“Can We Really Educate Every American Child?”

May 24, 2007 @ 11:47 pm | Filed under:

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—

(Margaret Spellings makes a whimsical "ooh, there’s an idea" face, but says she is kidding, of course.)

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:


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23 Reponses | Comments Feed
  1. Jennifer says:

    I saw that interview and found it unsatisfying as well. She seemed almost lukewarm about the subject of education. But it just shocks me that there are *parents* out there who accept the system the way it is and don’t do anything if it DOES fail for their child. How can a parent let their child get into middle school (and beyond) without being able to read? I don’t understand that. If the parents don’t speak English, perhaps that is an explanation. I don’t know. Am I off topic? 🙂 Probably, but that is all I could think about during the interview.
    I do agree that being read to is the very first step that needs to be taken. I think that is the way to make a child WANT to read.

  2. Jennifer says:

    And yes, her answer was completely vague –

  3. Michelle R says:

    I agree that being read to from a very young age is crucial to a child’s education, but naturally, this is completely impossible in most classroom settings today. Successful reading time at the library usually has a parent for every child or two to ensure that disruptions are kept to a minimum. In a preschool or elementary school classroom, you have one or two adults to manage a large group of children, some of whom may be considered ADD or ADHD or even autistic and are not expected to actually sit quietly for 10 minutes. Even a highly focused 7 year old will have trouble listening to a story when other children are bouncing around the room, talking or being intentionally disruptive.

    My classroom experience is mainly limited to CCD classes of no more than 15 to 20. I was the aide this past year for my son’s 1st grade class, and my primary job was crowd control. This teacher did a great job of mixing activities: plenty of crafts, coloring, cutting, and only short periods of sit-quiet-and-listen to a Bible story. And still, there were children who just didn’t want to participate appropriately and who were a definite distraction to others who did.

    What to do? I don’t know, but I do think the current school system is broken. I know not everyone can homeschool. Perhaps the one-room schoolhouse concept where older students could help manage younger students is a good balance between a public system and a homeschool system. But then there are critics who would feel the older students are being held back. And of course, teachers would be upset at having to master multiple levels of material and actually be creative!

    If I could wave a magic wand and change one thing about schools, it would be to give all the students parents who had the time, energy and skills to read to them, help them with their homework, and tutor them if necessary.

  4. emily says:

    Thanks for posting about this. DH TiVos Jon Stewart so I’ll have to watch it later today.

    As a former public school teacher, I think the biggest one thing that would improve education across the country would be to make teacher salaries comparable with other professional salaries, so that teaching can attract the best and brightest candidates.

    NCLB has a few things going for it, but overall it is changing the face of education in a negative way, which is also going to drive away the good and innovative teachers, as curriculum becomes more and more scripted in order to ensure that students can pass a particular test at the end of the year.

  5. Jenny in Ca says:

    We used to love the daily show back when we watched t.v.

    I think she answered the only ways she could, that kind of sounded like an answer…the real answer is they wouldn’t change anything, except for more funding. The educational beast lives to feed the beast, moving the kids through the grades is secondary.

  6. Christine M says:

    I think that if you had the ultimate power to fix the education system you could probably come up with a better answer – but I also think that she does have a point. Kids do rise to expectations and a lot of the system is simply not ‘expecting’ a lot. If you don’t expect it – don’t be surprised if you don’t get it. (by that I mean well educated children).

    One example of this is in classroom behavior – my daughter’s fourth grade class has a number of troublemakers in it – and they are constantly being told how ‘bad’ they are. And so they behave badly. Except by the vocal music teacher who tells them how nicely they sing and how nice they all are – guess where they constantly behave the best. – and that’s just behavior – not even learning things.

  7. Lindsey @ enjoythejourney says:

    I concur, completely maddening! Thank goodness for HOME education is all I can say.

  8. Becky says:

    We probably could. We just can’t do it well under the current system. Secretary Spellings helped create NCLB before she got kicked upstairs, as thanks for her years of service to GWB, on his (gubernatorial, I think) campaign, and as senior advisor to the gubner. Ah, the tyranny of low expectations lol.

    I’d wave my magic wand and turn most of the teachers in North America — Canada is in much the same situation, even without NCLB — into Marva Collinses…

    I think the one-room schoolhouse idea, mentioned by Jennifer above, is spot on; we can see the former one-room schoolhouse — defunct in the late fifties — in our neighborhood from our farmhouse kitchen window, and often I’ve said if that school and the older, “Normal School”-trained teachers were still around, I’d probably send my kids there 🙂

    I’d also magically change the thinking of most folks so that they no longer think that an “education” is necessary for national economic and competition reasons. It would be swell if we could all appreciate the idea of thoughtful individuals and an informed citizenry, but that’s not jazzy and urgent enough.

