It took me a while to catch up with her, but I reached Education Secretary Margaret Spellings recently just before she left town for vacation. I was pursuing her because of an extraordinary outpouring of e-mails and other messages from teachers and principals -- triggered, I'm afraid, by a column in June in which I'd questioned the educators' commitment to the goal of improving school performance.
The column was prompted by a survey for the Educational Testing Service by the polling firms of Peter D. Hart, a Democrat, and David Winston, a Republican. In it, three-fourths of high school teachers had unfavorable views of No Child Left Behind, the four-year-old Bush administration initiative that Spellings helped design when she was on the White House staff.
More troubling, as I said, was the fact that teachers seemed skeptical of the basic premise of that law -- that students, teachers and schools should be rigorously judged by a single standard. They were asked to choose between the statement that everyone should be held to the same standard of performance, because it is wrong to have lower expectations for students from disadvantaged backgrounds, and the contrary view that they should not be held to the same standard because we should not expect teachers working with disadvantaged students to have them reach the same level of performance on standardized tests as teachers in more affluent schools.
More than half the parents in the survey favored the single standard, but only one-quarter of the high school teachers agreed.
I suggested that the teachers' attitude spelled trouble for the effort to improve the schools -- and the teachers let me know they thought I was dead wrong.
One Pennsylvania educator called the legislation "a wonderful concept, but woefully inadequate when dealing with the realities of public education. Yes, I believe in standards, high standards for my students. I am also realistic enough to know that not all students have the natural ability, the desire or the family structure to succeed at the highest level. While I believe my brightest or hardest-working students can compete with anyone, I also know that I have many students who struggle just to get through life daily. Yet 'educators' expect these students to still excel on a standardized test?"
Another teacher, with 20 years' experience teaching third and fourth grades in Ohio, questioned the notion that parents expect more of the students than teachers do. "I just cannot fathom where or how you obtain data that supports the thesis that parents are more likely than teachers to believe expectations and standards are set too low. I can say that certainly in my suburb of Sylvania, the exact opposite situation exists. Frequently teachers express the opinion that expectations and standards need to be raised, but the parents' complaints would cause the phones to ring off the hook!"
I knew that Spellings's response would be a lot more significant to these teachers than my own, so I pursued her for an interview. Her first comment was that she was sure the excerpts I just quoted came from "good-hearted and well-intentioned teachers," but then -- employing the president's favorite phrase -- she said, "I hear a lot of 'the soft bigotry of low expectations' in there."
Turning to the survey itself, she said it was surprising that high school teachers would be so negative toward No Child Left Behind since "it is such a minor part of high school." The No Child Left Behind law requires extensive testing in the primary grades, but only one test during high school years. But the president wants to extend its reach into high schools with more testing.
On one point made by many of those who filled my inbox, Spellings offered a significant concession. These teachers had argued that they should be rated on the year-to-year progress their students are making and not just on their attainment of a particular standard.
Spellings said she has a task force, including teachers union representatives, working on how measures of students' progress might be blended with performance standards in evaluating schools. "It is a complicated challenge," she said. "I think we were right to start with performance standards, but now that they are in place, we are working our way into more sophisticated approaches."
I do not expect her words to end the argument. But I will continue to relay messages back and forth -- because all of us have a huge stake in what happens in the schools.