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U.S. Education Secretary Margaret Spellings Announces States Approved to Use Differentiated Accountability Under NCLB at ECS National Forum


U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings today addressed the Education Commission of the States (ECS) National Forum on Education Policy and announced the approval of six states—Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland and Ohio—to use the Differentiated Accountability Pilot aimed at helping states differentiate between underperforming schools in need of dramatic interventions and those that are closer to meeting the goals of No Child Left Behind.

Differentiated Accountability will allow states to vary the intensity and type of interventions to match the academic reasons that lead to a school’s identification for improvement. In addition, some states and districts have a large percentage of their schools identified for improvement, thus impacting their capacity to provide meaningful, intensive reforms. Differentiated Accountability will assist those states by targeting resources and interventions to those schools most in need of intensive interventions and significant reform.

When choosing the six states, the Department used a rigorous peer review to ensure that the selection process was fair and transparent for all participating states. Recommendations were given to Secretary Spellings, who made the final approvals. In return for this flexibility, states participating in the pilot must commit to build their capacity for school reform; take the most significant actions for the lowest-performing schools, including addressing the issue of teacher effectiveness; and use data to determine the method of differentiation and categories of intervention.

The Department intends to invite states to submit additional Differentiated Accountability proposals in fall 2008. Further details about this next round of review will be forthcoming.


17 states submitted a Differentiated Accountability proposal: Alaska, Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, New Jersey, New York, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee and Virginia.

The Department submitted the proposals of all 17 states to a peer review panel of nationally recognized experts.

The peer review panel was comprised of nationally recognized experts in accountability who represented a wide range of perspectives from academia to the private sector to state and local organizations.

In June 2008, the peer teams began reviews of state proposals and held conference calls with state representatives. June 13-14, 2008, the peer panel met in Washington, D.C., to review each state’s Differentiated Accountability proposal using the Department’s Peer Review Guidance, which can be found at

After considering the peers’ comments, the Secretary approved six states to participate in the Differentiated Accountability Pilot program—Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland and Ohio.

As a condition of participation, the states must share data, participate in an evaluation and provide timely information to the Department regarding how the Differentiated Accountability model is implemented and its effects on student achievement. To learn more about the pilot program, visit:

Following are the Secretary’s prepared remarks:

Thank you, Governor Sebelius, for your kind introduction and, Roger Sampson, for inviting me to join this year’s forum. Thank you both for your efforts on the pressing education issues facing our nation. I also want to thank Gene Wilhoit of CCSSO for joining us.

Back in the mid-1960s, the scholar and teacher James Bryant Conant helped inspire the creation of ECS with this thought: “We ought to have a way by which the states could rapidly exchange information and plans in all education matters from kindergarten to the university graduate schools.”

Nearly 50 years later, because of states’ efforts and the No Child Left Behind law, we have data—and lots of it. But we have yet to maximize its potential to improve education.

As you know, better information can be a powerful motivator for positive change. Without it, there’s little impetus to do better. As I like to say, In God we trust; all others, bring data.

With No Child Left Behind, we know what’s working in schools and what’s not, and where students are falling behind. We’ve reached an important crossroads. Will we leverage the information we have to challenge the fundamental structures... customize instruction... and use time and people more effectively? Or will we go back to the ostrich approach—sticking our heads in the sand while problems multiply?

Instead of turning our backs on students and teachers, we must defend the core principles of accountability. And we must use data and research to create innovative solutions to our most pressing problems.

First, we must guard against any policies that relegate poor and minority children to the sidelines. If that happens, we all lose.

As Secretary, I’ve visited nearly every state in the union, including 22 just this year. I’ve been to 21 countries, and I’ve seen the competition we’re up against. I’ve also witnessed the fact that there are many who would rather sweep our problems under the rug than solve them.

We can and must do better—and that starts with dramatically improving schools that fall short of targets year after year after year. Because of NCLB, more than 3.6 million low-income students in these schools are eligible for free tutoring. But only about a half million receive these services. That’s why earlier this year, I proposed regulations to make sure that when kids are eligible for extra help, they get it.

I also announced a differentiated accountability pilot to help states develop better ways to target interventions according to how much schools are struggling. Today, I’m pleased to announce that I’m approving 6 to join the pilot: Florida, Indiana, Illinois, Georgia, Ohio, and Maryland.

The plans these states submitted speak to the fact that many were among the first to embrace data-based decision making and accountability. I’m hopeful that they will build on this progress by creating effective new strategies that we can share and take to scale.

