Margaret Spellings: Small Signs of Progress, But, Then, There She Goes Again Into Orwell's Realm

It always makes me dizzy when a bureaucrat in Washington rails against bureaucrats in Washington.
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Margaret Spellings and I did not get off to a good start as she assumed the mantle of Secretary of Education. Her first act as Secretary was to protect American children from ... a bunny rabbit. Buster, by name. Buster stars in Postcards from Buster, part of a PBS early-learning series. He visits families of different life-styles. Before Spellings whacked him, he had visited Mormon, Evangelical and Muslim families. He had been seen clogging, rodeo barrel racing, monoskiing and grooving to the Arapahoe grass dance.

In "Sugartime!" Buster visited two families in Vermont to learn how they make maple syrup and cheese. The six children he talked to lived in two families where both parents were women. Uh-oh. The adults are very much in the background and neither "lesbian" nor "gay" is spoken, but Spellings killed the episode and disinvited Buster's executive producer, Carol Greenwald, from speaking at a conference on children's television. And demanded that the money spent on "Sugartime!" be returned.

That was then, a time when the Bush administration had the popularity and clout to be as vindictive as it wanted to be, and, brother, did it want to be. This is now with not only Bush's popularity at an all-time low but a time when her own department is suffering the Reading First and student loan scandals. But in her op-ed in the Washington Post on June 9, Spellings showed signs that maybe the Bushies are now aware that they don't create reality after all (in an October 17, 2004 New York Times Magazine article, a Bush staffer actually argued that they did). The signs are faint and, as usual, Spellings litters the landscape with fractured images and mixed metaphors and other language outrages, but I think the signs are there.

First, Spellings referred to the "tough NAEP standards." To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time that any administration official has used any modifier in front of "NAEP standards." Let's hope it's a first step towards saying "unrealistically tough NAEP standards" or "outrageously tough NAEP standards." That's what they are as indicated in my blog "A test everyone will fail" last month.

Second, she wrote, "According to NAEP, more reading progress was made by 9-year-olds from 1999 to 2004 than in the previous 28 years combined." In her many, many previous repetitions of this mantra, she had always said "In the last five years," implying a more current time frame than 1999-2004. As I have noted before, NCLB became law only in 2002. All of the gain could have happened on Clinton's watch. We can't tell -- these are NAEP trend data only harvested every so often. No data were gathered in 2000, 2001, 2002 or 2003. The implementation of NCLB during the 2002-2003 school year can charitably be described as "chaotic." The 2004 NAEP data were gathered in February. That means that NCLB only had the fall of 2003 to work its miracles.

But, after these small signs of candor, Spellings loped off to double-think land. Her article announced her opposition to national standards. Her first argument was that "[National Standards] goes against more than two centuries of American educational tradition. Under the Constitution, states and localities have the primary leadership role in public education. They design the curriculum and pay 90 percent of the bills. Neighborhood schools deserve neighborhood leadership, not dictates from bureaucrats thousands of miles away."

It always makes me a bit dizzy when a bureaucrat in Washington rails against bureaucrats in Washington. And this from an architect of and Chief Flagellator for the largest federal intrusion into this state and local function in the nation's history. Takes one's breath away.

She also revealed a new dictate from The Decider: "The president's plan to reauthorize the No Child Left Behind Act calls on states to post their scores side-by-side with the NAEP results." This is a great way to destroy NAEP. NAEP's integrity rests largely on the fact that people don't pay much attention to it. Attach high-stakes to it and it will lose whatever utility and validity it has.

Anyone interested in reading more about the Maggie and Buster saga can do so at Go to the "Rotten Apples in Education Awards 2005." Spellings received the "Jimmy Carter Amphibious Killer Rabbit" award. The U. S. Department of Education has just published its Condition of Education 2007. Perusal of the Rotten Apples over the last three years will give you a good idea of the condition of the U. S. Department of Education.

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