So asked Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, who was a guest on The Daily Show last night.
Her manner was quite charming, but I was really frustrated by her answers to Jon Stewart’s serious (if snarkily delivered) questions.
Jon Stewart: What’s been so controversial? Is the idea of No Child Left Behind that’s so controversial, is they say that everybody now is moving the schools just for the tests, and they’re sort of ignoring the other issues in education?
Margaret Spellings: There’s some of that. People say that we’ve narrowed the curriculum, but I know that if we’re not teaching kids how to read, they can’t do social studies or history, or any of that other stuff, so that’s important.
I had to smile at this, recalling my then-four-year-old Beanie recounting with great animation the so-called conquering of Britain by the Roman emperor Caligula, a year before she could read. I know what Secretary Spellings means, or at least I think I do, when she says kids "can’t do" history if they can’t read, but her statement points to the tremendous difference in how the Department of Education understands education and how, say, Charlotte Mason understood it, or how most of the home educators I know understand it.
Secretary Spellings is working from within a framework that says good reading skills are the first step to becoming educated. I’m coming from the opposite direction: what comes first is not reading, but being read to. I really wanted to jump up and call out to her: Couldn’t you just try it? Try reading the children excellent literature? Lots and lots of it? Put the tests away for a year and just see what happens when you read to them a great deal of fine prose and poetry?
But back to the interview.
MS: The other thing is this notion that, I mean, can we really educate every American child? I mean, we’re so far away from doing that, it’s not even funny. Half of our minority kids aren’t getting out of high school on time. Most of the jobs, the things that are going to make this country and them successful, require a couple years of college these days. So we have to close this gap, because—you talk about haves and have nots—
JS: Why is it so hard to get a handle on? Education—why is it such a bedeviling problem, not just for this administration, but for the administration before—for everybody. What is—is there something inherent in the system? If you’re the—forget about the Secretary of Education. If you’re the Education God. You could change one thing. You could smite the teachers’ union, if you wish—
JS, continues: You could make it rain frogs, which would just be cool…But what would you do, in a perfect world? What is the most vexing part of this whole situation?
Interesting question. If the Secretary of Education had unlimited power and could change any one thing about public education in this country, what would it be? What does she see as the biggest problem facing our educational system? Any guesses?
MS: Low expectations. What the President calls "the soft bigotry of low expectations."
Jon Stewart seemed as frustrated by this answer as I was.
MS: No, seriously. We have to expect more from our kids. And we have lowered the bar and lowered the bar. Kids can and will rise to the occasion. Kids are bored in high school, they’re not being prepared, and we just have to pick up the—
JS: But who is it that expects less? Is it the parents expect less? Or the teachers expect less? Because in the same way that you said you don’t know a parent yet that would opt their kid out [of No Child Left Behind], I don’t know a parent who would ever say, "Hey, if he gets D’s, he gets D’s, whaddaya gonna do?" You know, everybody really wants the best for their child. Who’s got, who’s got the low expectations?
MS: I think a lot of times the system does. Especially for kids who have been "left behind" before. You know, frankly, poor kids. And that’s what we have to be about. If we’re going to continue to lead the world, we’ve got to educate everybody.
Is it just me, or is this a maddening response? If the U.S. Secretary of Education could make one vast, sweeping change to improve the system, the problem she would tackle would be the system’s low expectations?
What does that even mean? It’s nonsensical!
Here’s the entire clip, if you’d like to watch it: