Second Thought: Wednesday, April 27, 2005
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
A D V E R T I S E M E N T
Misspelling Education

Texification of U.S. schools leaves too many behind.

By ROBERT ZASLAVSKY

In his second term, George W. Bush has felt free to shoot from the hip in his appointments to cabinet posts and other high government positions. While the nation as a whole is hemorrhaging from outsourcing, Bush has been insourcing to an unprecedented degree. This means that for Bush, the road has led straight from Texas to Washington, D. C. The result is a team of individuals whose chief qualification is slavish compliance with the ill-informed slogans of Bush and his advisors.
This is nowhere more apparent (and yet less noticed) than in the egregious appointment two months ago of Margaret Spellings as U.S. Secretary of Education.
Education is arguably the most critical issue facing this country today. If our ship of state is foundering, it is foundering on the rocks of educational ineptitude. For a democracy to succeed, it must cultivate an informed and culturally literate electorate. Yet there have been few, if any, presidential cabinet appointees who have been as monumentally unqualified for their jobs as Margaret Spellings is for leading the Education Department.
She has been neither a scholar nor a teacher. Indeed, the details of her biography are so sketchy that she seems to be a virtual phantom. According to some sources, she took a nonacademic high school curriculum, after which she completed a bachelor’s degree in political science and journalism in 1979.
What were her qualifications to be secretary of education?
First, she was the parent of children who went to school. On that basis, to paraphrase Hamlet, “who shall ’scape” being appointed? Second, she worked as a Republican operative, first under Texas Gov. Bill Clements, who appointed her — without demonstrable preparation on her part — to education policy positions.
Finally, she has functioned since 1994 as a campaign and policy advisor to gubernatorial candidate, then governor, then President George W. Bush. Spellings has been praised for her ability to simplify what is complex. The sad truth is that she does not understand the complex. What we need is clarification and clarity, not simplification and simplicity.
As advisor to Gov. Bush, Spellings participated in the much-vaunted Texas education reforms that, despite prodigious evidence to the contrary, still are lauded as exemplary. Why so many are blind to the hollowness of these reforms is a mystery. Recently, in the comprehensive report issued by The Manhattan Institute, out of 50 states and the District of Columbia, the graduation rate of Texas high schools ranked 40th. And the performance of American high schools in general was unimpressive. Apparently, then, many children have been, and still are, left behind in Texas. Now, more children will be left behind in the United States as a whole.
In Washington, one of Spellings’ first official announcements was that the requirements of acceptable school performance would be eased. Granted, the announcement focused on requirements for disabled students. This simply makes the policy shift a typical wolf in sheep’s clothing. By allowing schools to increase the percentage of students classified as sufficiently disabled to merit “alternative tests,” Spellings has invited school administrators to falsify their categorization of students. This will allow a cosmetic improvement in statistical results without a substantive improvement in the quality of education.
In addition, Spellings follows the Republican party line of absolute support of local control of schools. She does not see the contradiction between this and a system of nationally mandated accountability. And she does not see that local control of schools leads only to a pandemic of incompetence.
Furthermore, Spellings has a history of opposing teacher unions. She doesn’t see, as many others do not see, that teacher unions do not hire teachers, or set local education policy, or grant tenure to teachers. Teacher unions properly protect the rights of teachers, even incompetent and/or tenured teachers. I do not defend incompetence, but only point out that Spellings and her ilk fail to see that the root incompetence is that of school administrators.
(The Fort Worth school district is typical in this regard. Its recent hiring of a superintendent who can only be called “Tocco-lite” continues the defective practice that has characterized its recent history.)
President Bush’s appointment of Margaret Spellings is just one more shameful building block in the president’s Texification of America, a project by which he and his advisors are leading us down a primrose path to cultural and educational boorishness.
Bush tries to present himself as an education president. Yet it is a sorry education president who would joke about his propensity to use the English language improperly, boast about his aversion to reading, and chuckle over his inability to pronounce the names of even his own appointees.
Of course, if Spellings has her way, educational gaffes will continue to proliferate among our populace. Perhaps she will recategorize them out of existence and remove the inconvenient realities about our education system that they represent. If her track record to date is any indication, her plan for leaving no child behind means setting the standard so low that no one could fail to meet it.
Robert Zaslavsky of Fort Worth is a retired teacher of Latin and the humanities.


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