September 11, 2007

Spellings Rebukes Miller in Back-to-School Address

U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings’ annual back-to-school address delivered this past week to the Business Coalition for Student Achievement offered a sharp rebuke to the initial draft of a No Child Left Behind reauthorization bill unveiled by House Education Committee Chairman George Miller (D-CA) (see next article for more details). The Secretary’s pointed criticisms of the Chairman’s proposal were all the more remarkable for their personal tone and for the fact that Miller was a guest at the event where the Secretary delivered her speech.


The speech is an annual rite marking the beginning of the traditional school year. But the content of the Secretary’s address this year also signals the end of the feel good reauthorization prelude where leaders spoke glowingly of the controversial law’s positives and in vague generalities about possible changes, and now portends a more bruising period where the policy particulars will be stridently debated.


Spellings took particular issue with the accountability changes Miller has proposed that would allow states to use growth models to better measure student performance and to focus accountability and improvement efforts on the worst performing schools in each state, what Miller calls “High Priority” and “Priority” schools. Because Miller’s growth model plan would allow students to reach proficiency after the current law’s 2014 deadline, and also allow states to use multiple indicators that would give schools credit for boosting student achievement in other areas, such as science or history, beyond the strict parameters of state assessment scores in reading and math, the Secretary warned that “to move from reasonable accommodations to gigantic loopholes is a step in the wrong direction.” “We must refuse to make any changes that would make us less accountable for educating every child to grade-level standards in reading and math—the gateway subjects for all other learning,” she added.


And then, as if to further underscore the point, she told the assembled business leaders “that’s why I’m counting on you to stand up against policies that say some kids just can’t learn or that some kids count more than others or that if some kids are improving, it’s OK to let others fall behind.”


Spellings peppered her speech with the successes of the No Child Left Behind Act: “Since this act became law, nearly 500,000 more students have learned to do basic math. More than 500,000 others are getting free tutoring that was never before available. And the parents of 50 million students have more information, more control, better teachers, and more choices when it comes to their children's education,” she cited as just three examples.


Her attempts at drawing contrasts between the existing law’s current accomplishments and the potentially deleterious consequences of Miller’s proposed reforms revealed some interesting insights. Implying that the House’s draft bill will result in “more complication and more Washington wonkery,” perhaps only the Secretary could then assert that the current adequate yearly progress calculations provide straightforward, unvarnished information on how students are doing.” But the Secretary also hinted at her negotiating strategy and the ace in the hole she, or families, have in this policy debate and underscored her bottomline position. “Fortunately, families have some leverage,” Spellings noted; “if we don't reauthorize NCLB this year, the law does not go away.”


And later, “if a policy results in more kids getting more help and more kids performing at or above grade level, I’m for it. If it obscures or mitigates against our responsibility to educate every single child, I’m not.” And just in case George Miller momentarily lost his attention, she continued, “Let me repeat: if it obscures or mitigates against our responsibility to educate every single child, I’m against it.”


And just to prove there were no hard feelings, the Secretary sent a letter to Miller later in the week expressing her “appreciation for your work to date” on NCLB reauthorization and the maintenance of two of her “bright line” principles in his draft: the 2014 proficiency deadline and the annual administration and disaggregation of assessment results. Still, the letter went on to elaborate on her concerns about decreasing the information available to parents and options for students, though she said she looked forward to working with the chairman on these issues.


A transcript of her remarks is available on the Department’s website here.