Evan Smith: So here we are in the middle of a presidential campaign, and the Democratic and Republican candidates have been talking about health care and the economy and Iraq. They’ve been talking about everything in the world, it seems, except education. Is the problem solved? Did you fix the schools and I’m just not aware?
Margaret Spellings: Sadly, no. As you know, I worked for George W. Bush during the 2000 campaign, and he talked a lot about education. He talked about the achievement gap, about things Republicans didn’t usually talk about. The standard shtick had been “abolish the Department of Education,” “no federal intervention”—that sort of thing. And that changed with Bush. This primary season looks to me more like business as usual. The Democrats are playing to the teachers’ unions, and the Republicans are talking about states’ rights, no intervention, cutting spending, et cetera. So we’re not talking about those things in the middle.
ES: Education has been such a constant in the conversation largely because of you and largely because of the law you’re most closely associated with, No Child Left Behind, which has been controversial in some quarters. Then again, how many education initiatives at the national level could people talk about by brand name until now?
MS: Zero. I think there’s a sense that, you know, love it or hate it, somebody’s been working the problem, that it hasn’t suffered from a lack of attention. And maybe that’s why it’s not a focal point in this campaign. Health care, I would say, is the opposite. There hasn’t been as much discussion or as much policy-making around health care, with the exception of the prescription drug benefit.
ES: Let me ask you the Ronald Reagan question: As far as public education goes, are we better off now than we were seven years ago?
MS: No doubt about it. I don’t have to make a case with anything other than data. The student achievement gap is closing—not everywhere, not always, but the trend line has reversed. We had a flat trend line for years, and all of a sudden it has started to tick upward, especially in states like Texas that more quickly adopted and adapted No Child Left Behind—like policies—annual measurement, holding yourselves accountable. Obviously it took us a long time. This law could not have passed through many state legislatures. It came as a shock to the system in some places, and it took them a while to get it fully implemented.
ES: If all the statistics and indicators are what you say they are, why is there not a greater sense out here in the world of good news happening in education?
MS: Because this is the uncomfortable transition period in which grown-ups have to change.
ES: Change expectations? Change actions? Change worldview?
MS: All of it. Change expectations in this sense: I know you have two kids, Evan. If their teacher said, “We think we can get them on grade level by 2014,” your head would spin off.
ES: I wouldn’t accept that level of customer service in any business, so why should I accept it in the schools?
MS: Absolutely. The expectation for your kid and my kid should not be different from the kid in East Austin or Laredo. And behaviors have to change. We’re going to have to find ways to get our best teachers doing the most challenging work. We often do just the opposite. If you have a Ph.D., you’re at Cream Puff High, and if you’re brand-new, you’re assigned to the most challenged educational setting until you wash out.
ES: How do you reverse that? How do you make it so that the Ph.D. is motivated to gravitate to the school most in need?
MS: Without accountability, we had no motivation to even ask that that occur, because achievement levels didn’t matter enough for us to wonder why we should try to get them over there. We’re going to have to do things like reward teachers for doing the most challenging work and reward them when they get results with kids. We’re going to have to break down some of the barriers we’ve put up that prohibit expertise from coming into our schools. We have to find ways to get capable, able people in our classrooms.
ES: This sounds expensive at a time when, at the federal level, spending is being criticized and at the state level, people are walking around with their pockets turned out.
MS: Because of all this information, we can be much more strategic and precise and effective about how we spend money. We need to look at the data and say, “Do we have a problem with Hispanic math or third-grade reading for African Americans? How does the Metroplex look compared to rural Texas?” We can micro-target resources as opposed to putting the money out there and hoping for the best.
ES: Are there success stories that can be modeled in places that aren’t making the grade?
MS: That’s one of the things that the federal government should do better. The states likewise. Now that we know who’s developed best practices, let’s tell the rest of the world. If we have the cure for cancer, let’s tell everybody, right? But there’s a little bit of the “not invented here” mentality that we sometimes have to break through.
ES: You really think there’s enough money between what the federal government has allocated and what the states can afford to solve the problems you’re talking about?
MS: Obviously resources are an issue. And sure, we need to spend more money. The president is calling for an additional $406 million for Title I, $607 million for Reading First, $337 million for IDEA [Individuals With Disabilities Education Act]. I’m not aware that the state of Texas has ever appropriated less money for education than the previous year. But, you know, how much is enough?
ES: Well, if one were a critic of No Child Left