the Congress for additional authorities. I’ve given states a couple of options on how to implement the No Child Left Behind accountability provisions, including allowing them to create a separate subgroup of displaced students — just various policy things have been brought to bear. We’re all working on — the educators, the community, and the region, as well as the department — trying to get the Congress to act on additional labor authority for me and additional resources for them so that we can navigate this school year.

    Your plan to support families who are transitioning into new private schools has been a bone of some contention on Capitol Hill. Under this plan, you’ve requested $488 million to give tuition money to displaced families who had students in private school and now want to enroll their children in other private schools in their new locations. We understand that the Gulf Coast is unique in that it has an unusually high percentage of students in parochial schools, compared to other regions. But the thing that seems to be most controversial is that your proposal also would allow public school students who are transitioning into private schools to get support for transitioning to a private school. What is the rationale for this part of the plan?

    This proposal — the president’s proposal — will allow up to $7,500 worth of student aid, 90 percent of the cost, to follow the student wherever they seek instruction — public or private, Texas or Louisiana, Tennessee or Mississippi, etc., so that’s kind of the broad frame. Your thesis was that there is a lot of controversy around this. But there’s no controversy about the fact that there ought to be aid for families who have kids who are in private education, so even the normal boundaries of a discussion in the Congress are sometimes like this: This time, we understand that these students need aid, and it’s the how we do it that is in question.

    I mean, the Senate just passed an amendment on the [budget] reconciliation today, in fact, that has one approach, but does flow aid to private schools.2 The House has a little different idea: It’s more of a kid-centered kind of funding mechanism. But I’m confident that here in the not-too-distant future [knocks on wood], we will get there.

    How do you respond to the criticism from the National Education Association (NEA) and others that this plan is a back-door way to introduce school choice, and particularly that people can understand supporting private school students who are trying to get into new private schools but not necessarily public school students who find themselves wanting to go to a private school?

    Well, I respond to it in the following way, and that is that these students who have been affected this year — they are going to find education in communities as they see fit, just as they would normally have done in any other year. We are going to give aid, provide aid, for students, wherever they find it, irrespective of their choice. Just as we should. This was not a hurricane that swept out just public schools or private schools. And I think I would add, absolutely — and this is why it’s not about your discussion — this is one-year, temporary aid. It’s also highly unusual for us at the federal level to pay for 90 percent of the cost. The NEA doesn’t seem to be complaining about our departure there.

    As you probably know, Dillard University and Xavier University of Louisiana recently laid off over 50 percent of their faculty and staff after being severely damaged by the hurricanes. Those two schools are historically Black, and the federal government has an important role in preserving the longevity of these institutions. How do you see them being able to cope with their campuses being completely decimated? These schools are looking at serious cutbacks in being able to do anything, even by January. What do you foresee for the higher education institutions in New Orleans, and what special role does the federal government have in these two cases, given their status as Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs)?

    Well, a couple of things: One, you know that FEMA [the Federal Emergency Management Agency] is the agency that is charged with doing infrastructure redevelopment. We are very involved with some local planning efforts. [Assistant U.S. Secretary of Education] Tom Luce, who runs my policy shop, is involved with Scott Cowen, the head of Tulane University, to help get a plan for education that’s broadly drawn. That is to say, until we know, in New Orleans, who are the employers that are going to return, where is the housing, and so on and so forth, it would be unwise for any of us to say, “Well, let’s build ten schools in the French Quarter,” when we don’t know how this is going to play out. So we believe that education is a critical part of the whole economic development piece. Obviously, higher education and job training is a huge part of that. And I’m confident that as this plan is drawn, and with Scott Cowen being a central part of that, in the education community, and particularly the higher ed community, that all of those things will net up.

    HCBUs are important institutions — the president and this administration have provided record levels of support for HBCUs, and proudly so. I’ve asked Dr. Lou Sullivan, who leads our HBCU Commission [the President’s Advisory Committee on HBCUs], to serve on my higher ed commission to make sure that we continue to have them at the forefront of our policy here. These are tough times for all of the institutions down there, including the HBCUs. But I’m confident that they’ll be cared for in the final analysis, as the plans are put in place.

    As everything works its way out.

    Absolutely. And you know, Dr. Norman Francis is the chairman of [Governor Kathleen Blanco’s Louisiana Recovery Authority], and he’s president of Xavier, so he’ll have a very important seat at the table down there in the planning process.

    Some of our Board members are specialists in international education, and when they viewed what happened in the Gulf Region, it occurred to them that the international education sector has a lot of experience dealing with emergency education. I’m curious to know if you have turned to the international education field for solutions to help with the crisis in the states affected by the hurricanes.

    I met with [UNICEF executive director] Ann Veneman early on — they have the “school-in-the-box” model that they use internationally so successfully.3 They have sent some of those down there, so to some extent, yes, we have. Of course, the international community has responded very aggressively, trying to help. I met with the French education minister when I was at UNESCO [the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization] a few weeks ago, and they want to be involved in helping charter schools. Obviously, the French have a strong linkage to New Orleans — there are a lot of French speakers down there — so they wanted to be very involved in rebuilding that particular aspect of the New Orleans schools. So I’m seeing those kinds of examples in the rebuilding process.

