Answering some of parents' most-asked questions about No Child Left Behind
Arizona Republic   
Apr. 3, 2007

 Pat Kossan

U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings is visiting with Valley politicians and business leaders today after visiting Monday with first-graders at Mesa Arts Academy, a high performing K-8 charter school.

The kids showed off their robots, assembled on construction paper, and read to her. Spellings is a longtime adviser to President Bush who took over the Education Department early in 2005. The Arizona Republic sat down with Spellings to get answers to parents' most-asked questions about the centerpiece of the administration's education policy: the No Child Left Behind Act.

Question: Parents and teachers often complain that the act is driving schools to dedicate too much time and money to teaching reading and math, while time for music, art, social studies and physical education dwindle.
Answer: Without the ability to read and do basic math, really, you have very limited opportunities to study anything else. Reading is a gateway skill, no doubt about it. And, really, when I see places like the Mesa Arts Academy, where they are knocking the top off the test and doing art, and dancing beautifully, and singing, that's really a red herring. I'm a big what-gets-measured-gets-done fan. . . . It's not unreasonable to ask our schools to educate our kids to grade-level standards by 2014. I have yet to meet a parent who says, "Count me out, I don't want my child on grade level by 2014.' "

Q: The federal government measures a school's performance on how well it brings struggling students up to grade level. Parents are worried resources and time are going into helping kids at the bottom, while average and above-average students are not being challenged.

A: You know, the (federal government's) 40-year education commitment has been around our nation's neediest students, special education kids and limited English kids. . . . We're 8 percent or 9 percent of the investment in education, at the federal level, and I think it's important that those resources are focused on those who are left behind. And so, when we're only graduating half of our Hispanic students on time or half our African American students on time, the raging fire in public education policy is:
What are we going to do with these vast, vast numbers of young Americans who lack the ability to be successful in our country. And that is our prime directive, our highest priority. That's what No Child Left Behind is about.

Q: Are we on the road to replacing state grade level standards with national standards?

A: I think there's a real debate about that, that will happen in Congress this year. I think there is some unevenness (among states). . . . But as I've said, we're a minor investor at 9 percent in (K-12) education, and it's one of those he-who-has-the-gold-makes-the-rules sort of deals. So, state and local property taxpayers want to have a say about what goes on in their schools, and I'm sympathetic to that. . . . I think we're not ready for national standards.

Q: You're the 800-pound guerilla of education policy. The state education system needs federal money to survive, and if states don't follow the rules, they don't get that money.

A: Well, here are the rules: Show us results for kids and show us by 2014.
This law passed more than five years ago and gave schools until 2014 to have kids on grade level in reading and math.

We've also provided a very significant increase in federal funding, and I don't think that's an unreasonable expectation. . . . The assessment, the start date, the techniques, the strategies are left to the local school district.

Q: Why not continue to test third-, fifth-, eighth-graders, instead of changing to annual third through eighth grade tests?

A: It didn't tell you enough. We call it data-drive decision-making in education. And you know when you just do what I call that snap-shot assessment in Grade 3 and 5 and 8, for example, you really don't know what went wrong between Grades 3 and 8. Is it the test book? Is it the technology? Is it the teacher development? What are the various things that underlie that and we as education policymakers can act on. None of this data is meaningful unless we use it to . . . improve teaching.

Reach the reporter at