    Teaching kids to read rather than reading to them early on (which is possible in a class of even 25 kids — I saw it in our eldest’s Kindergarten class when we lived overseas) puts the onus of teaching on the child rather than the teacher, and I understand the appeal of that for teachers, especially when the curricula seems to be loaded with so many non-academic subjects now (nutrition, anti-bullying, etc.). I also find it disappointing when parents, whether ps or hs ones, stop reading aloud to their children as soon as the kids can read independently, but that’s another matter lol.

    Heavens, this is much too long, and we don’t even get The Daily Show out here in the country!

  9. patience says:

    I must politely disagree with Michelle about being able to read to a classroom full of kids. I believe it is entirely possible, no matter the age of the children. First you have to take into account the needs of all the children, such as space up front for the ones who can sit quietly and attentively, and something like coloring or shaping beeswax for those who can’t sit still in order to concentrate. You have to create a warm, calm atmosphere in which the telling of stories is honored by all. Then you have to provide quality reading material. I challenge any good teacher to lose the attention of thirty children while reading the story of Pheidippides, for example.

    I have seen large groups of children held spellbound by good storytellers. (Waldorf teachers are the experts in this, of course!) And I have seen teachers cheerfully filling the minds of their students with absolute dross, like “Mrs Wishy Washy”. Infact, when I went on a tour of schools, three different classrooms in different schools were all studying this drivel. The children looked stupefied.

    So if I could change anything about education it would be to throw away all the neat little lesson plans and just read and read to the children – fiction, history, geography – and have them draw about it, write about it, re-enact it. Forget about grades, write reports instead about what the children actually know.

    I also wish America would be less obsessed about the “need” for a college education, and about people being somehow “lesser” if they don’t have one. Think about all the amazing self-made men and women who attained great heights without any such education.

  10. Jennifer says:

    Low expectations? LOL who do these people think they’re kidding? I love the wonderful grammar they used in their discussion. I can see how their early reading skills have really paid off…hehe
    My eldest was 9 (as was I) when he learned to read and my youngest doesn’t even read cat in the hat and he’s 7. So what? My eldest is into World War II and history and can now read at a grade 10 level. My youngest loves to utilize his problem solving skills and create inventions. I can see how reading at 3 years of age could have hindered them…
    I also believe that as home educators we push for how our children learn, not just what they learn. In school, you do have to read to accomplish anything, everything’s in a textbook! At home, everything is in the world and the book. We can read to them and live with them. Who could ask for a better education?
    I don’t have time for the video today but will definitely be back to watch the whole thing!

  11. Natalie says:

    I’m not sure I should even get involved in this conversation as I am a public school teacher who loves her job and constantly has students who perform above standards on state mandated tests. School just ended, so I am going to refer to everything in past tense.

    I had twenty students: 5 gifted, 3 ESOL (English as a second language), 3 on the autism spectrum, 3 SLD (diagnosed with learning difficulties), and several behavior problems (otherwise known as B.A.D.). My students sat quietly on the rug every single day as they were read to. They worked in mixed ability groups in math and reading. They can tell anyone more about GA history than most other 2nd graders because they were so intrigued about the story of the colonies that we threw most other content out of the window for a few weeks as we delved into our state history. They did draw about it, read about it, watch appropriate videos, act it out, build models of cities, etc.

    I am so sick to death of hearing that educators should raise expectations. Public school teachers are not babysitting all day. We are busting our bottoms to teach children who come to school without any prior knowledge or schooling. When I was a child (I’m almost 30), I had been to a zoo, a beach, several large cities, museums, the public library, the grocery store, etc, etc, etc, all before I started school. My mother, father, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends’ parents read to me before going to kindergarten. I knew how to hold a book, pencil, scissors, use the restroom, and feed myself independently prior to the first day of school. There are 5 and 6 year olds who have never left their neighborhoods, never touched a book, never helped their mothers cook before coming to school. These children must be taught about life before they can be “educated” (that limited term again, I know).

    If I expected any more out of my second graders they would completely shut down. I already teach them to multiply and write in cursive before they graduate to third grade. As new standards have been implemented, I am required to teach more to younger students. I CLEARLY remember learning to multiply in 4th grade. And it was a breeze. My students struggle to learn that skill. Why? Because they are not developmentally ready for it. Sure, some of them learned all their facts before school was over. They were ready. But some of my students were not developmentally prepared to learn repeated addition= multiplication.