    Now we can turn to No Child Left Behind —

    My favorite topic . . . my little baby . . . [laughs]

    You issued a policy letter on October 21 about the “highly qualified teacher” provisions of the act, notifying state education commissioners that they might get a reprieve if they do not quite reach the 100 percent goal for highly qualified teachers by the end of the 2005–06 school year — the goal set by NCLB. Why did you make that decision?

    Well, I think one of the things that I’ve seen here in my role as secretary is that obviously — and I knew this before I got here — not all states are created equal. Their situations are unique, and likewise, not all of the intensity of commitment to some of the NCLB provisions has been alike. In other words, some people have worked aggressively and very systematically to meet these qualifications and do the right thing, if you will, with respect to having highly qualified teachers in their most challenging places. And so it is not a one-size-fits-all solution, and nor do I have a one-size-fits-all view of who is really working the problem and who’s not. So I think we ought to make some distinctions that give credit, if you will, to the best actors, and have some understanding about the kind of situation that they’re working in.

    The other thing that I want to say is that as far as I’m concerned, we know that a highly qualified teacher and enhanced student achievement go hand in hand. One of the dirty little secrets — which is probably not going to be a secret after I say this — is that we have systems in place in our incentives and disincentives that sometimes draw our most experienced, most able, most highly compensated people out of the most challenging work environments. And we need to do the opposite. And so, for people who are working the problem of, “How are we going to get our best people in our most challenging places?” — I want to be open-minded about how they implement the highly qualified teacher provisions.

    Whom do you see as those best-case people or states, and what are they doing right? Who is not doing so well, and what are they failing to do?

    Well, I don’t know yet — my folks who work with states are looking at all of those issues. But as I said in Mount Vernon [in an April 7, 2005, speech, “Raising Achievement: A New Path for No Child Left Behind”], when I talked about the sensible, workable approach to No Child Left Behind, I also want to keep my eye on the bottom-line results — who’s getting results. But if we do think that teacher competency and quality are closely related to student achievement, that will bear out. The proof will be in that pudding, if you will. Our state compliance deadline is the end of this school year, and so we’re just starting to kind of get a sense of who’s doing what, and how well, and where.

    It’s maybe somewhat surprising, but more than three years after the passage of NCLB, there’s a lot of confusion still about what a “highly qualified teacher” is. Even though NCLB clearly defines what it is at the different school levels, people often seem to use the term without being completely clear about what it means.

    I think that’s a good point. Obviously, we know that knowledge in your subject area — content-area knowledge — is important. It’s the old “can’t-teach-what-you-don’t-know” corollary. It is an important part. But lay people think, “Well, a highly qualified teacher is someone who can get results with kids.” And sometimes we’ve had a disconnect between a lot of process, a lot of inputs, a lot of certifications and degrees and so on and so forth, without really keeping our eye on what the net result is with respect to effectiveness with students. And I think those are the sorts of things that I’m going to be looking at as we evaluate who’s complying with the highly qualified teacher provisions, in addition to core subject-area knowledge, and the assessment provisions, and so forth. How are we doing with respect to student achievement?

    Does the fact that there have been instances, like in North Dakota and Utah, where you’ve made some different decisions about who is labeled “highly qualified” — has that added to the confusion about what the definition really is?4

    Well, the thing about “highly qualified teacher” that is confusing on its face is that, of course, state licensure and definition are all within the state purview. So there are a few states, as you know, that have no assessment whatsoever for licensure. If you get a college degree in teaching, then you’re a teacher. The various approaches that states have employed, really, there’s a lot of variance. Sometimes core competency in subjects is emphasized, sometimes not. There are passage rates [on teacher licensure exams] not unlike what we see sometimes in the student accountability. That’s why there has been maybe some confusion about interpretations. Some places have more rigorous licensure than others.

    And it seems like at least in the North Dakota case that experience counted, right? This case concerned a group of teachers who didn’t meet the requirements to the letter of the law, but they were veteran teachers. That seemed to weigh heavily in the decision that you made there.

    Well, yes, I think it did, as well as [the fact that] they had a process — the HOUSSE process [the High Objective Uniform State Standard of Evaluation, which sets out state-determined standards for assessing teacher quality], and the policy rubric that we put in place that states use to demonstrate to us that they’re working toward getting qualified teachers in classrooms.

    In April, you announced changes to the testing of special education students under No Child Left Behind. Beginning next year, up to 3 percent of a district’s “proficient” scores that can count toward adequate yearly progress can come from alternate assessments given to students with disabilities. Under the old rules, the cap was 1 percent. Does this create an incentive for schools to miscategorize students as disabled and thus eligible for alternate assessments, when these students could actually take the typical assessments given to nondisabled students?

