THE 99 AND 44/100ths PURE CRAP AWARD:
SECRETARY OF EDUCATION
In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote, “When one watches some
tired hack on the platform repeating the familiar phrases...one often has a curious feeling
that one is not watching a live human being but some kind of dummy....” George Orwell
was lucky. He never had to listen to Margaret Spellings. Our Lady of the Busted
Metaphor can bring you down in a hurry with the inanities of what she says but even
more in the realization that those inanities, emitted in mangled English, reflect how her
brain works (“speaker sometimes deviates from text” it says at the beginning of some
speeches). Herewith an annotated sampling.
“I talk about No Child Left Behind like Ivory Soap: It’s 99.9 percent pure. There’s not
much needed in the way of change.” Teacher/author Debra Craig decided that Spellings
was “99.9% delusional” while Education Week founder, Ron Wolk called the statement
“99.9% bunk.” They’re both right.
If Spellings had said nothing else during the entire year, this comment and her trouncing
on Celebrity Jeopardy would have secured her place in infamy (“I was shocked to
discover that US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings is a moron,” wrote DC
gossip blogger, Wonkette. What took you so long? Wonkette’s post elicited many very
funny comments. My favorite: “She attempted to defend herself by explaining that she
simply doesn’t test well. The value of providing ‘exact answers’ rather than
‘approximate possibilities in a conceptually acceptable range’ is highly overrated. She
had still hoped to be socially promoted to co-champion”).
Alas, there is more, much more. Speaking at the NCLB “Summit” in Philadelphia,
Spellings declared, “This law is helping us learn about what works in our schools. And
clearly high standards and accountability are working. Over the last 5 years, our 9-year-
olds have made more progress in reading than in the previous 28 combined.”
Except that those “last 5 years” are from NAEP trend data collected in 1999 and 2004,
not in the Bush years of 2001 and 2006. So for three of those five years NCLB didn’t
even exist. Maybe Bill Clinton deserves all the credit. Many state plans had not been
approved by fall of the 2002-2003 so NCLB would have had only a few months in the
2003-2004 school year to work its wonders. I don’t think so.
“With this law,” Spellings said in the same speech, “we set a historic goal for our
country: every child learning on grade level by 2014.” Nope. No matter how many times
Spellings mutters “grade level” the law says “proficient.” The only meaningful, existing
definition of “grade level” is the score of the average child at a given grade. If the scores
are distributed normally, and the tests from which the concept of grade was developed
insured that they would be, then, by definition, at any given time, nationally, 50% of all
students are below grade level. Some small, affluent districts might attain Lake
Wobegon status, but nationally, half of all students are always below grade level. By
There are other conceivable ways of defining grade level, but none of them would claim
that all students could be there or better (unless grade level were defined by a number
three standard deviations below the average (median)).
At the end of this speech—it was a doozy—Spellings described a visit she made with
Bush to a middle school and reported that in science “The class was full of students
asking “what if” questions. They had high expectations” (manifested by what?) and a lot
of confidence and they knew they could make a difference” (as sixth graders???).
She wound up with this: “There are certain things you can’t teach in a classroom that our
students already have—qualities like creativity, diversity, and entrepreneurship. Our job
is to give them the knowledge and skills to compete.” This might likely be the first and
only time that “diversity” has been described as a personal quality.
But if Spellings asserts that you can’t teach creativity or entrepreneurship, what does that
say about how Spellings defines teaching? And how on earth did the kids “already have”
these qualities? Is it something in the water?
In a June speech, Spellings said “I had a meeting with Thomas Friedman from the New
York Times last week. And he told me the number one skill our children will need to
survive in the flat world is learning to learn.” So the question is, Does she disregard what
Friedman told her or does she actually think that NCLB will contribute to kids’ learning
to learn? How dumb can you get?
Under Spellings, the U. S. Department of Education announced a proposed program to
send students to private schools with publicly funded vouchers four days after her
department released a study showing that private schools have an advantage on public
schools only because of how they select students—more rich kids, fewer poor kids, fewer
minorities, fewer special education kids, and fewer English Language Learners.
Similarly attempts to shore up charters were undercut by another department study
indicating that public schools outperform them. New regulations favoring single-sex
schools appeared not long after her department issued a huge report saying there was no
evidence that single sex schools improve anything.
It is depressing to think that the stewardship of the federal department of education is in
the hands of an idiot.
Read the entire Rotten Apples in Education Awards, 2006. By researcher Gerald W. Bracey. Here
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