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SPELLINGS’ TESTS! Margaret Spellings makes three key claims in today's "Dear Arne" letter: // link // print // previous // next //
TUESDAY, JANUARY 13, 2009

Spellings’ tests: In this morning’s Washington Post, education secretary Margaret Spellings pens a “Dear Arne” letter to her presumptive successor, Obama nominee Arne Duncan. She makes at least three important claims in her column. In the current climate, we often hear people making such claims. We seldom see them checked.

Before we evaluate Spellings’ claims, we have to get clear on what they are. Let’s describe them in turn:

No Child Left Behind: First, Spellings sings the praises of achievement gains she attributes to No Child Left Behind. Here is the passage in question:

SPELLINGS (1/13/09): Is it working? Yes. Test scores in reading and math have reached record highs. And the children once left behind—African American, Hispanic, those living in urban areas—are driving these academic gains.

Spellings says NCLB “is working.” You can tell the program is working, she says, because of those record-high test scores. According to Spellings, these “academic gains” are being “driven” by minority and low-income kids—the kids who were once left behind.

Duncan’s big shoulders: Along the way, Spellings praises Duncan’s record as superintendent of schools in Chicago. (He became head of all windy city schools in June 2001.) To wit:

SPELLINGS: You need no lessons from me on toughness and tenacity. Not only did you achieve results for Chicago's schoolchildren, but you did it in the face of steady criticism. You stuck to your guns on merit pay for teachers who showed results. You expanded charter schools when others wanted to limit them. And you closed chronically underperforming schools so that they could be restructured.

According to Spellings, Duncan “achieve[d] results for Chicago’s schoolchildren,” despite the criticism he took from those who were less enlightened.

Taught to [sic] grade level: Those first two claims are easy to understand; tomorrow, we’ll look at test scores from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) to see how accurate they may be. But Spellings’ third claim is a bit hard to parse. The claim appears in the following passage. At best, the lady’s prose is murky here. At worst, her claim’s incoherent:

SPELLINGS (continuing directly): I am confident you will bring this attitude to Washington. In 2006, you asked Congress to increase funding for No Child Left Behind, calling it "the best long-term investment Congress can make." You have said that "the ideas behind [the law] make a lot of sense." One of those ideas is that every student be taught to grade level in reading and math. Most parents would agree that that is not too much to ask.

Why does NCLB work so well? Spellings seems to attribute the program’s alleged success to one of its basic ideas—the idea that “every student be taught to [sic] grade level in reading and math.” Most parents would agree with this idea, she says. But we’ll go ahead and admit it. Here at THE HOWLER, we don’t really know what that passage means.

Does it mean that every fifth-grader should be taught traditional, fifth-grade math? The kind of math that has always been taught in standard, fifth-grade math textbooks? If so, that raises an obvious question: Should this be done even if the child in question is floundering with traditional third-grade math? Spellings’ language is murky here—but her statement strikes us as very significant. It seems to flow from the following passage, in which she bows low to a cult:

SPELLINGS: You will need allies in this fight. And you will find them in the unique and growing nationwide coalition of reformers. These civil rights, business and community leaders understand that the recovery on Wall Street depends on reform in the classroom. They recognize, as do you and President-elect Obama, that when we raise expectations, we achieve results.

“When we raise expectations, we achieve results,” Spellings says. This murky motto is endlessly invoked in the age of No Child Left Behind (as it was in the years before that act passed). But readers! If that claim is true, perhaps we should make fifth-graders take eighth-grade math! Wouldn’t that show we had “raised expectations?” Come to think of it, why not raise expectations even more? Why not do fifth-graders the favor of teaching them tenth-grade math? Why are we holding them back?

Spellings makes some significant claims—the kinds of claims that are seldom fact-checked. Quick reaction: We’d say that some of her claims are factually accurate—but at the same time, we’d have to say that some of these claims are rather misleading. But her third claim, about those high expectations, may deserve the most attention of all. In his column in Sunday’s Post, Marc Fisher also sang the praise of those “high expectations”/“higher standards.” We hear such cultish talk all the time. But what do such claims really mean?

TOMORROW: A look at the record.