Margaret Spelling: We Aren't Serious About Changing Education

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

You would think by now I would be numb to the complaints about No Child Left Behind. After all, the law's been on the books for nearly a decade now. But here we are, debating many of the same questions, at the heart of which is the soft bigotry of low expectations. At what point will we have the courage to call out those who shamelessly believe poor and minority kids can't learn and get serious about holding the very school systems that our hard-earned tax dollars support accountable for the education of America's young people?

Let's talk history for a minute. When the Elementary and Secondary Education Act was last reauthorized in 2001 as "No Child Left Behind," we asked something simple of our schools: that America's children -- regardless of their zip code -- be educated to state-determined grade level standards. Standards, which many, including U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, claim are too low. We knew it would require hard work by adults in the system. We also knew that the results would be truly profound and that our kids were worth it. Making this investment in their future was the least we could do.

While the law requires schools to eventually get all children reading and ciphering on grade level, those who rail against the reasonableness of this goal fail to acknowledge provisions in the law which legitimately exclude and exempt many students from this requirement. Students who are profoundly disabled, those transitioning to the English language and those who have not been in the school long enough to be reasonably expected to master the material are not counted in the accountability system and are either not expected to meet the requirements of the law or are given extra time to do the necessary work to catch up.

As U.S. Secretary of Education, I visited often with parents -- in particular, those of minority students -- about what they wanted for their children. The hopes and dreams they held for their offspring were no different from those of white parents with whom I spoke. I never understood why some grown-ups in the school system would think otherwise.

Not only are too many school systems falling short of meeting the goals that policymakers set for them a decade ago, they're falling short of parents' expectations. Parents get that this work isn't easy but they're funding it and they believe it's possible. The fact is there are success stories all over this country. If only we could replicate what works and bring it to scale. Our biggest obstacles are the non-believers -- too many of whom populate our school systems. They need to move aside and make room for those who do believe, who have seen the statistics and possess the will, the energy and the ideas to turn things around.

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