    Here, let me reframe the way you said that. Initially, when the rules were first written for NCLB, we thought — I mean, I didn’t think this, the world’s greatest brain researchers and people at the National Institutes of Health, the NICHD [the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development] told us — that about 1 percent of the population was so severely and profoundly disabled that they could not participate in the assessment and accountability system. Since that time, we now know that there’s about an additional 2 percent of the student population who need different assessments, different curriculum strategies, more time — but, they can get to the goal line.

    And so we’ve become smarter about our understanding of this student population. And we’ve become more interested as a community in figuring out the proper strategies and assessments for that particular 2 percent of kids. It’s a more sophisticated, smarter approach, rather than just a sorting bin — who’s in, who’s out, and give them the one-size-fits-all approach we’ve been using with all kids. We know that’s not going to get us there. So that’s why the Department of Education approved $14 million worth of technical assistance [to improve assessments, help teachers with instruction, and conduct research for students with disabilities who are held to alternate and modified achievement standards in 2005] in May. We know there are some places, there are some models — Massachusetts is one, Kansas is one — places where they have figured this out a little better than others. And we ought to try to educate other states around who’s doing what well. We ought to try to bring some of that skill through our technical assistance. The whole goal here is to get these kids to the goal line in a way that will do that.

    From the macro level, if we didn’t have accountability for special education students, I do not think we would have even had this conversation. We wouldn’t be investing these monies, we wouldn’t have this strategy, we wouldn’t have this focus, we wouldn’t have built this demand for what’s the right thing to do for this kind of kid under this kind of condition.

    And we know that the disability community really praises No Child Left Behind because it’s put the focus on the achievement of students with disabilities for the first time.

    What gets measured gets done. Amen.

    But we’ve also heard from some disability advocates, though, who on the flip side look at the cap being raised from 1 to 3 percent and worry. Because if I were a principal who didn’t know how to educate students with disabilities in my school and I now heard that I had greater leeway to shift students with disabilities into alternate assessments — even if they might be able, because they’re not severely cognitively impaired, to take the regular assessments — I might see an incentive here to game the system. So do you worry about that at all?

    Well, that’s why we’re going to monitor this stuff very closely. I’ve granted this 3 percent cap to thirty-one states. There are obviously some number who have not agreed to this, and they’re still at the 1 percent level. I mean, there’s a quid pro quo relationship that says, you can use this 2 percent distinction if, and only if, you’re willing to do these more effective strategies, this type of measurement that is valid, that is sound. That is not unlike what’s happening in Massachusetts. So it’s a “let’s-make-a-deal” arrangement for the good of these special education students.

    Let’s shift now to the lawsuits against the No Child Left Behind Act. The one that has gotten the most attention lately has been the suit filed by the State of Connecticut. They very much, as you know, want to stick to their every-other-year testing schedule —

    I do know that.

    — and you’ve been very firm in saying that’s not acceptable. The suit also argues that Connecticut is being forced to spend $50 million of its own money in coming years to expand annual testing, even though the law specifically bans the federal government from imposing mandates on states without financing them. How do you respond to these claims? Why, in a state like Connecticut, where as a state it’s a high achiever, you might not take a look and say, “OK, this might be an exception to the rule”?

    First of all, I have to say, with respect to the high-achiever part of that — and this was certainly evidenced in last week’s NAEP [the National Assessment of Educational Progress, a standardized test administered to a national sample of students, also known as “the nation’s report card”] data — they, and you even hear them say this, believe that they’re serving their fairly affluent Anglo population at the high end fairly well. And I guess that’s probably true. Lots of people could do that. But what No Child Left Behind is about is, how well are they serving the people who have been long overlooked by the system.

    So for New Haven and Hartford and Bridgeport —

    There’s lots of work to do there, and let me just say, they still have one of the largest achievement gaps in the country. So I hope they’re not saying that they can do for some students what they can’t do for others. I’m not saying they are saying that, I’m just saying, that’s what No Child Left Behind is about: every child having an opportunity to be successful.

    The second thing I would say is, you’re right — one of the bright-line principles in No Child Left Behind is annual assessment. I’m the mother of a public school child, and you know, I think my fellow parents feel like I do, and that is, they want to know how their child is doing every year — not every other year. I don’t want to find out in the fifth grade that something bad awful went wrong in third and have lost two years’ instructional time in that critical developmental time frame. I commend them for wanting to have a writing assessment. I think that’s good, and that’s certainly their option. But No Child Left Behind is not a mandate, it’s a contract with Connecticut and every other state that says, if you want to take, in Connecticut’s case, $750 million three and a half years ago, to implement the principles of No Child Left Behind, this is what’s required. And they said, “Count us in.” They’ve done the work. They’re ready to do annual assessment. But now, here on the eve of compliance, they’re taking issue with it. And so that’s obviously what’s going to come out in the course of the lawsuit.

    The other thing I would just say is that the General Accountability Office, among others, has found that the assessment provisions that they are taking issue with are funded, and, in fact, we are negotiating through the reconciliation right now. I’m going to talk to Chairman [Ralph] Regula [R-OH, chairman of the Subcommittee on Labor, Health and Human Services, Education, and Related Agencies of the House Committee on Appropriations] later on today about some very strict requirements that the Congress fund those assessment provisions. So there you have it.

