When DISCOVER approached Margaret Spellings, the U.S. Secretary of Education, for this interview, we experienced firsthand the frustrations of government bureaucracy. The secretary’s office was excited to speak to us and intrigued by our chosen interviewer: Wes McCoy, an award-winning teacher who is the chairman of the science department at North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, Georgia. But as the date of the interview drew nearer, political reality intruded. Spellings had many other commitments she considered more pressing than discussing the state of American education with a science teacher. In the end, we managed to catch her between speeches at the Mickelson ExxonMobil Teachers Academy in Fairfax, Virginia, where Spellings was attending a conference. McCoy was nervous (“I’m not an interviewer”) but determined to “get answers to some really important questions that a lot of science teachers have for the DOE.” Despite the unpromising setting of the interview, he was ultimately satisfied that he got some insights into the thinking of the person who, more than any other individual, is responsible for understanding and improving science education in this country.
What do you see as the greatest strengths in American science education?
I think we have so many resources available to us here in the United States, so many high-quality materials. That’s kind of the good news and the bad news. The bad news is there’s so much that it can be overwhelming, I think, to teachers to try to sort through.
Do you think it’s time for another kind of Sputnik-era push to develop new teacher development programs?
I sure do, and there’s broad consensus in the Congress about the need to do just that. One of the things that is encouraging in the Congress—and the president talked about it at last year’s State of the Union—is the American Competitiveness Initiative. Sputnik and 1957—those are invoked all the time around this imperative. That’s good news. We also need to understand that we can’t wait till high school or junior high to start working on the problem. We have to recognize the capacity earlier, and I’m encouraged that just last week there were some significant resources that Congress authorized to invest more heavily in our elementary schools in math and science education.
I’ve heard from my elementary teaching colleagues that sometimes they spend less time teaching science in order to have more time to teach reading. How can we help them increase the amount of time they can devote to science?
I am a “what gets measured, gets done,” kind of person, as you might expect with my heavy involvement in No Child Left Behind. And I really believe that these new science assessments are going to cause more attention to be paid to science, and rightfully so.
Of course it’s not just a matter of attention—there’s also the problem of presenting science to the kids in ways that really lead to understanding. How does the Department of Education plan to support creative approaches to science teaching?
One of the best ways to strengthen science instruction is to get more scientists into the classroom to teach and share their real-world knowledge. President Bush has proposed an Adjunct Teacher Corps, which would provide an opportunity for talented and dedicated industry experts from outside the teaching profession to share their knowledge in middle and high school classrooms. On a recent trip to New Mexico, I visited a local high school where scientists from Sandia National Laboratories were teaching chemistry. We need to find ways to provide similar opportunities to students all over the country.
Is there any way that your department can encourage families to push more kids into science and math?
One of the things that I’m working on—and it’s a collaborative effort with a lot of external organizations from the Girl Scouts to the Sara Lee Foundation—is engendering more enthusiasm about science in girls. Parents need to understand that their kids really need to know more than they do about science, and they shouldn’t be intimidated by that. [A parent will say,] “Well, I’ve done fine,” and Mom and Dad are lawyers, or Mom and Dad are bus drivers, or whatever, and they don’t see the importance of science in their experience. We have to overcome some of that.
Do you think that some hot-button social issues, such as creationism, have distracted us from the big and more important focus on science literacy?
I think that obviously that is a state issue, and happily I don’t have anything to do with it in Washington. I do think that it can be a distraction, particularly in the public.
You helped develop No Child Left Behind, and recently I’ve heard you talking about a growth model for the program. How are you planning on changing it?
First let me say, because I think educators need to know this, the reason that we didn’t enact a growth model into the law five years ago when it was written in the first place is we didn’t have annual assessment in about half of the states. Only when you have benchmarks where you can chart growth is that possible. Now with annual assessment in every single state, that’s finally possible. I think it can provide teachers with better data, more accurate information, and likewise be a truer picture of a school’s accountability and a teacher’s performance.
My last question is, if I was trying to hire you as a science teacher at my school—
You wouldn’t do that. I could only teach political science or language arts.
—but what would I see in your classroom if I came to watch you teaching science? What do you regard as good science education?
The ability to apply a problem to a real world, a relevant kind of example, I think you’d see that. I’m big on this because I think often our schools are isolated from the community broadly. I hope you’d find a veterinarian or a NASA scientist or a doctor or a pharmacist or people who were using those sorts of skills in fields successfully today. I’d do some of those sorts of things. Would that be good?
I think I might hire you.