However, I’m also discouraged that more states didn’t take this as an opportunity to take more dramatic action to improve schools that have not met reasonable goals for multiple years running. We need more states to be pioneers in advancing positive change. Together, we can empower them to play that role.

As we look to the future and develop effective new strategies, it’s critical that we preserve and defend the core principles behind accountability.

As the person who sees and approves state accountability plans under NCLB, I can tell you there is strong pressure to weaken, water down, find loopholes, and delay real accountability. Some of these efforts often have fancy names like “multiple measures” or “authentic assessments.” Others efforts are not so fancy, like when opponents spend millions to tarnish NCLB.

Especially in an election year, we must demand straight answers instead of hedging and obfuscation.

When we hear people saying that it’s unreasonable to expect every child to perform on grade level, we must ask: does that mean you don’t expect your child to learn the fundamentals? The law already includes reasonable accommodations for kids who need extra help. But over all, if not yours, then exactly whose children are you comfortable writing off?

Personally, I’d be outraged if someone told me my daughter couldn’t perform on grade level right now. When people say they don’t think 2014 is a reasonable goal, we must ask, when is?

When we hear myths about NCLB, we must speak out to dispel them. For example, some say the law demands too much testing. The reality is, states are only required to assess students once a year in grades three through eight, and once in high school. Isn’t it worth a few days out of the year to find out what students have learned, and where they need help?

We also hear that the law is “punitive” and “unfair.” Which makes me wonder: what’s punitive about providing free tutoring for low-income kids who need extra help? Truly “unfair” would be sending them into this competitive world without basic knowledge and skills.

We must not allow sympathy or circumstances to slip into the soft bigotry of lowered expectations. You know as well as I do that our global economy is demanding far more of students. In this environment, expecting less is inexcusable.

When people say they don’t support NCLB, we must ask, what do you support? Expecting less from fewer students and taking longer to do it?

If spending more money per child than almost any other developed country is not enough funding, how much would it cost to teach every child to read and do math?

What’s great about measuring progress is that we now have data that makes the case for us. For example, just last week, the non-partisan Center on Education Policy released a report showing that under NCLB, student scores are on the rise, and achievement gaps are narrowing. As one editorial noted, these findings “ought to ... give pause to even the law’s harshest detractors.”

That’s a testament to hard-working educators and forward-thinking leaders like Alexa Posny, Alice Seagren, and Florence Shapiro.

The kind of progress you’ve facilitated—and the “can-do attitude” you bring to the effort—must be amplified nationwide. Especially when all too often, we hear so much about what can’t be done.

Which brings me to my next point, using data to support innovation for greater student gains.

Customization has already improved every other aspect of our lives. We have computers built to order...eyeglasses in an hour...and most web sites know what I want before I do. Yet while other fields rocket ahead, our education system is trapped in the industrial age. If Rip Van Winkle woke up today, classrooms would be the only thing he’d recognize. The term “24/7” has no relevance in education because we’re still clinging to an outdated notion of 6 hours a day, 180 days a year.

As a report by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce put it, “Most schools preserve the routines, cultures, and operations of an obsolete 1930s manufacturing plant.” That’s unacceptable in today’s global economy. We can and must help schools become more agile, more efficient, more responsive...and most importantly, more effective.

To that end, I’m pleased that ECS is working hard to share and amplify effective practices through the use of longitudinal data. Learning more about students’ academic biographies will help us solve problems before they become chronic.

By raising the bar, we are demanding more of students and teachers than ever before. And as they strive to do better, faster, more, we must arm them with as many proven tools as possible.

Thanks to decades of research, we now have scientifically-based strategies to help teachers serve more students more effectively. So it’s ironic that Congress has proposed to de-fund the Reading First program that is producing results for many of our neediest students. And now that experts have identified the most effective ways to teach math, why not deliver their expert insights to teachers by funding Math Now?

As teachers’ work becomes more complex, why not support them with research-based tools to get the job done?

Now that we know postsecondary education is all but essential, why are we still debating whether it’s reasonable to expect a 9-year-old to read? Or whether it’s possible for every student to graduate from high school?

Instead of questioning our children’s potential, let’s use research, data, and technology to guide innovation—just as the ECS founders envisioned. With your leadership, we can empower more people to be catalysts of change and improvement.

Instead of turning back, let’s together strengthen accountability to make sure no student is overlooked or cast aside.

And finally, let’s lift up this movement that declares education to be the new civil right.

Thank you, and I’m happy to answer your questions.


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