    In 2007, NCLB will be up for reauthorization. What do you see as the biggest challenges when that happens? What will be the most important issues that you’re going to have to face between now and the reauthorization?

    Well, one of the things that I think is — and this is what’s come out of our “national report card” — is the work that we have to do in the high school arena. As far as I’m concerned, we need to do No Child Left Behind–type principles for our high schools. I mean, [on this year’s NAEP scores] we do have good growth in third grade, but it flattens out at eighth grade, and you know, there’s zippo in high school. And we know, I see it all over the country — annual measurement, disaggregated data, using that data to improve instruction and refine the process — those are simple, elegant principles that work for kids. And so I think one of the issues before us will be, should we just wait till the pipeline of kids moves through, or do we need to attend more to middle and high school learners. I think that’s one of the challenges.

    I think we’ll have discussions around a variety of issues that you all hear about in the field, some of which I’m working on and taking interim steps in a regulatory way to address — special ed is one of those that we’ve talked about. This whole notion of a growth model, progress monitoring, and the ability to factor in achievement toward the goal, as opposed to the absolute standard — or not as opposed to, but maybe in addition to reaching that absolute standard of proficiency by 2013–14; I think those are issues that will be before the Congress. I think there’s a way to harmonize some of that. And then I think issues around nonnative speakers and how we’re going to get proficiency levels to this ever more diverse student body — I think those are some of the big things.

    Looking at the NAEP scores that just came out in October 2005, there was a little upward movement and a little downward movement in the scores overall. In fourth-grade reading, 31 percent of students achieved proficiency, the same percentage as in 2003. In eighth-grade reading, proficient scores declined from 32 percent in 2003 to 31 percent this year. The math results were better: 36 percent of fourth graders scored in the proficient category, up from 32 percent in 2003, and among eighth graders, 30 percent were proficient, compared to 29 percent in 2003.

    There also was an interesting interpretation of these scores that I’m sure you’ve seen, published in the New York Times. Discussing the racial achievement gap, an assessment by the Northwest Educational Evaluation Association speculated that at the rate the gap is closing, Black and White students would be performing at equal proficiency levels by 2034. Other indicators, like eighth-grade reading, suggest that it will take two hundred years or more for the gap to close. That’s obviously alarming, and it sounds like it may or may not be accurate. But clearly, one of the problems that is persistent, although it’s improving slowly, is the narrowing of the achievement gap. Is that the big point that you take away from the NAEP scores — that we need to do better on this particular problem?

    Well, yes, I think we need to accelerate achievement and progress for minority students, no doubt about it. I am encouraged by the NAEP results, because as the work has gotten harder — if you will, as the student body becomes more diverse — non-White students are making more progress than Anglos. Yes, the achievement gap is closing; scores were up for both Hispanic and African American students in third grade. They were up two points — a statistically significant gain compared to, I think, a zero gain for Anglo students, and in a time when each and every year that student body becomes more diverse. So the work’s harder, the gains are greater, and I think that’s important. Are they great enough? No, they’re not. We need to figure out ways to accelerate achievement.

    What I see around the country is that the people who are getting the results work harder at it. It’s more individualized instruction, it’s more time — this is the KIPP Academy [the Knowledge Is Power Program, a network of public college-preparatory charter schools in underresourced communities throughout the United States]. They go longer. How do you get to Carnegie Hall, like your mother told you? Practice, practice, practice. They go until five o’clock; they go half a day on Saturday; they don’t let those kids wander around in the summer. They have a summer session. And they get great gains. Some people are going to be natural tennis players and get it quick without much practice, and some people are going to take more clinics and more practice and so forth.

    In terms of specific instructional strategies to narrow the achievement gap, do you look to KIPP as one primary model?

    Among others, yes.

    What are some others?

    Well, I think this whole highly qualified teacher concept obviously is a big part of it. We just talked about the dirty little secret. Sometimes the places with the most challenging student bodies have the least experienced teachers. I’m not saying that they’re the least effective. I’m just saying we’ve got to put our best and brightest people with our neediest kids. And we need to find ways to do that. The president’s called for this Teacher Incentive Fund, which would do just that — find ways to reward people who are getting good student achievement gains in challenging situations and find ways to compensate them more adequately. So that’s one of the things. I think rewarding teachers for doing tough work, working harder at it, spending more time — those things go together. When you work more, you ought to get paid more. Teachers do sometimes make a little bit more because of the additional work than some of their colleagues that are in the communities. But I think there are a variety of strategies, and what I’m always going to look at is the bottom-line result.

    You’ve brought this up twice now, so I want to explore this a little bit more — the dirty little secret. I mean, it’s not such a secret —

    No, it’s not. And you don’t see a lot of behavior change going on out there in light of it. I hope that, and I think that, No Child Left Behind is building an appetite for wanting to do all you can to close the achievement gap, to meet those AYP [adequate yearly progress] targets. I mean, people are not missing AYP because they’re not getting good results at Langley High School [a high-performing public school in Fairfax County, Virginia], you know? And so, what do we need to do at Ballou High School [a low-performing public school in Washington, D.C.] to meet AYP targets?

