Margaret Spellings on the Challenges and Imperatives of Education

An Interview with the Former US Secretary of Education


Education’s critical role as a driver of economic growth and as an enabler of social opportunity is widely recognized. Yet there is nothing approaching consensus on how to optimize education practices.

How big a role should the federal government play? What should the investment priorities be, especially in an era of tightening budgets? Should the business community be involved in shaping policy? How can teacher effectiveness be improved? The questions are many, and the proposed answers equally numerous.

One leader who brings a uniquely informed perspective to this discussion is Margaret Spellings, a former U.S. Secretary of Education and former White House domestic policy advisor who currently serves as president and CEO of Margaret Spellings & Company, a consulting firm focused on public policy. She recently spoke with J. Puckett, a senior partner and managing director of BCG and leader of the firm’s Education practice, about a range of education-related issues. Edited excerpts from the discussion follow.

About Margaret Spellings

Right now, there are many pressures on fiscal budgets globally. Education is just one of many priorities that governments have to fund. How do you think education is faring in this debate on resource allocation?

All over the world, and certainly here in the U.S., we’re seeing tensions between investments on behalf of the elderly and investments on behalf of the next generation—young children and kids in school, university students, and so on. The tensions are acute, and governments and policy bodies are having to weigh their investments with increasing care.

But ultimately, I think we’re in an era in which we’re going to have to do more with less. We are going to have to figure out ways to become more productive in all of our public institutions. And I think we’re going to do that by using more data, more information, and a better understanding of those processes to wring out greater efficiencies.

What are some of the trends you’re seeing that will have an impact on education?

One is centered on technology. To date, we’ve invested a lot of money in technology yet we’ve seen very little impact on student achievement. That’s generally true around the world, although some governments appear to have figured out how to invest more effectively and efficiently than others.

But overall, I think, and hope, that we’re going to increasingly see the investment in technology pay off. We’re going to see more personalization and customization of learning. We’re going to see assessment and testing embedded within instruction. We’re going to see the teacher become more of a facilitator, diagnoser, and corrector, since he or she will have access to feedback much more rapidly than in the past.

Hurdles that the U.S., in particular, must surmount are legacy models and outdated ways of thinking. Do you have any recommendations to effect change in the face of those constraints?

One thing I think we need to do, and that we do not do very well here in the U.S. currently, is find ways to leverage public-sector investments in ways that inspire innovation and capital investment in the private sector. We in government, no matter the country, cannot invest enough money to inspire and spur innovation without accessing private-sector investment.

You mentioned that budgets are tight and that we’re increasingly going to have to figure out how to do more with less. Is there pain coming as a result of that or is there opportunity embedded in the push for greater return on the investment dollar?

We’re in a shrinking resource environment. So school administrators, teachers, technologists, and parents are going to have to figure out how to be smarter and more efficient in their pursuit of higher standards and performance. And that is an opportunity, for sure. Now that there is worldwide acceptance of accountability, assessment, transparency, and the need to close the achievement gap, the next big thing is productivity.

But I also think we’re in a time when we have to start thinking about how we invest dollars against those student achievement benchmarks and markers. How much does it cost to run the third grade versus the fourth grade? How much is science versus English? How much is high school versus middle school? How are we organized? Much of the information that we require to make truly informed decisions is information that we don’t have. We’ve barely begun to ask the questions.

What do you see as the top priorities facing the U.S. education system today?

The biggest is the achievement gap—the woeful underachievement both by the system generally and in its provision particularly—or lack of provision—of educational services to poor, minority, and disadvantaged kids. I refer it to as the raging fire in education. It’s really untenable.

And one of the things I’m so troubled by now in the discussions taking place in Congress and even sometimes at the state and local levels is the move away from that major imperative, that audacious goal that we set a little more than 10 years ago to address the problem in education. I worry that we might have given up.

How important is this issue for the continued competitiveness of the U.S.?

I think that it’s absolutely essential. I think that we know this intuitively and can certainly see its effects in our own lives. We see that, despite high unemployment, there are millions of unfilled jobs today in this country due to a shortage of skilled workers. We see our kids coming home and living with us after graduating from college because they don’t have skills that are relevant for the marketplace. We’re getting bombarded by evidence on many levels.

Talk about the role that business leaders can play in education. What role do you think is optimal for them?

I think the business community can be a critical partner to education in all senses of the phrase. I mean “critical” in the sense that it calls out underachievement—it’s the tough-minded, table-pounding advocate for change when we need change. And we need a lot of change if we’re going to meet the challenges of the global economy.

But the business community can also be a partner when it comes time to invest in things that work and to be a responsible party on behalf of young people in the community. And the effect that the business community can have on education is considerable. In my experience, the places where a business community is organized and informed on education and has some staying power are the places that are able to move the needle on this issue.

What about vocational education? Is this something that you think merits more attention, not just in the U.S. but globally?

Yes, I think it does, and especially in the U.S. As I noted, the U.S. has millions of unfilled jobs today—more than 3 million, according to the Department of Labor—because of a lack of qualified, skilled workers. Vocational training can be a part of the answer. But we have to reframe our thinking on vocational education. In particular, we need to foster more employer partnerships so that the linkages between education and the marketplace can be much more defined and easier for students to access.