I watched Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings's interview with Jon Stewart on Tuesday night's Daily Show with my jaw on the table. Her cheery vagueness and then double-talk backpedaling when Jon Stewart asked direct and important questions struck me as weird and frightening for someone with so much power over American children's lives.
Stewart cut to the heart of the No Child Left Behind crisis by asking if she observed the problem that the law was "moving the schools just for the [standardized] tests?"
Spellings nodded as if she really understood what he was saying and then recited a non-sequitur talking point: "There is some of that, people saying that we're narrowing the curriculum, but I know that if we're not teaching kids how to read they can't do social studies or history or any of that other stuff."
Earth to Secretary Spellings: teaching to the test and teaching reading are not even close to the same thing! Under NCLB, schools live and die based on test scores, causing administrators and teachers to fixate on test preparation. Kids get force-fed a stultifying litany of test-taking-strategies packets, and many understandably detach from school. Indeed, the content of their school days has no relevance for preparing them for life, only for preparing for a test. This is not a successful formula to teach kids to read, keep them attending school, or "any of that other stuff."
Stewart asked what is the most vexing part of the education puzzle, and if given a magic wand, what would Spellings change with a wave.
The Education Secretary instantly went for the company line: "Low expectations, what the president calls the soft bigotry of low expectations...Seriously, we have to expect more from our kids."
WHO HAS THE LOW EXPECTATIONS? TEACHERS? PARENTS?
Spellings seemed uncomfortable with Stewart's question and replied, "I think a lot of times the system does, especially for kids that have been left behind already... poor kids... and that's what we have to be about!"
What a hollow promise to make to a generation of struggling, at-risk students and their families. The White House clearly sent Spellings on a PR mission to plug No Child Left Behind as it nears renewal, but she either wasn't ready or wasn't willing to actually break down the serious debates on the core of the legislation.
A cursory background sketch on Spellings reveals her never to have earned a degree in education or been a classroom teacher. Her official government bio begins, "As the first mother of school-aged children to serve as Education Secretary, Spellings has a special appreciation for the hopes and concerns of American families." Forget qualifications on how to educate a nation; she's a mom!
The most important detail about Secretary Spellings is that she was the political director for George W. Bush's first gubernatorial run in Texas, and then served as a senior political adviser for him from 1995 to 2000. Get past the charming Texas drawl and you reveal an inner-circle Bush loyalist/ideologue.
America needs to make a racket on fixing No Child Left Behind and demanding a rigorous discourse from our presidential candidates. The government people at the podium right now don't deserve our trust. Imagine the movie preview guy's voice booming: "From the creators of the War in Iraq...From the people who ardently support such American heroes as Alberto Gonzales, Paul Wolfowitz, and Scooter Libby... Comes a bighearted policy that will leave...no...child...behind!"
Watch the Daily Show interview here.