    You referred to pay differentials and other incentives to get more experienced teachers to teach lower-achieving student populations. But isn’t the real problem the teachers’ contracts and seniority provisions that teachers take advantage of in order to “excess” junior teachers out of positions in higher-performing schools? Does something fundamental need to be changed here about teachers’ contracts?

    I think that’s part of it, I do. But here in Washington, D.C., what’s right and appropriate for us to do is to say, Get results. If you can get results by having your least-experienced teachers in your most difficult places, then knock yourself out. But we’re going to be about results. I hope, and I think, that as school boards enter into these teachers’ contracts, they’re looking at unions and asking, you know, “How is this going to allow us or help us meet our AYP targets?”

    The other thing, I think, is that we’re at a place in education in America that maybe we haven’t been before. And that is, we do not have the luxury of some of these things that have been in large part about the grown-ups. We need qualified people teaching math and science if we’re going to continue to be competitive and innovative and so on. The old mousetrap is not going to give us enough highly qualified math and science teachers, so what are other things that we can do to bring resources to bear?

    The president has called for an Adjunct Teacher Corps, the kind of notion where other resources, expertise from the community [can be brought to K–12 schools]. We do it all the time in higher education. If you’re at Northern Virginia Community College and you’re eighteen years old, nobody thinks a thing about having an electrical engineer who works for IBM teaching a class in the evening at Northern Virginia Community College. If that person tried to do it at Fairfax High School, Langley High School, or Mount Vernon High School, it would be a huge thing. So we just don’t have the luxury of trying to find expertise elsewhere. And I think that there are people, lots of people — particularly baby-boomers, as we all are living longer and so forth — that want to contribute to kids. They understand the importance of the next generation; they want to give their expertise. Do they want to come for 185 days for ten hours a day under these conditions, so on and so forth, join the union, etc.? Not necessarily. But I think we have to jump over some of those things and ask the question, “How are we going to get expert teaching in front of our kids?”

    It may be that those types of strategies could have an impact. But won’t there still be those who argue that fundamentally, there are things about the way the teaching profession is set up that don’t make sense to a reasonable person? A number of scholars have argued vehemently that teachers union members want to be treated as professionals, but the lockstep system of pay scales and work rules belies the professionalism that they claim they want to have. What do you think of that?

    And more and more — I mean, just to add one more fact to your assertion, the unions are representing bus drivers, paraprofessionals, nonteacher parts of the education enterprise. But, I don’t know — like I said, we’re all about results; these are local control type issues. If I were on a school board, I’d obviously have some personal views on that, but the Department of Education is not involved in teacher contract issues. What we’re involved in is, Are we going to have every child proficient by 2013–14 or not? And that is the big thing. And I do think, rightfully so, places like Los Angeles and Chicago and New York are looking at sort of the various strictures that the enterprise has in place as impediments or not to achieving those goals. So I think it’s healthy that some of those conversations are going on out there. It’s going to be hard for the unions to be against all students achieving by 2013–14, particularly minority kids.

    We’d now like to ask you about the impact of the Supreme Court’s 2003 decisions in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger. As you know, in these cases, the Court struck down a point system used by the University of Michigan that gave minorities preference in undergraduate admissions, but upheld a separate program used by the University of Michigan’s law school that allowed race to be used more flexibly in its admissions process.

    First, what do you believe the impact of these cases has been at the higher education level? Second, in three high-profile K–12 cases — in Lynn, Massachusetts; Louisville, Kentucky; and Seattle, Washington — school districts that have defended the use of race in their student assignment policies have drawn on the
    Grutter and Gratz decisions, and the idea of a “critical mass” of minority students having educational benefits for all students, and applied that to the K–12 context. Now, those cases may be consolidated and go to the U.S. Supreme Court.5 Do you think it’s appropriate to use the reasoning of the University of Michigan decisions in the K–12 context so that race can be considered as a factor in K–12 student assignment policies?

    Well, I’ll take the latter part first, because I’m not going to answer it. As you said, [these cases] are winding their way through the process and may end up before the Supreme Court. [The Department of Education] may end up being a party to the litigation — and the Justice Department will and so forth, so I’m not going to comment on active litigation. But with respect to Michigan, I obviously am from Texas, the whole Hopwood case [Hopwood v. Texas, a 1996 decision by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit, which invalidated the University of Texas Law School’s use of race in student admissions] came from that. I know a lot about it. Bush was governor when we had our race-neutral approach, the top 10 percent plan [a plan instituted after the Hopwood decision that guarantees high school graduates in the top 10 percent of their class admission to any state university in Texas], so on and so forth. But what I hear from higher ed these days is that there’s an anxiety about getting kids in the whole college pipeline — getting kids in and out of all races and, in particular, minority kids. So in a way — I don’t want to say we’ve moved beyond it — but I think, you know, the elephant in the dining room is, we just have huge pipeline issues. When half of the minority students in America are not getting out of high school on time, Rome is burning. So, I see more focus and attention and discussion about those issues. Articulation between high schools and higher ed institutions and remediation, and how they can help the admitted students they have be successful.

