Margaret Spellings: An Argument for Abolishing the Federal Department of Education

In "Politics and the English Language," George Orwell wrote, "When one watches some tired hack on the platform repeating the familiar often has a curious feeling that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy...." George Orwell was lucky. He never had to listen to Margaret Spellings, Secretary of Education.

She famously said, "I talk about No Child Left Behind like Ivory Soap: It's 99.9 percent pure. There's not much needed in the way of change." Teachers/authors Debra Craig and Judy Rabin decided that Spellings was "99.9% delusional" while Education Week founder, Ron Wolk called the statement "99.9% bunk." (A full day's conference on the law's failings was reported in a post here December 9).

Spellings got trounced on Celebrity Jeopardy. "I was shocked to discover that US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is a moron," wrote DC gossip blogger, Wonkette. Wonkette elicited many funny comments. My favorite: "She attempted to defend herself by explaining that she simply doesn't test well. The value of providing 'exact answers' rather than 'approximate possibilities in a conceptually acceptable range' is highly overrated. She had still hoped to be socially promoted to co-champion."

Speaking at the NCLB "Summit" in April, 2006 Spellings declared, "This law is helping us learn about what works in our schools. And clearly high standards and accountability are working. Over the last 5 years, our 9-year-olds have made more progress in reading than in the previous 28 combined."

Except that those "last 5 years" are report National Assessment trend data collected in 1999 and 2004, not in the Bush years, 2001 to 2006. So for three of those five years NCLB didn't even exist. Maybe Bill Clinton deserves all the credit. Many state NCLB plans had not been approved for 2002-2003 so NCLB would have had only a few months in the 2003-2004 school year to work its wonders. I don't think so.

"With this law we set a historic goal for our country: every child learning on grade level by 2014." Nope. No matter how many times Spellings says "grade level," the law remains silent on grade level. It says "proficient." The only meaningful, existing definition of "grade level" is the score of the average child at a given grade. If the scores are distributed in a bell curve, and the tests from which the concept of grade level evolved insured that they would be, then, by definition, nationally 50% of all students are always below grade level.

At the end of this speech, Spellings reported that on a visit she made to a middle school science class, "The class was full of students asking "what if" questions. They had high expectations" (manifested by what, exactly?) and a lot of confidence (you can see this in a single, short visit?) and they knew they could make a difference" (as sixth graders???).

She wound up with this: "There are certain things you can't teach in a classroom that our students already have--qualities like creativity, diversity, and entrepreneurship. Our job is to give them the knowledge and skills to compete." This might likely be the first and only time that "diversity" has been described as a personal quality.

But if Spellings asserts that you can't teach creativity or entrepreneurship, what does that say about how and what Spellings defines as "teaching?" And how on earth did the kids "already have" these qualities? Was it something in the water?

In a June speech, Spellings said "I had a meeting with Thomas Friedman from the New York Times last week. And he told me the number one skill our children will need to survive in the flat world is learning to learn." So the question is, Is she ignoring what Friedman told her or does she actually think that one-size-fits-all, prep-and-test NCLB will contribute to kids' learning to learn (much less loving to learn)?

As with Bush's general war against science, Spellings subordinates facts to policy. She announced a proposal to send students to private schools with publicly funded vouchers four days after her own department released a study showing that private schools have an advantage on public schools only because of how they select students--more rich kids, fewer poor kids, fewer minorities, fewer special education kids, and fewer English Language Learners. Similarly, her attempts to shore up charters were undercut by another department study indicating that similar public schools outperform them. She brought forth regulations favoring single-sex schools and classes not long after a massive department report concluded there was no evidence that single sex schools improve anything.

It is depressing to think that at a time when the federal department of education is playing its largest role in history, that department is in the hands of a dunce like Margaret Spellings.