    People, we can’t raise our expecations any more. We’re doing the absolute best we can with the material we have. I love my job–more money wouldn’t make it better. In fact, more money would not even attract more qualified teachers. There are plenty of mediocre teachers who teach to earn our current salary. Do you not think MORE money would attract the same exact type of people? CEO’s are not going to leave their positions to come teach in a classroom with not enough textbooks, students who come to school unclean and hungry, deal with their parents who think their child does no wrong, fill out the gazillions of forms we are required to fill out, and still teach the children.

    “And of course, teachers would be upset at having to master multiple levels of material and actually be creative!” Michelle R up above.

    I don’t think that’s a fair statement at all. I do master multiple levels of material and I am incredibly creative in my classroom–read my class population above. I have to be creative to meet all the needs of the children. I have to be able to keep each child engaged in my lesson regardless of their learning needs. And I have to remember who needs what medication, the name of each parent, who is allowed to be dismissed to which parent on which day, how each child gets home from school, what modications each child is required to have by law.

    Good teachers teach not matter how much money we make. It’s who we are.

    I’ll be back to read other comments soon.

  12. Natalie says:

    Oops…there are few typos above. Today was the last day of school. Fingers are typing faster than brain can process. Please forgive. (modifications, expectations)

  13. Becky says:

    Natalie, you sound very much like my daughter’s Kindergarten teacher overseas. I wept and my daughter (now 9.5 years old) wept when we left her to move back to Canada. We still keep in touch and return with books and arts and crafts supplies on our visits every year.

    Only half in jest, how do we get more of you? Because I think you’re the answer…

  14. Melissa Wiley says:

    Wow, I was out of the house all day today and I see I’ve come home to a lively discussion! Thanks, all of you, for sharing your thoughts.

    Natalie, I had a similar thought re higher salaries as a fix for the system…of course I think teachers should be well compensated, but it seems to me that people who are willing to teach under present circumstances (including the mid-level salaries) are by and large people who are in it for the love of teaching, willing to work under less than ideal circumstances because they believe in the importance of what they do. All the teachers I know personally speak of their jobs as a noble calling. They’re willing to persevere against the considerable obstacles because they believe they are doing something good and important. They’re not in it for the money, and as you said, I’m not convinced that higher salaries would attract *more* dedicated or idealistic teachers. If teachers earned what doctors do (even adjusting downward to factor out malpractice insurance), it seems likely that the profession would attract more people who don’t approach the work with high ideals but rather are in it for the money.

    That sounds like an argument for suppressing teacher salaries, which is not at all what I’m suggesting; I’m just saying I’m not convinced salary is at the heart of the problem.

    Re low expectations, I found it interesting that Sec. Spellings named that as the primary problem, but she herself displayed “low expectations” in her statement about kids not being able to learn history or social studies if they can’t read.

    Re reading aloud to large groups of children, I agree with Patience that it is possible if approached in a steady, patient, deliberate manner a la Waldorf. I do acknowledge that many children today have no habit of listening to words without picture; their lives cultivate no such habit. Add to that the problems created by poor diet (sugar-rich) and I can well imagine the sort of disruptions Michelle R. describes. I guess I am idealistic enough to believe that in the right atmosphere, over time, with engaging literature, most (all?) children could be trained to attend to group read-alouds, and that this would bear great fruit.

    The system seems stuck in a hamster wheel. The tests must be passed, so instruction methods and materials must be focused on enabling kids to pass the tests.

    If I had that magic wand, I’d wave away the tests and the curricula, I really would. In their place I’d put the Charlotte Mason method, lock, stock, and barrel. I would really like to see the outcome of that experiment. I honestly believe that if we gave it three years, we would, as a country (make that continent, Becky) be amazed by the results.

    Natalie, a final word–I’m glad you chimed in here, and I hope everyone, whether homeschooler, school-schooler, teacher, or none of the above, feels welcome to contribute to this discussion. The more dialogue, the better, I think.

  15. Andrea says:

    I come to this discussion from all angles: as homeschooling mom of two atypical learners, as a parent who tried to do things the public school way, as a woman also working on completing a Master’s in elementary education and special education…

    If I were Ms. Spellings but still me, too, I would have said any of the following:
    1. fund special education adequately;

    2. fund gifted education programs adequately;

    3. Keep class size to no more than 16-20 students;

    4. Create a professional support infrastructure for teachers so that more-experienced teachers guide new teachers emotionally and professionally through those first hard years where almost half leave the profession;

    5. Change the ultimate goal of education from fact regurgitation to creative thought (analysis, synthesis, and evaluation in Bloom’s taxonomy of learning);

    6. Ensure that primary assessment takes place through student portfolios and not through off-site-created standardized tests;

    7. More hands-on, project-based learning;

    8. Greater depth, less breadth of content;

    9. Create a set of expectations for promotion and to a subsequent level and then give children as long as they need to reach those expectations–allow the gifted to graduate at their rate, the late-bloomer to graduate at his or her’s.