    But going back to the Michigan decisions, are there workable race-neutral alternatives that can achieve the same goals?

    I think there are. We did some of that [in Texas], like the 10 percent deal, and giving credit for things like first-generation standing, and various things like that. We found the 10 percent plan to be effective. Florida has done some things that are different [e.g., the “Talented 20” program in Florida guarantees the top 20 percent of public high school graduates admission to the state university system]. I think there are other ways to do it, but I think the thing that the community knows broadly is, we have to get more students — more students of color — in and out of every kind of education institution, or we’re in trouble.

    Are these the reasons why you announced the creation of the Commission on Higher Education in September? What do you hope will come out of that effort?

    There are lots of reasons. We started off this conversation with me talking about my own personal experience accessing higher education, our selection process, and so on. And so, I’m the secretary of education, and I know how confusing and perplexing it is to navigate the financial aspects of college, to navigate the admissions aspects of it, to try to make an informed decision about whether it’s a better deal, a better experience to get in and out of a publicly supported institution in more time, or in a private one that’s more expensive in fewer years. There’s just the whole maze of decisionmaking and the helplessness that I think families feel about it. And I hear this all over the place, top to bottom, rich, poor — it’s not geographical. So that’s the bad news.

    The good news is, I think we Americans know that higher education is the key to the American dream. We have sold the dream of college to the American people and to young people, but we need to do a lot better job of figuring out how they’re going to be successful and how it’s going to be affordable to them. I’ve asked the commission, a very august group of folks, to look at accountability, affordability, accessibility, and quality. When I say accountability, I mean, what are the things that we can do to draw and use more policy information in our higher ed strategy, whether at the local level, on a local governing board, the state level, or here in the federal government? We have this IPEDS database [the Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System, a system of surveys coordinated by the National Center for Education Statistics to collect data from all primary providers of postsecondary education]. We can tell you everything you want to know about first-time, full-time, degree-seeking, nontransfer students. Well, that’s not very many; that’s my first-semester daughter at one institution.

    So, we need to use information to make policy in higher education. I’m not sure we’re doing that very well. We put the money out and hope for the best. What do we want and expect from our higher ed institutions and from our higher ed system in America? I mean, you tell me.

    Well, one thing that strikes me is that there’s a college completion problem. That’s one big issue.

    Absolutely. What I’m saying is, is it our goal to get every American in and out of higher ed? Maybe it should be; maybe it shouldn’t be, I don’t know. Should affordability be an impediment? And so on and so forth. The through-put [i.e., getting through college] needs to be enhanced. What are the barriers to doing that? There’s just a whole raft of issues that we’ve never even had a conversation about at the federal level. We spend $80 billion a year in financial aid, we’re a one-third investor — that includes support for research in higher education in America — and we kind of hope for the best.

    But there is research on these problems, though. A well-known 1997 paper by Sylvia Hurtado of UCLA said one of the biggest barriers for students is just basic information — what’s FAFSA [the Free Application for Federal Student Aid], what’s the admissions policy? Many students don’t know.


    And when you see that that’s the case, and also that guidance counselor to student ratios are only getting worse, such that guidance counselors don’t have time to talk to students about college choices or college options — don’t we at least know what the big problems are and have the research to fix at least one big piece of the problem?

    But you know, I don’t think there’s a broad understanding of that with the American public, I honestly don’t. We talk about A Nation at Risk in 1983 — I mean, it was a clarion call for people to say, “Oh my gosh, we’ve got a public education system and here’s the quality of it,” and the report provoked a discussion about that. And if you went down the street today and you said, “What is a highly qualified teacher?” or “What is No Child Left Behind?” — people would know more about the K–12 enterprise today than they know about higher ed. It’s a big black box — it’s a mystery to people, and so I think we have to start talking about it. I think we have to start building better information through all sorts of means. Counselors, that’s one of the things; through the Web, through the Department of Education, through state policy. We’re not even working the problem, I don’t think.

    Is your intention with your commission to create a
    Nation at Risk report for higher education?

    Well, let me first say that the Nation at Risk policy recommendations proved to be mostly wrong, now that we are twenty-five years away from it. But I do think that to the extent that it’s promoting a national conversation around one of the most important things we do as a country and in government — and one of the things that we think is so critical to our civic democracy, to our national security, and to our continued success as a nation — heck, yeah, I hope it does do that. I mean, tell me something else that is going to keep us innovative and competitive if not higher education!

    Since we’re speaking about higher education, we wanted to ask you about the recent vote by the House Education and the Workforce Committee to cut $15 billion from federal student loan programs. According to committee leaders, the justifications given were to pay for Katrina and Rita relief, but also deficit reduction and tax reduction. Some people may look at this action and say, “It seems to us that this is a time when the higher ed sector and the K–12 sector have been given a devastating blow, and now is a time when people in higher ed need a little more help from the federal government, not less.” What’s your view?

