Higher ed is next challenge after No Child, secretary says

Needs to be 'more accessible,' current aid level not enough

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Federal officials are taking the No Child Left Behind Act to the next frontier -- higher education.

Martha Rial, Post-Gazette
U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings speaks with Javier Ojeda about a writing exercise while visiting Nancy Sale's fifth-grade class at Wilson Elementary School in Findlay.
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Comments by U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings:
Pennsylvania schools are moving in the right direction.
Why "No Child Left Behind" should be reauthorized.
Successes in reading nationally.
Why it's important to set national education standards.
Policymakers must work with educators.
On special education.

In Pittsburgh yesterday, U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings said she will be making a policy speech about higher education at the end of this month.

She noted the federal government pays about one-third of the bill, in the form of grants, and basically puts "the money out and hopes for the best."

She said, "That was fine and dandy when higher education was kind of nice to have as opposed to must have. But that's changing more and more.

"We need to be more strategic, smarter, and make sure higher education is more accessible to more people if we're going to continue to be the world's innovator and the world's leader."

Ms. Spellings made the remarks before the National Conference of Editorial Writers at the Sheraton Station Square Hotel.

Accompanied by U.S. Rep. Tim Murphy, R-Upper St. Clair, Ms. Spellings also visited Wilson Elementary School in Findlay, noting its high achievement. The school is part of the West Allegheny School District.

Later, she went to UPMC St. Margaret Lawrenceville Family Health Center, where children who go to the doctor receive books.

On higher education, Ms. Spellings acknowledged that the $100 increase in federal Pell grants isn't enough and noted that costs have been rising about 7 percent a year.

"The next part of the debate on higher education is for us to ask why does it cost 7 percent more this year than last year. Is it a better deal to get out of Ohio State in six years or some private college in four?

"All sorts of things that parents want to know and deserve to know and can know and find out about buying a car or going to a restaurant or ordering a book online, you can't find out about on one of the most expensive decisions and one of the most important decisions that you and your child are going to make. ...

"I think we have to start challenging that."

Last month, the federal Commission on the Future of Higher Education recommended standardized tests, federal monitoring of quality and changes in the financial aid system.

Ms. Spellings said that No Child Left Behind is close to perfect, likening it to Ivory soap.

She pointed to the high scores on state tests at Wilson Elementary. About 83 percent of students are proficient in math, including more than 60 percent of its low-income children. The same is true in reading.

She also praised the performance of Pennsylvania schools -- 82 percent of schools and 95 percent of districts met or are making progress toward the targets of the No Child Left Behind Act.

"When I hear people say we can't do No Child Left Behind, I say they can do it in Pennsylvania, they can do it in Allegheny County, in West Allegheny. They can do it at Wilson," she said.

She noted she has been working with schools and states to improve the law. Pilot projects are under way in North Carolina and Tennessee to study how best to evaluate student progress, not just their achievement.

Work is under way to develop tests that would be more suitable for some special education students than the grade-level tests they take now.

Under the law, districts are required to offer voluntary transfers from some repeatedly underperforming schools to higher performing ones. Parents of students in most Pittsburgh high schools this week were offered an opportunity to transfer to Allderdice or Langley.

It is unknown how many will sign up. The law does not allow a district to use a lack of capacity as an excuse.

Ms. Spellings said she has some pilot programs in which school districts offer tutoring before transfers, but the law calls for transfers and then tutoring if the school misses the mark another year.

She did not have any specific advice for Pittsburgh if too many students end up seeking transfers to Allderdice and Langley.

"The law says provide these options," she said, noting some other districts have found "creative solutions like opening new high schools and providing other ways to meet the requirements of the law."

Education writer Eleanor Chute can be reached at echute@post-gazette.com or 412-263-1955.


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