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US students lack hunger - official

Soft and slow

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Complacency and incompetence continue to plague a US education system that has fallen well behind other nations, according US Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings.

Spellings, speaking today at Microsoft's Silicon Valley headquarters, warned that US students have become soft, particularly when compared against youngsters from China, Russia and India.

"There is a hunger around the world that I don't often see here," she said, during the Churchill Club sponsored event. "Nobody in those countries is sitting around talking about class sizes and things like that. They have 60 people in a room getting as much as they can and are glad to have it."

A backer of the "No Child Left Behind" policy, Spellings reckons that the US has tried to correct this complacency by forcing schools to meet certain performance metrics. The last few years have been spent trying to bring students' math and reading skills up to basic levels by having them pass standardized tests. And, should No Child Left Behind proceed as planned, schools and students that have failed to meet these goals will face more drastic measures over the next couple of years. Under-achieving schools, for example, could be restructured, while struggling students could receive free tutors and be moved to new schools.

"Without this appetite for change, (improvement) is not going to happen," Spellings said.

In 2007, Congress will show just how much it approves of such shifts with a vote on the reauthorization of the No Child Left Behind program.

"It's going to be real interesting," Spellings said.

Spellings is the first mother of school-age children to serve as US Secretary of Education. The Texan also stands as the first education chief to have spanked lesbians in a public forum, as far as we know.

Like compadre President Bush, Spellings tosses out plenty of folksy sayings to get her points across. She likes to chat about onion peeling, meat and potatoes and setting the table. At one point during today's talk, she actually managed to fit both "set the table" and "peeling the onion" into the same sentence. Maybe she's the one who is hungry?

The cliched talk is understandable for such a bureaucrat. Spellings has to bring up the lowest common denominator and look out for the underprivileged, while at the same time encouraging top minds with specialized programs. And she's meant to do all this quickly on a budget cramped by spending on tanks and warheads. These challenges, along with the politician's mask, force Spellings to rely on ambiguities.

She did, however, cite a few specific issues facing the US education system: a lack of qualified teachers, a lack of motivated students, poor textbooks, improper use of technology and atrocious high school graduation rates.

Spellings met Cisco Systems CEO John Chambers last night to discuss the technology issue. She's also looking to fix the textbook problem, starting with math books. A team of experts are going to make the math books more specific, rather than being "a mile wide and an inch thick."

"Obviously, something is wrong out there with math instruction, the way we do it now," Spellings said.

She wants Silicon Valley veterans to do their part on the teaching front.

"I hope some of you will consider teaching after you retire and have made all this money in the hi-tech world," she said.

A couple of audience members charged that the most serious problems plaguing schools stem from a minority of disruptive students and a lack of role models for inner-city children. Poorer students have a strong desire to learn, but are being hampered by their peers and situation.

"Twenty-five percent of the students make it impossible to teach the other 75 per cent," said one audience member. "It is a travesty in this country that people with money can move their kids to schools where they want to be educated, but inner-city kids can't.

"As long as those children who are disruptive are in the classroom, no-one can be educated."

The education chief, however, remains bullish about No Child Left Behind and has a ready list of counter attacks for those who charge the program is underfunded and misguided.

"I do believe that our nation tries to do something that no other nation really does," Spellings said. "We have this plan in place for everybody. I mean every, single person. That's not really the case with rural Indian, rural China or urban South Korea.

"Still, they are on our heels and working hard. We need to pick up the pace."

Spellings did not reveal a timeline for the President's mastery of English. ®

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