    Well, one of the things I learned when I got here is not to try to handicap the Congressional sausage-making process, and I think that things will end where they end, and obviously we’re negotiating with them in doing that. The president has called for an increase in Pell Grants and we’ve called for additional aid for Katrina. So we’re working with the Congress on ways to get to a solution on all those fronts, in a way that’s fiscally responsible.

    One issue of great concern to many people is access to higher education for undocumented immigrants. Concerns have been raised about policies in which undocumented immigrants must pay nonresident tuition rates at public universities in the states where they live, and also have to apply as international students. However, if a person is an undocumented immigrant, these policies may put them at risk of having their illegal status discovered or may require them to leave the country in order to secure a visa, and then not be able to return to the United States. Thus, many people believe these policies are not workable for undocumented immigrants seeking a higher education in the United States. As you know, even some Republicans agree with this point of view. One of them is Senator Orrin Hatch [R-UT], who has introduced the DREAM Act, which would allow undocumented immigrants to pay in-state tuition rates as though they were citizens. What is your feeling about this issue?

    First of all, whether people get in- or out-of-state tuition, those are decisions that are made at the state level. When Bush was governor, we had a program in El Paso at UTEP [the University of Texas at El Paso] where we had residents that commuted across the border every day who did get in-state tuition. One of the things — this is more my domestic policy hat on from my White House days — the president believes and I completely agree — that we need not these little silo approaches. We have a major issue with immigration in America. A huge part of our workforce is undocumented. Obviously the population of undocumented students and families is large, too — actually, many undocumented now have American-born, citizen children. But the president’s concept was this temporary worker program where people could, without a penalty, come out of the shadows and have legal status for employment. And one of the things that we had talked about was to allow the definition of work — studying, staying in school—to be defined as work, which it is. It better be, at least in college anyway [laughs]. So, there are ways to harmonize or address that issue, but I think this is a more over-arching problem than just the effect on higher education. And it deserves an over-arching strategy.

    At the same time, do you have a specific position on the DREAM Act? The basic thrust of the bill is pretty similar to what you’ve just described — Senator Hatch would say, “Well, if you came here as a small child, but you weren’t born here, and you’ve gone through school — ”

    You’re the valedictorian . . .

    Right, and you’re the valedictorian . . . then you should be allowed to attend college as a citizen would, and apply for legal status.

    No, I understand the policy. The president has not taken a position on that particular aspect. He’s seeking a broader kind of solution that would address it in a more comprehensive way — the issue, broadly.

    Jonathan Kozol spoke in Cambridge, Massachusetts, recently about his new book, The Shame of the Nation: The Restoration of Apartheid Schooling in America. As you know, it contains a great deal of criticism of the Bush administration’s education policies. He suggests the No Child Left Behind Act should be repealed. He suggests nationalizing school funding. And he also suggested some more moderate measures, like expanding interdistrict transfer plans to increase diversity in K–12 schools. The basic argument of his book is that despite fifty years since Brown v. Board of Education, there has been a resegregation of our schools. And that really can’t be denied in many of our urban centers, can it? So, what do you make of what Kozol is saying, which is pointing out something that is true? Do you think the trend toward resegregation of public schools is a problem?

    Well, in a speech at the National Press Club I gave recently [“Back to School Address,” September 21, 2005], I talked about how you go out to Langley High School — I feel like I’m picking on Langley High School, it’s a great high school. They have twenty-one Advanced Placement classes offered there. And at Ballou High School, here in inner-city D.C., they have four. Twenty-one to four. And so, it’s the old issue of expectations. I do see — and I see it around the country — a kind of rationing of opportunity. Here’s our affluent high school, lots of AP, lots of college prep, and here’s our inner-city school. Those are local school board decisions as to how they allocate resources, and so on.

    No Child Left Behind has done more, if you ask me, to turn this around than anything else that we’ve done. We’ve made more progress in the last five years in reading and math for third graders than we’ve made in the previous thirty years combined. No Child Left Behind — that’s why it still enjoys strong support from Senator [Edward M.] Kennedy [D-MA, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee] and Congressman [George] Miller [D-CA, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee]. It’s all about the achievement gap. It’s all about African American and Hispanic kids, and that we have focused our resources and our attention as we never have before. I mean, prior to No Child Left Behind, we lumped all those scores together and high-fived ourselves about how great it was going. And the kids that were left behind were not focused on, weren’t attended to, and it pinches out there. People are starting to pay attention to it. These are kids that have been neglected for a long, long time. So, rather than repealing No Child Left Behind, I think we need more No Child Left Behind principles, extending into our high schools, demanding rigor and standards there as we’ve done in the early grades.

