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The 'No Child' Law's Flexible Enforcer
As She Assesses Progress, the Education Secretary Who Helped Craft the Measure Develops a Lighter Touch

By Nick Anderson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

She chafes at the deliberate pace of Virginia's compliance with federal testing requirements. She admires Maryland's school superintendent. And she touts educational experiments in the District but says D.C. public schools need "a lot of work."

Those are quick takes on regional school affairs from Education Secretary Margaret Spellings. On the issue that absorbs educators nationwide -- No Child Left Behind -- Spellings has sought to project a new pragmatism in her first year in the Cabinet.

As a White House aide who helped craft the law, Spellings backed strict enforcement in the first three years after its enactment in 2002. As education secretary in President Bush's second term, her mantra now is flexibility. Her wheeling and dealing has mollified some -- but not all -- critics who call the law unworkable. Some backers of the law, however, worry that she might be ceding too much ground.

Spellings has eased rules for testing disabled students nationwide, granted regulatory relief to Gulf Coast school systems battered by hurricanes, tinkered with federal rules for tutoring programs to help students in some struggling schools, given states a one-year extension on a deadline for teacher quality and opened the door to a new way to rate schools, based on growth in test scores.

"It was, in my opinion, absolutely right to take a hard line and to take an aggressive approach on implementing No Child Left Behind in the beginning," Spellings said last week. "Of course it was. But should we learn as we go? That's equally true."

In one politically sensitive case, Spellings gave Texas a one-year reprieve on testing disabled students. The agreement allowed her home state -- also Bush's -- special rules for 5 percent of tested students, instead of a 3 percent cap granted other states. The department also fined Texas nearly $900,000 for noncompliance with the law, although Spellings subsequently relented when Texas absorbed huge expenses after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Texas officials said they were moving as fast as possible to lower a special-education testing cap that had been 8 to 9 percent. Spellings said an immediate 3 percent cap in Texas would have been virtually impossible. "I'm a reasonable person," she said.

Spellings said she would not waver on holding states to a target that many educators call virtually unattainable: proficiency for all students in reading and mathematics by 2014. As that date -- 12 years distant when Bush signed the law -- looms closer every year, it poses an ever-tougher challenge for public schools that must make adequate yearly progress for all groups of students or face consequences.

"This is a balancing act, no doubt about it," Spellings said. She added: "The things that I'm paying most attention to are what are the results and how are states doing toward those goals."

In a one-hour interview on the seventh floor of the Education Department, Spellings fielded questions on education law that she joked were of high interest mainly to "a wonk." But the school accountability drive that Spellings leads profoundly affects students, parents and teachers across the United States.

Case in point: Virginia's expansion of reading and math testing this year to cover all grades from 3 to 8. Previously, Virginia tested only in grades 3, 5 and 8. Now, meeting a federal deadline, it is adding tests in grades 4, 6 and 7. "Finally," Spellings said, "at the very last, last minute." Other states, including Maryland, moved more rapidly. Virginia officials say slower implementation will help ensure better-quality tests.

Spellings, who has a daughter in a Fairfax County middle school, said she will be "thrilled, as a mother," to see a full battery of Virginia tests after years of "not seeing those assessments coming home in my own child's backpack." She added: "I want as much information as I can get about the quality of my child's school."

Spellings also said she hopes Virginia and other states will put more pre-algebra into the elementary math curriculum. "We're not seeding enough higher-order, problem-solving thinking," she said. "We then plunk kids . . . into algebra in eighth grade . . . and they can't do it."

Turning to the other side of the Potomac River, Spellings praised Maryland Superintendent of Schools Nancy S. Grasmick, a Democrat who has held that post since 1991. "She's very experienced and builds consensus around tough things," Spellings said. Example: "When you've got conservative Republicans and the PTA working together in the same direction about how to best involve parents, that's a win."

Spellings lauded some publicly funded charter schools in the District, which operate with less red tape and more freedom to innovate, and said she was eager for data on a new federal program to help low-income children attend private school. On the city's perennially low-ranking school system, she said: "They have a ton of work to do on curriculum reform, especially in reading. I mean, there is a lot of work to do here."

In the coming year, Spellings said she wants to examine what states are doing to improve schools that repeatedly fail to meet standards. Some schools in Virginia and the District face what the law calls "corrective action," and some in Prince George's County and Baltimore face a further stage of mandatory changes known as "restructuring."

Spellings said: "As this law matures, we're likely to have more people in this scenario. We have a responsibility and an opportunity to help share what works. . . . Having schools called out, spotlighted, attended to when they're not working, is what this law is about."

One initiative that stalled last year was a proposal from Bush's reelection campaign to expand No Child Left Behind in high schools. Asked if the proposal was dead, Spellings said: "Heck, no. Are you kidding me? The need is more acute than ever." Debate on renewal of the law is expected to begin in Congress next year.

Spellings said she also hopes to promote Advanced Placement programs to make high school more rigorous for more students. Those programs receive about $32 million a year in federal funding -- a sum that she hinted could grow.

"One of the hunches I have . . . is that a lot of kids -- even kids that we think are below the bar -- are frustrated in high school because they're just bored out of their minds," Spellings said. She said she wants schools to "really challenge them and say this is what real grownups do; real college students do this, and this is what matters."

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