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Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings MAG
Margaret Spellings became the U.S. secretary of education in 2005. She is a member of President Bush’s cabinet and a leader in advocating the American Competitiveness Initiative, which seeks to bring U.S. students’ knowledge of math and science up to the level of students in other developed countries. Before becoming secretary of education, Spellings served as assistant to the president for domestic policy and helped to create the No Child Left Behind Act. She is the first secretary of education who is the mother of school-age children.
As secretary of education, what has been your single greatest accomplishment?
No Child Left Behind, no doubt. It embodies the idea that we are going to hold ourselves accountable for the achievement of every student.
Do you think the emphasis on test results is dumbing down education and not giving enough time for other learning?
No, and here’s why: we are seeing an increase in scores and the achievement gap is closing because we are finally paying attention to the achievement of everybody.
Many presidents have called themselves the “education” president but after being elected have done little for education. Is there anything we can do about this?
Candidates respond to what people are talking about, so it is our responsibility as students, moms, dads, and policymakers to keep asking candidates, “What about education?” I am proud to have worked for George Bush when he was running in 2000. He made education a huge part of his campaign. His first day in office he started working on No Child Left Behind. We worked that entire year to pass the act, and it has been, if I do say modestly, probably his most significant domestic achievement. So he is an education president in my mind.
Can you give us any insights about what it is like to sit in a cabinet meeting with the president of the United States?
It is pretty awesome, I have to say. Sometimes, in particular when we are talking about the Iraq War, terrorism, and things that are happening around the world, the economy and hurricanes, it is amazing. I think, What is Margaret Dudar (my maiden name) doing sitting in a cabinet meeting? It is so interesting, and I would highly recommend a career in public service and public policy to young people. I’ve loved every minute of it.
Should there be censorship of what teenagers can read?
When you use the word censorship that connotes something that offends people, including me. But I do think there is literature that is appropriate for teenagers, and frankly any of us, that can be used that is interesting, edgy, engaging, profound, and thoughtful without crossing into areas of controversy. There is plenty of great literature that is fully within the range of acceptability to everybody.
Do you think that college test prep courses give an advantage to wealthy students?
They can, which is why some states and local districts have tried to level that out by offering test prep programs for free as part of the college admissions process. Some providers have options that are very inexpensive online with the same benefits of learning test-taking skills and practicing the tests. These can provide an advantage. And that brings us back to rigorous course work. If students take advantage of that, then they will be prepared to take those tests.
There is a great deal of discussion in my school about having a dress code. Do you think that uniforms are appropriate for high school students?
My own daughter is in a school with uniforms. As a parent, I love it. But it is a local decision.
What can be done to increase the prestige of education as a profession and help convince young people to become teachers?
Well, the good news is that teaching is sought after. Teach for America – the program that takes highly qualified college graduates and asks them to teach for two years immediately after college – is one of the most popular recruiting programs on campus. But I think we can put our money where our mouth is and pay our teachers more when they do the most challenging work in education and when they get results. I think we can break down barriers and make it less bureaucratic for people who want to teach, whether they are midcareer or just out of college.
How much homework do you think the average high school student should have?
Plenty. Not too much, but certainly practice makes perfect. That is what homework is all about.
Do you think students should take a year off after high school to work in community service – in short, a gap year?
I think it often can be worthwhile. It depends on the student. I don’t think there is anything wrong with it; higher education can and should be accessible throughout one’s lifetime. But it’s an individual decision.
Why is classical literature emphasized over contemporary works?
Because those are the basics. And to be an informed and educated person, there are certain things we should know. They are great resources.
Do you think parents and teachers let teens fail enough?
That is a great question. Some do and some don’t. I’ve traveled a lot around the world and seen families much more motivated, much hungrier, and more interested in having high-quality education opportunities. They hold themselves to very high standards.
I often think that this is not the case in our country. We give ourselves excuses; we are quite complacent about the achievement gap. We ought to be outraged that half our minority kids aren’t getting out of high school on time when the best jobs require some college. So yes, I think we are a little too casual about what is going on in schools. And that starts with parents and their expectations for their own children.