    These are just off the top of my head. I could probably come up with more, too.

    I hate the ‘non-answer’ Ms. Spellings provided in her interview. Educating our children is one of the most important responsibilities we have as a people. It largely creates the culture we live in today as well as our greatest legacy after we are gone. To my mind, the question deserved better than a smirk and a nonsensical sound-bite.

  16. Mama Squirrel says:

    I have a comment about the difference between the kids who do participate and those who don’t–but I’m putting it on my blog.

  17. Melissa Wiley says:

    Here’s the link to MamaSquirrel’s post. Excellent post, very interesting perspective. Her experience relates to Natalie’s insights. Thanks for sharing, MS. An excerpt:

    “In our local paper today there was something about how our brains are wired for learning–or not–by the time we’re four. And I think there must be something in that. Those two groups of preschoolers showed me every week what they were getting–or missing–in their lives outside of church.

    Of course there could be other reasons why the groups were different and why one class worked and the other didn’t; three of the four kids in the first group were oldest children, if that makes any difference. Of course there were other variables that I don’t know about, one way or another.

    But I take these two small examples and think about the school classroom that was described, and I know exactly what that commenter [Natalie] means.”

    Andrea, I appreciated your thoughts too. I’d like to hand you that magic wand!

  18. natalie says:

    Whew…I’m glad I didn’t incite a riot over here about my comments. Thanks for taking them at the heart of what I meant. I could hug Andrea’s neck and desperately wish she would run for political office.

    I’m glad I came upon this blog and will continue to check in. Thanks for the great conversation. Too bad these conversations aren’t happening with the powers that be and the wallets that control the Capital Hill.

  19. Jennie C. says:

    Sounds like a whole lotta “We don’t have a plan. We can’t fix it. I don’t have the foggiest clue. Is this apple for me?” But, hey. We’re homeschooling. For a whole lotta reasons. And this is one of them.

  20. guitarnan says:

    Fascinating discussion. I do think we’re trying to spread the teachers too thin (I learned to multiply in 3rd grade, by the way). As a former substitute teacher, and a current homeschooling mother, I know it’s possible to read aloud to practically any age group, because I’ve done it. (Greek mythology to 7th graders who were learning constellation names without knowing where they came from, for ex. They were spellbound.)

    If I could wave that magic wand, I would eliminate standardized testing. I realize it fills a need universities seem to have, but many folks forget that the SAT was originally developed for…the military. I certainly see no value in testing my daughter on correctly identifying a picture of a “first settler in North America from Europe,” especially when the choices were a Native American, a Pilgrim in Puritan-stereotype attire, and a person wearing Captain John Smith-type metal armor. I couldn’t answer this question…how could a second grader?

    Teachers in my state routinely review for the state-mandated tests, instead of being able to devote time to real learning in their classrooms. I am sure many of them are frustrated. In my county, teachers can’t even decide when to give tests…the county syllabus must be applied, county-wide, regardless of students’ comprehension of the lesson at hand.


  21. Kathy says:

    I think she did the best she could, defending what has become an undefendable system. You can’t force people to be good parents. You can’t force them to read to their kids. You can’t re-write the culture of “learning and hard work is uncool” that pervades so many groups. You can’t fire all of the teachers who are coasting, collecting a check, and waiting on retirement that are out there. At some point, we MUST stop throwing money at this problem and place the responsibility for education squarely where it belongs: on the parents.

  22. Denise says:

    Okay, I’ll step in as “devil’s advocate.” I am no fan of standardized testing, but there is a reason for it. If all teachers were like Natalie, perhaps there would never have been a NCLB law—but there seem to be plenty of teachers and schools that don’t live up to her standard. Enough of them that parents and other taxpayers are convinced the schools do not producing educated students, so they complain, and politicians are ever willing to step in and micro-manage anything that seems to be in “crisis.” How else can lawmakers push for accountability than by testing? It’s the nature of the public education beast.

    I too could come up with pipe-dreams about what to do with a magic wand—and plenty of read-aloud time would be part of those dreams—but what I would like to see in the real world is a broader implementation among failing schools of the one teaching model that research has repeatedly shown truly does work with disadvantaged students: the widely-loathed Direct Instruction pioneered by Siegfried Engelmann et al. It can be done. It won’t be done. That, too, is the nature of the public education beast.

  23. Denise says:

    Aargh! How embarrassing to re-read my comment and see that I’ve edited myself into nonsense. That should read either “…taxpayers are convinced the schools are not producing educated students…” or “…taxpayers are convinced the schools do not do a good job of producing educated students…” Take your pick.