Even the loudest critics of Bush Administration school reforms give Education Secretary Margaret Spellings high praise for her expertise and her willingness to listen to diverse views. Still, Spellings faces tough challenges as she tries to expand the President's No Child Left Behind reform law to the high school grades. And she's learning that in the new job, you sometimes get into debates with cartoon rabbits.
On Feb. 23, Spellings sat down in her spacious office opposite the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum to discuss her priorities with BusinessWeek White House Correspondent Richard S. Dunham. Here are edited excerpts of their conversation:
Q: A lot of companies complain about the skills of the workforce. Some are offering remedial training. Some are importing skilled labor. How are you trying to deal with those kinds of issues in No Child Left Behind, Part Two?
A: The business community spends billions of dollars on remediation to get employees up to the necessary skill levels so that they can add value to their businesses and companies. We need to do a much better job on the front end.
Sixty-eight of every 100 entering ninth graders get out of high school on time. By the time those kids are in the sophomore year of college, it's 26 of those entering ninth graders -- at a time when 75% or 80% of the fastest-growing jobs require at least two years of college. So we have most of the jobs for a minority of the people, and we've got to do something about it.
Q: So how would your proposals improve students' skills?
A: By extending the principles of No Child Left Behind, which are getting results around the country. The achievement gap is beginning to close. Nearly all the states have seen good improvement. We're on the right track. The recipe is right with No Child Left Behind. But we need to take those same principles into high school.
We know that we have to ratchet up those proficiencies much faster. Math and science are a major, major concern to the business community. Most of these fast-growing jobs -- advanced manufacturing, health, information technology -- require math and science background. [The U.S. is] 15th in the world and 23rd in the world on the two most recent international math comparisons. That's not going to cut it. So we have proposed a major intervention initiative on math -- $120 million -- and $200 million for striving readers.
We also call for expansion of the State Scholars Program, which makes a rigorous course of studies available at all high schools. Forty percent of schools don't offer Advanced Placement. Half the states don't offer three years of math. Well, you're going to have a hard time making it in the job market if you don't have a math background.
Q: Why is it important to test for three years in high school? There is criticism that teachers are teaching-to-the-test rather than teaching other subjects.
A: What gets measured gets done. If we're going to measure math and reading every year, people are going to focus on it. Maybe we need more measurement and not less.
Q: The 2006 budget downsized or eliminated a large number of programs such as vocational education and reprogrammed the money for other priorities. Why did you make the decisions?
A: Of the 150 programs [President Bush] recommended eliminating in the government, 48 are here in the Department of Education. Fifteen of those are $5 million or less. [The President's philosophy is]: Let's be clear about accountability and then give latitude and flexibility in managing results.
Q: Vocational education has a lot of political support, particularly in Republican areas.
A: Our largest investment in high school is vocational education. It's basically free money right now. It's a billion dollars, and we say, "Go do vocational ed." And we have, frankly, very few outcome measures. Nobody's asking how's it working? We've got a problem with an alignment between our primary investment in high school and what we're getting for it.
In the business world, they're used to assessing how resources are working and, if they're not to good effect, doing something different.
Q: No Child Left Behind has been attacked from the Right and the Left. Conservative critics talk about the hand of Big Government and say what's needed are fewer, not more, federal mandates. What do you say to them?
A: The role of the federal government in education has always been to see about our neediest children, largely poor kids and special-ed kids. That clearly is the focus of No Child Left Behind. We're not getting it done with respect to those kids.
Q: There's been a big debate over flexibility. Some say the Administration hasn't been flexible enough. Is there any merit to those complaints? And what are you doing to provide flexibility to make sure that the states have a little bit of leeway to achieve the results?
A: As I said in my confirmation hearing, we've learned some things in four years as to how to implementation is going. In the short run, I'm going to do a lot of listening. I'm going to reach out to teachers, principals, chief state school officers, teachers, parents, and find out what do we know and what's working. So I'm gathering information. I'm in the fact-finding mode at the moment.
Q: But you're not backing down from the underlying principles of No Child Left Behind?
A: We're here for the long haul with this law. This is a major systemic change in education. We're going to measure every kid every year. As you know, the administrative process is meant to be an organic enterprise. Does that mean that we're going to capitulate on important principles of No Child Left Behind? Absolutely not.
Q: In the latter days of [former Education Secretary] Rod Paige's tenure, the tone became very personal with some Democrats on the Hill and teachers unions. What can you do to have a discourse that's more civil?
A: I'm going to work hard at doing that, obviously. This has been a gift to me professionally, to be able to have been in the other guy's shoes. I've worked for school boards, I've worked at the state legislative level, I've worked at the federal level, I'm a parent, so I can appreciate the issues that folks are wrestling with. I've always been able to disagree agreeably, if necessary.
Q: Was the Education Dept. contract [that was used to pay] Armstrong Williams a mistake?
A: To the extent that there were some issues with respect to Armstrong Williams...the department can always improve on oversight of federal funds.
Q: Why do you think there was such a response [to your criticism of a visit to a Vermont home with two lesbians on the PBS show] Postcards from Buster? What nerve did you strike there?
A: I believe that with federal tax dollars, we can do reading and school readiness for very young children -- for preschool children -- without getting into issues of human sexuality. Public broadcasting has a special trust with the American people. You should be able to go to the stove and get yourself a cup of coffee, without coming back and having to engage in a conversation about sex with your child at age six.