” I don’t see any headlong rush to abandon NCLB…quite the contrary”: An Interview with Margaret Spellings

Margaret Spellings served as George W. Bush’s Secretary of Education during his second term and was his White House advisor on education before that.  A Texan since third grade, Margaret SpellingsMs. Spellings was never a teacher or school administrator but worked for the Texas School Boards Association and on a school reform commission for a previous Texas governor.  Ms. Spellings is generally acknowledged to be a principal architect of No Child Left Behind, which she continues to defend with vigor.  Always a feisty interview when she was in office, she clearly has not lost a step, as you will see.


The Interview

Let’s start by talking about tomorrow.  There was a lot of talk about your running for Governor of Texas. I know that’s not happening now, but are you interested in replacing Kay Bailey Hutchinson in the U.S. Senate?  Or in the governorship down the road?

I have no plans to re-enter the public arena any time soon in either an elected or appointed capacity. I am currently loving life after public service.

And now the past, specifically No Child Left Behind.  What are your feelings about what strikes me as a headlong rush to abandon No Child Left Behind?  Some hard-core Republicans don’t even use the name any more, unless they’re talking about drastic repair work.   And many Democrats have gone back to calling it ESEA, the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, the original name from 1965.

Huh? John, I am not seeing any headlong rush to abandon NCLB…quite the contrary. While you are right in that the name (NCLB) is often attacked, I am thrilled that the major policies are very much in place and supported by the current administration, which supports standards, data, pay for performance and charters.  I believe we did something very significant with NCLB in creating a unique coalition of supporters, largely from the civil rights and business communities, who continue to stay strong in the face of vested stakeholder groups and those who argue against a federal role. Besides, No Child Left Behind actually describes the policy embodied in this law, and if they walk away from those policies and decide to leave kids behind they should change the name.

You famously compared NCLB to Ivory Soap–99.44% pure, meaning that it needed only some tinkering.  Do you still feel that way?

I sure do. The core principles of the law – annual assessment, real accountability with consequences and deadlines, a focus on teacher quality, and confronting failing schools—are still the right issues, and I am pleased those in states all over this country and the new administration agree.  Having said that, no legislative body has ever passed a perfect law.  It’s why I worked so hard before I left office to create pilot programs to include student growth in accountability, offer more tutoring services for kids, end the gaming of the graduation rate, and fund innovative performance pay programs for teachers.

Checker Finn and others have said, basically, that you got it backwards. You should have figured out how to set the standards and then let the states figure out how to get there.  Is that just Monday morning quarterbacking, or do the critics have a point?

As someone who has worked at the state level as well as the federal level, I fully understand the desire of those who pay the bills, those closest to our children to determine what their schools teach. The “results over process” approach embodied in No Child Left Behind provides the right calibration between states and the feds. It provides more transparency than ever before – certainly much more than Checker’s days at the Department. Checker and those like him now have the opportunity to compare and chide states that have set the bar low and challenge them to raise standards for students.

Speaking of standards, we seem to be moving toward national or common standards.  Is this a good thing?  What could go wrong?

There is much that can go wrong on the way to national or common standards. At the moment we have 50 accountability systems – 50 speedometers, if you will who tell us we are going too slow. Our achievement gap is huge, our dropout rates are deplorable and, instead of talking about and working on speeding up, we are talking about getting a new speedometer. While I agree that standards should be raised, I think there are better ways to get there, while keeping our sights on our most urgent work – the needs of students now being left behind.

My biggest worry about national standards is the pressure to break the link between the accountability system requirements and the push to higher standards. Those who urge higher standards will say they need more time to meet them and the current deadline of 2014 will be pushed off causing the needs of those in failing schools to be ignored once again.

Do you envy Arne Duncan, your successor as Secretary of Education, and his billions of discretionary dollars?  What would you have done with that money?

I am of two minds.  The money does present a tremendous opportunity and certainly does quiet the critics who have used a lack of money as an excuse to thwart reform.  But it does present real challenges and opportunities for waste and wrong-headedness.

