Tweaking of 'No Child' Seen

By Lois Romano
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, August 31, 2006

As schools nationwide open for business, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings took the opportunity yesterday to compare the centerpiece of the administration's education policy to soap.

"I like to talk about No Child Left Behind as Ivory soap. It's 99.9 percent pure," Spellings told reporters over coffee. "There's not much needed in the way of changes. . . . As much grist as there was for the mill five years ago on various fronts . . . we've come a long way in a short time in a big system affecting 50 million kids."

In a casual meeting at the agency, and with no particular agenda, Spellings said she believes NCLB -- a law that requires annual student assessments -- simply needs tweaking, and she emphasized that it is time to take it to the next level of development. Critics have long complained that the compliance requirements for NCLB puts too much stress on state resources and educators, many of whom say they must teach to the test at the expense of other learning.

"We need to take a look at our data across the whole spectrum and we ought to say -- for people who say, 'Wah, wah, we can't have spelling bees because we have to focus on math and reading' -- let's measure the spelling," she said.

"Let's ask ourselves not how many are barely getting over the bar, but how many are acing the test. . . . Now that we have the infrastructure in place, we can ask ourselves a fuller range of questions about kids and how they are doing."

Saying that the federal government has "done about as much" as it can in many ways, Spellings noted that states need to do much of the remaining work on NCLB in order to meet the goal of reading proficiency by 2014.

"They have made a lot of progress on standards, measurement, data and focusing on teachers' credentials," she said, adding that there is still work to be done involving school structure. Among areas for focus, she cited how courses are allocated, the use of personnel and academic rigor.

"There are a lot of issues that relate to the grown-ups and that is the next big thing. I mean, how is Joel Klein going to do school restructuring in low-performing schools?" she said, referring to the chancellor of New York City schools.

Spellings was pressed to address a report released last week that showed fourth-graders in traditional public schools performing significantly better in reading and math than comparable children attending charter schools, which are funded by taxpayers but operate somewhat independently.

The Bush administration is a booster of charter schools as an alternative to poorly performing public schools; critics say the charters gut the schools by allowing good students to leave.

Spellings acknowledged that the federal clearinghouse to screen charter schools needs work, but she all but dismissed the study, saying it has only "modest utility" when parents look for options.

"Some charter schools are fine, excellent, do great work -- some less so," she said. "The difference between charter and public schools doesn't have anything to do with method of instruction or curriculum. It's just a different governance model. What charter schools need to do and what public schools need to do is figure out how we make any classroom work."

Spellings said she will give a speech next month addressing issues tackled by the Commission on the Future of Higher Education. Yesterday, she defended one of the commission's more controversial recommendations, a proposal to create a national student "unit" tracking system that proponents say would push colleges to be more accountable to the public.

Critics have called it an invasion of privacy, but Spellings said a student's identity would be protected.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company