    Yes, but is there an even deeper question? The Brown decision said that separation of White and non-White students is inherently unequal. And so, even if we have a situation where there may be a school that is heavily non-White and it is doing well, it is offering students many choices and AP exams and extracurriculars, the fact still remains that those students are having a segregated, if you will, educational experience. Do you think that there is an inherent problem, regardless of the quality of the school, when minority students in urban areas are much more likely to go to schools with just members of their own race, as opposed to White students?

    Typically underresourced. Well, one of the things you just mentioned was this recommendation on interdistrict transfer policies. Obviously, we’re the choice-loving administration — the more options we have for families to move around, more charter schools, more open-enrollment type plans, supplemental services, Title I transfers — I mean, sure, the more of that we see, the more I like it. But I think, again, our job at the Department of Education as part of No Child Left Behind is to ask the question about the results.

    Twenty years from now, what do you hope will be your legacy?

    Well, I hope it will be that No Child Left Behind is still in place, that we’re still doing the things that are bearing fruit for kids — annual measurement, focusing on our kids. I think that No Child Left Behind is causing educators to use data to manage instruction in a unique way for kids individually. I think we’ll see more of that over time. A more competency-based kind of notion as opposed to seat time. I think all of that will have been rooted in things that we’re doing now with No Child Left Behind. Call me in twenty years!

    One final question for the intellectual crowd: What educational thinker or theorist has influenced you in this job?

    George W. Bush. [smiles and laughs]


    1. President Bush’s September 2005 hurricane relief proposal contains a provision that would allow the federal government to support up to 90 percent of the average per-pupil expenditure in the regions affected by Hurricanes Katrina and Rita for one year. Traditionally, the federal government has funded about 9 percent of local districts’ per-pupil expenditures.

    2. On November 3, the U.S. Senate passed a plan sponsored by Senators Mike Enzi (R-WY) and Edward Kennedy (D-MA) that will give tuition support to the families of public and private school children displaced by the hurricanes who are now seeking to reenroll in private schools elsewhere. Unlike President Bush’s proposal, which would have provided direct payments to parents, the Senate plan will disburse money to public school districts, which will then make payments of $6,000 per general education student and $7,500 per special education student to private and parochial schools.

    3. The school-in-a-box has been used by UNICEF since the mid-1990s. It was originally developed by education experts from UNICEF and UNESCO to provide basic education to hundreds of thousands of children who had been displaced by the events in Rwanda in 1994 and were living in refugee camps. The school-in-a-box contains basic school supplies, such as exercise books, pencils, erasers, and scissors, and also includes a wooden teaching clock, plastic cubes for counting, and a set of three laminated posters (alphabet, multiplication, and number tables). The kit is supplied in a locked aluminum box, the lid of which can double as a blackboard when coated with special paint included in the kit.

    4. In February 2005, Spellings resolved an uproar in North Dakota by approving the qualifications of 4,000 teachers who believed federal officials had previously declared them insufficiently qualified. In Utah, the state legislature — dissatisfied with NCLB’s student accountability and teacher quality provisions — passed its own education legislation, U-PASS (Utah Performance Assessment System for Students), in May 2005. After a standoff that lasted several months, in October 2005 Spellings met with Utah’s superintendent of schools, Patti Harrington, and expressed willingness to allow U-PASS’s provisions to prevail when they conflict with NCLB requirements.

    5. On December 5, 2005, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear the appeals of the Lynn, Massachusetts, Louisville, Kentucky, and Seattle, Washington, cases dealing with the use of race in K–12 student assignment.

    This interview has been reprinted with permission of the the Harvard Educational Review (ISSN 0017-8055). Permission is granted to share among colleagues. For other uses, please contact the HER office or our permissions page. The article is available in the issue, Winter 2005, and by subscription. HER is published quarterly by the Harvard Education Publishing Group, 8 Story Street, 1st Floor, Cambridge, MA 02138, tel. 617-495-3432 (800-513-0673). Copyright © 2005 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.
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    Winter 2005 Issue


    Katrina and Rita
    What Can the United States Learn from International Experiences with Education in Displacement?
    From the Editors
    Interview: U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings (full text)
    Gender Differences in Factors Leading to College Enrollment
    A Longitudinal Analysis
    Maria Estela Zarate and Ronald Gallimore
    Youth Radio and the Pedagogy of Collegiality
    Elisabeth Soep and Vivian Chávez
    Similarity and Superunknowns
    An Essay on the Challenges of Educational Research
    Ralf St. Clair
    Editor's Review: We Are All the Same by Jim Wooten
    Priya G. Nalkur
    Editor's Review: Adolescent Boys edited by Niobe Way and Judy Y. Chu
    Lionel C. Howard

    Book Notes

    The Edison Schools
    By Kenneth Saltman

    Vocabulary Instruction
    Edited by James Bauman and Edward Kame'enui

    Political Education
    By Christopher Cross

    Against Common Sense
    By Kevin Kumashiro

    The Trouble with Ed Schools
    By David Labaree

    Prairie Town
    By Jacqueline Edmondson

    Contested Policy
    By Guadalupe San Miguel Jr.

    Call 1-800-513-0763 to order this issue.