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A Word to My Successor

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By Margaret Spellings
Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Dear Arne Duncan,

Congratulations! I am so pleased that President-elect Barack Obama has asked you, a fellow reformer, to serve as the next U.S. secretary of education. Your experience as chief executive officer of Chicago Public Schools will be invaluable in continuing the work we in the Bush administration began doing to close the achievement gap and provide all children, regardless of race, income level or background, the skills needed to succeed.

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This is an important and hopeful change from the past. For decades, our nation took what I call the "ostrich approach" to improving schools: Instead of facing challenges, we buried our heads in the sand. Thanks to the bipartisan No Child Left Behind Act, we now measure student achievement annually so that we can take an honest look at our problems -- the first step toward solving them.

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.

Still, the strong reactions the law provokes speak to the harsh truths it reveals. I understand that this sometimes causes anxiety and discomfort. As Gen. Colin Powell has noted, when 1 million students drop out every year, "it's more than a problem, it's a catastrophe."

Many people believe that No Child Left Behind can be improved. I agree. In fact, constant improvement is the very point of the law. We have worked closely with states and school districts to implement it fairly and tailor it for their needs.

But I urge you to resist calls to dismantle the core accountability provisions that give the law its power to identify and help children in need. Without it, we're back to doling out dollars and crossing our fingers.

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 recovery on Wall Street and Main Street depends on reform in the classroom. They recognize, as do you and President-elect Obama, that when we raise expectations, we achieve results.

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.

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.

I urge you to build on the progress we've made in higher education. We have worked with colleges and universities to improve accountability, affordability and access. This is critical for students who rely on federal student loans, which we have protected during the financial crisis. About 1.2 million more students are receiving Pell Grants than in 2001, and the maximum award has risen by nearly $1,000 -- a further safety net for uncertain times.

Finally, I would ask you to not let Congress take away Opportunity Scholarships for the District of Columbia. They are lifelines for at-risk children, enabling their parents to choose public, private or religious schools that meet their needs. Fortunately, those children have a true champion in Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who is doing a great job turning around D.C. schools.

Many in Washington will judge you on your popularity with adults. If some adults are made uncomfortable by your policies, so be it. The needs of children must come first.

The writer is secretary of education.


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