Please tell me more about the potential for wrong-headedness.  What could go wrong? Do you share Diane Ravitch’s concerns about the heavy hand of Washington?

Margaret Spellings quoteThe education system is not famous for the use of research-based practices and expenditures around effective approaches. With more money we will see much more spending on “stabs in the dark” efforts to enhance achievement. I think Secretary Duncan has identified the right set of priorities for reform, but I wonder if the same people who have brought us to our current situation are capable of bold effective innovation that will dramatically improve our schools. Only time will tell.

Has power over education shifted permanently to the feds, or can you imagine a scenario in which states reclaim their authority?

I don’t think that the balance of power has shifted to the feds. States have the lion’s share of authority over their schools – they set standards and graduation requirements, develop assessments, establish licensure and training programs for teachers, make resource and budgetary decisions and on and on. The federal role is discrete but muscular around one major goal – are kids on track to work on grade level (as determined by each state) by 2014?

You’re a Republican to the core. Do you worry that the federal government is now exerting too much influence over public education?  With all these discretionary dollars, it seems that most of the camel, not just the nose, is now in the tent.  Is this good?

In my view NCLB created a unique coalition and it recognized the right balance without getting to the tipping point. By that I mean the vigor of NCLB is around accountability and consequences–things like required NAEP participation and working toward the deadline of 2014–while respecting the rightful role states play in setting standards, designing tests, and paying the bulk of the freight.

Looking back, what were the best moments of your tenure as Secretary?

I loved being in schools with kids here and around the world. I loved seeing the undying devotion most teachers have to their profession and their students. I loved the opportunity to be in a place to help make a real difference for kids.

Finally, the present. You’re the new Executive Vice President of the National Chamber Foundation, part of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. What’s the Campaign for Free Enterprise that you’re running?

It’s a national advocacy campaign to educate and defend the free enterprise system that has built our great country and has provided amazing opportunity for Americans that are unique in the world.  The economic crisis has caused the government to intervene this past year in out-of-the ordinary ways, and in some cases that has been justified.  But it’s important to remember that we need to support our businesses and entrepreneurs who create jobs and grow our economy.  Governors and mayors across the country understand that, and that’s part of the work I am doing with the Chamber.  In addition, the National Chamber Foundation has a role to play in educating Americans – especially our young people — about the strengths of the free enterprise system.  I’m excited about this opportunity to use my experience in education and at various levels of government to help foster a dialogue on a broader set of issues like trade, health care, workforce training, transportation, and legal reform, to name a few.

But you aren’t abandoning your own consulting company. What does Margaret Spellings & Company actually do? For whom?

While the Chamber Foundation and its activities involve a significant time commitment of me and my colleagues, I am still able to pursue other relationships like the Boston Consulting Group, where I am a Senior Advisor.  I’m also enjoying the opportunity to be involved in other activities including working with other foundations and non-profits.  I am enjoying the opportunity to be involved in a variety of activities and I am very much enjoying my life after public sector service.

Unlike your predecessor Rod Paige, you never became a category in the Education Jeopardy game that we education reporters play at our convention. Instead you were on the real Jeopardy with the real Alex Trebek.  And weren’t you on Jon Stewart’s “Daily Show” too?  What was that like?

As the first “soccer mom secretary” with school-aged kids in secondary and postsecondary schools, I knew we had to work to connect with our customers and their families in ways that were relevant to them. I watch Jeopardy with my teenage daughter nearly every day. I came in second on the show (it’s all about the buzzer). I was on the Daily Show and the Colbert Report as well.  If you take yourself too seriously, you’ll never make it in government!


Want to hear more from Margaret Spellings? Listen to older interviews below:

Listen to a 2001 interview when Ms. Spellings was President Bush’s Domestic Policy Advisor.

Listen to a 2007 interview with Spellings as she responds to questions about loopholes in NCLB.

7 thoughts on “” I don’t see any headlong rush to abandon NCLB…quite the contrary”: An Interview with Margaret Spellings

  1. Spellings says, “The education system is not famous for the use of research-based practices and expenditures around effective approaches.”