Why don’t more high schools teach philosophy, business, religion, ethics, or political science?
All high schools struggle to offer a well-rounded curriculum. Often our high schools have to teach reading and basic math to catch kids up who lack basic skills from elementary and middle school, which has distracted them from a more rigorous college preparatory curriculum. That is not an excuse. We have to do a better job of helping kids catch up and providing a well-rounded curriculum.
One assignment I would give parents and teens is to ask their school district how they allocate rigorous course work. How many AP courses are offered at the elite public schools and how many are offered at inner-city schools? I’ve asked that question in my own community and it is pretty telling. This is part of parental engagement, to demand that school boards stop rationing rigor in our high schools.
What can be done to prevent students from cutting class?
Students often end up leaving school because they are bored to death. They aren’t finding anything interesting, relevant, engaging, or they are so behind in basic skills that they are lost. It makes sense – if you can’t read the textbook, you are not going to want to show up.
We have to get much more customized and personalized in our approach and say, How are we going to get Teresa out of high school? And Amanda? And John?
Violence, drugs, and alcohol are problems in many schools. Do you think there should be a “one strike and you’re expelled” policy?
This is not in the purview of the federal government. These are state policy issues or local school board issues. Parents and local policy makers need to look at these issues and find out what works. They need to look at data before they make decisions. I think we need to go to the root cause and get customized and personalized for each student and ask what it’s going to take to prevent those incidents.
What belief about secondary education has dramatically changed since you became secretary of education?
That we are rationing rigor. That it is not surprising to me that some kids are not college-ready when they haven’t been offered a rigorous course of study in high school. We can’t expect them to know what they haven’t been taught. In fact, one good example is that I’ve sent back $500 million to the U.S. Treasury in aid designated to low-income students because those students have not been offered or taken a rigorous course of study. If you have 10 AP courses available, you ought to be in them. Colleges look for that.
In my school, students cutting themselves is a big problem. Do have any ideas on how we can stop this.
I wish I did. I think cutting is a tragic and often misunderstood phenomenon. I’d like to hear what Teen Ink readers have to say about that and what adults could do. I think one of the things we have learned is that there are warning signs. Teens cry out for support, for love, for attention, for intervention, and I think we need to be attuned and intervene. We must confront issues like that as well as issues of school discipline, things that lead to these horrific shooting incidents.
What books would you recommend high school students read before graduation?
I love To Kill a Mockingbird. Harper Lee, just last year, thanks to the First Lady, got the National Medal of Freedom – the highest civilian honor an author can receive. I would suggest a college prep guide. Sorry that sounds a bit boring.
I am seeing a lot of high school literature right now because my daughter is a junior. She had me reread The Catcher in the Rye, which totally captivated her. So I think that would be a good one.
Going back to your greatest accomplishment, No Child Left Behind seems to focus on younger students. What can NCLB do for teens?
No Child Left Behind can be expanded to include high schools. NCLB is largely about grades three through eight, and we are seeing the biggest increases in those grades. But high schools still aren’t terribly accountable, and we don’t have a lot of information about what is wrong and what to do. But with more assessment information with disaggregated data, we can fix that. And we can get more minority students completing high school in four years.
Do you think there is too much emphasis on sports in high school instead of academics or even the arts?
Sometimes I think we glorify sports. There is nothing wrong with that, but we ought to at least give equal treatment to academic achievement.
Why do you think art and music programs are the first to be cut during a budget crisis when many believe that these are important learning experiences that clearly affect other disciplines?
Well, again, these are not decisions made at the federal level. But I reject the assumption that we cannot teach kids to read and do math on grade level and have art and music.
A lot of administrative bureaucracy exists in our system. What I often see is that we make budget cuts at the expense of kids as opposed to the expense of adults. At the same time as programs are being cut, we see salaries rise and benefits increase. This is within the prerogative of the local school boards, but I think we have to start holding ourselves accountable for a system that serves kids at least as much as it does the teachers and administrators.