It was the day before she would appear on "The Daily Show" with Jon Stewart, a known liberal critic of the Bush administration. But as I interviewed her in her office, U.S. Department of Education Secretary Margaret Spellings put a happy face on it.
"This completes my pop-culture trifecta," she said.
Indeed, she recently attended a taping of "American Idol" and last fall made history as the first sitting Cabinet secretary to appear on "Jeopardy." She also became the first education secretary to lose on "Jeopardy." She lost to actor Michael McKean, best known as "Lenny" on the old "Laverne & Shirley" television show. The loss provided ample fodder for her detractors.
Why the Spellings pop-culture tour? She says she agreed to do "The Daily Show" at the urging of her two daughters. It just happened to come at an awkward time for her department. Congress is investigating conflict-of-interest complaints involving the federal student loan program and the Bush administration's Reading First program.
You know those student loans that students increasingly need to pay for college? When choosing a lender, many students rely on the "preferred" status list offered by their college or university. Now federal and state regulators say some of the lenders in the $85 billion industry earned their "preferred status" thanks to kickbacks that they offered the schools.
Reading First, a key $1 billion-a-year reading program in President Bush's 2002 No Child Left Behind education reform, is alleged to have given preferential treatment to materials favored by top advisers who also had their own textbooks or tests to sell. Much of this happened before Spellings took over the department in early 2005, but congressional critics are accusing her of failing to take action to investigate and clear up the conflicts.
Such a difference a Democratic Congress makes. Were it not for the Bush administration's bigger headline-making headaches over the firing of eight U.S. attorneys, Spellings' department might well be getting a lot more attention these days. Stay tuned.
The irony of the Reading First controversy says a lot about other clashes in the Education Department. Despite the alleged scandal, reading scores for students in the program have dramatically improved.
The percentage of 1st graders who met or exceeded proficiency standards on reading fluency grew to 57 percent from 43 percent in a study of the years 2004 to 2006. Third graders whose reading proficiency improved grew to 43 percent from 35 percent. Nevertheless, the scandalized program may actually have produced encouraging progress for students.
That makes Spellings' role as a communicator more important than her credentials as an educator. In a congressional hearing, she acknowledged that she does not have an education degree. She has an undergraduate degree in political science and journalism at the University of Houston and her only formal classroom experience was as an uncertified substitute teacher in Texas.
But, as she showed in our interview and on "The Daily Show," she speaks forcefully for a large group who too often feels shortchanged: the parents.
I told her my biggest complaint about standardized tests: Doesn't every child learn differently?
"Yes, but," she said, "I think sometimes that's used as an excuse for masking underachievement."
Then she got personal: "I'll tell you what, Clarence ... I've yet to meet a parent who didn't want their kid to be reading at anything less than grade level this year! Not in 2014 [the goal year set by the Bush administration for closing that academic achievement gap]. This year! And that's not an unreasonable expectation for parents to have of their schools and their kids."
Many parents learn the hard way what President Bush means when he speaks of "the soft bigotry of low expectations," especially for minority students. Although many schools and teachers perform magnificently, too often the system encourages mediocrity and punishes teachers who are willing to put extra effort into their job.
The Bush administration's pay incentives for high-performing teachers and principals is a move in the right direction.
I'm still skeptical of emphasizing tests too much. But we all need to set goals in life and we need good yardsticks for progress. That's as good of a lesson as any for Spellings to get across.