    The same could be said of the political system. Meanwhile, as a classroom teacher, I work in my classroom, using years of experience in implementing research-based pedagogical strategies. There is educational and psychological research to support the overall construction of my course, my grading and assessment systems, my lessons and activities. But the political system is not interested in that. Their zeal for testing data, incentives, and penalties, not only lacks a basis in research, but is actually contraindicated in psychological and economic studies. And yet, we see a steady stream of policy and political decisions that discount what we know, in favor of what other people in power would like to be true. For some idea what I’m talking about, I highly recommend Dan Pink’s lecture on motivation and performance, available for viewing here:


  2. Having been an inner city public school teacher, administrator, parent and PTA president, as well as researcher, I read this interview with great interest. My wife has been an urban public school teacher, focusing on students with special needs for more than 30 years, and our older daughter is an inner city public school (HS math) teacher.

    Thanks for Mr. Cohen for taking the time to write. However, I respectfully disagree with Mr. Cohen when he says the “political system is not interested” in what is happening in his classroom, or the research he believes supports what he is doing.

    Having worked closely for more than 20 years with state governors and legislators in more than 20 states, I find many political leaders very interested in what is happening in classrooms. That’s many political leaders, not all.

    Having said that, I’d readily agree that there are problems with NCLB. I don’t think that schools should be on a “needs improvement” list if they have a group of students with special needs who don’t make enough progress. I think schools should get more credit for “value added” under NCLB. I think we should be identifying outstanding district and charter public schools (as defined by value added, as well as absolute achievement). I’d also look at what % of high school kids apply for and are accepted into some form – 2 or 4 year post-secondary institution. I also think schools should have greater flexibility in who they hire – there are some outstanding people who have not gone through college or university based teacher preparation programs. I’ve encouraged by our local teachers union (in St. Paul) that is proposing a new teacher preparation program that features many excellent ideas, which they would run with cooperation with a local university.

    How would YOU improve NCLB? I’d be interested in what other people think?

    Joe Nathan
    Center for School Change
    Humphrey Institute
    Univ of Mn


  3. Thanks to Mr. Nathan for offering up another view, and pushing me to clarify mine as a result. My statement was ambiguous: “But the political system is not interested in that.” I do agree with Mr. Nathan that the political system is interested in what goes on in my classroom. After all, the system is a collection of people, and I tend to believe that people act with good intentions. What I meant was that the system and certain people who dominate it are not interested in why I do what I do. They do not want to dig too deeply into their own assumptions about teaching and learning and data and tests, preferring a simplistic and uncritical view of testing as a valid, reliable, and objective enterprise, when in fact many tests are lacking in one or all of those areas. They are interested in results, but don’t know enough about what kind of results they could ask to see. They are interested in outcomes, but believe mistakenly that they can pressure us to improve those outcomes without making fundamental improvements in inputs or the processes. They are interested in measuring what they believe matters, but not interested in a true debate about what matters, how to measure it if it can be measured, the quality or impact of their proposals, and the quality of the research to back up opposing sides of the debate.

    How would I improve NCLB? If not just starting over, eliminate the severe penalties. Threats don’t work. Then forget the 100% idea. I’m paraphrasing an economist here (apologies for not knowing who it is) – any standard that can be met by everyone simultaneously is not a useful standard. Then, provide incentives for local entities to evaluate their schools using multiple measures, and empower those entities to act on their findings without operating in a climate of fear and doubt about their future existence.


  4. I would like to see more comments on what worked and didn’t work under NCLB/Spellings. I agree with many of the principles, but the execution was often wrong-headed and damaging. But we need to learn from both the successes and mis-steps, if we are going to go forward in the next 4 years either with a revised version of NCLB—or a whole new federal law.


  5. I enjoyed your interview. I think we can all agree that there is a tremendous opportunity for education reform at this moment in history.

    Kathleen McCartney
    Dean, Harvard Graduate School of Education


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