Right Man for the Job: an exclusive interview with Roderick Paige

Published June 1, 2003

If ever the right man got the job, it was Roderick Paige when he was appointed the seventh U.S. Secretary of Education in January 2001. As the first school superintendent to serve in this role, as well as the first African-American, Paige brings an unmatched depth of personal and career experience to the highest education post in the nation. He also brings an unmatched commitment to educate all children. To Paige, results matter, not excuses.

As Secretary of Education, Paige is leading the huge effort to implement the far-reaching reforms of the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB). Among those reforms are provisions for public school choice and supplemental educational services, the coordination of which Paige has assigned to the new Office of Innovation and Improvement under Nina Shokraii Rees. These school choice options are likely to have the most impact on low-income families in urban areas where large concentrations of African-Americans live–a fact recognized by school choice advocates like Howard Fuller.

“You have no greater friend than Rod Paige,” Fuller told parents, educators, and activists at the 2003 Symposium of the Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO) in Dallas, Texas earlier this year. BAEO and NCLB both seek to empower low-income parents by expanding the educational choices available to them. Giving parents more choices strengthens public education, says Paige.

Born in Monticello, Mississippi, Paige is the son of public school educators. He earned a Bachelor’s degree from Jackson State University in Mississippi and a Master’s degree and doctorate from Indiana University. After distinguishing himself as a college-level athletics coach, he served for a decade as dean of the College of Education at Texas Southern University, where he established the Center for Excellence in Urban Education, a research facility focused on urban school systems.

After serving as a trustee and an officer of the Board of Education of the Houston Independent School District (HISD) from 1989 to 1994, Paige was appointed the district’s superintendent in 1994 to implement the reform vision he had coauthored as a board member. Over the next six years, he transformed HISD’s operations, organization, and philosophy–decentralizing operations, focusing on instruction, establishing accountability for results, and developing a core curriculum. He instituted performance contracts, teacher incentive pay, charter schools, and a school choice program to reduce overcrowding. Under his leadership, student achievement increased significantly and HISD–the nation’s eighth-largest school district–became a model for urban school reform.

The recipient of numerous awards, including being named 2001 National Superintendent of the Year by the American Association of School Administrators, Paige was recognized by Inside Houston as one of the city’s “most powerful people” in guiding Houston’s growth and prosperity. During the recent celebration of National Charter Schools Week, Paige responded to questions posed by School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: Which of your previous career experiences did you find most helpful in shouldering the responsibilities of U.S. Secretary of Education?

Paige: I have spent my whole life either studying to get a good education or working to help others do the same. I’ve served as a teacher, a coach, a school board member, a dean of a college school of education, and superintendent of the nation’s seventh largest school district in Houston, Texas.

I’m the first school superintendent ever to serve as Secretary of Education. I believe it is the combination of all of these experiences that allows me to understand the challenges we face in meeting President Bush’s bold goal of educating every single child in this great nation.

Clowes: The No Child Left Behind law requires all schools to have highly qualified teachers by 2006. What’s behind that?

Paige: Few people have the influence over our lives that teachers do. That is why the President and I are committed to making sure that there is a quality teacher in every classroom by 2006.

Most of us can remember a favorite teacher. I had two favorite educators: my parents. Their example inspired me to become a teacher as well. And it was in the classroom that I discovered the truth in the words of World War II General Omar Bradley when he called teachers the real soldiers of democracy. Others may defend it, he said, but only teachers can make it work.

We must improve the way we prepare new teachers in our colleges and universities. I was a dean of a college of education for 10 years, and I know the special problems these schools face and the responsibilities they bear. But I am also mindful that the original idea behind colleges of education was to create rigorous professional training for teachers, just like medical schools and law schools. Yet here we are with research showing many teachers fresh out of college lack what they need to meet the challenges of the classroom. More than one in five will give up and leave the profession within their first three years.

Despite this, many schools of education have continued, business-as-usual, focusing heavily on how to be a teacher, when the evidence cries out for a deeper understanding of the subject they’ll be teaching, how to monitor student progress, and how to help students who are falling behind.

The No Child Left Behind Act gives schools greater flexibility to use federal funds where the local need is greatest: to recruit new teachers, to improve teacher training, or to increase teacher pay in critical need areas. President Bush’s 2004 budget calls on Congress to provide more than $4.5 billion to support our nation’s teachers, including increased funding for teacher development to help teachers succeed, tax relief to help teachers defray expenses, and loan forgiveness for those who teach in high-need schools or subject areas.

Clowes: What about alternate paths to becoming a certified teacher?

Paige: To achieve our goal of a quality teacher in every classroom by 2006, we need to do two things: raise academic standards for new teachers, so they are prepared to teach our children to high levels; and remove the barriers that are keeping thousands of talented people out of the classroom.

At a time when we desperately need strong teachers in our classrooms, we should be doing all we can to attract and keep the best and the brightest candidates. A good place to start is by drawing from non-traditional sources like Teach for America, Transition to Teaching and Troops to Teachers.

Clowes: Even with a highly qualified teacher in each classroom, some educators nevertheless believe–as one public school principal from Mesa, Arizona declared last December–“All children cannot learn.” What’s your response to this?

Paige: No Child Left Behind provided the framework for change, but changing the law is just the start of reform. To produce great schools worthy of a great nation, we must also change our hearts and our minds. We must let go of the myths and perceptions about who can learn and who can’t.

Anyone who’s been in education as long as I have has heard all the excuses: “Those kids” are too poor. “Those kids” are too disadvantaged. We’re doing the best we can with “those kids.”

Our children need our help and they need it now. The President and I believe in the bright potential of every child, and the research is clear: teachers’ attitudes affect student achievement. Children–no matter their race, their family income, or their zip code–show the greatest achievement gains with teachers who really believe they can learn.

All across our nation, thousands of schools and teachers are producing incredible results with what some call “those children.” As we at the Department of Education work in partnership with the states to implement the reforms of No Child Left Behind, we have these schools to remind us that it not only can be done, it is being done every day.

Clowes: The phrase “No Child Left Behind” prompts the question: “Left behind from what?” What is the aim of K-12 education in the United States?

Paige: President Bush and I believe that education is a civil right, just like the right to vote or to be treated equally. And it’s the duty of our nation to teach every child well, not just some of them. Yet in the greatest, most prosperous nation in the world, we had created two education systems–separate and unequal–that found it perfectly acceptable to teach only some students well while the rest–mostly minority and mostly low-income–floundered or flunked out.

We have already exceeded the high-tech-someday that Nation at Risk envisioned. We need look no further than our morning paper to see that our future–and the future of our children–is inextricably linked to the complex challenges of the global community. So in this complex and sometimes uncertain world, it is paramount that America graduate greater numbers of well-educated young people. Our future depends on them to lead the way in developing strategies and technologies that will keep us safe and prosperous for generations to come.

Clowes: How are the public schools performing versus what we want them to achieve?

Paige: Two decades ago, A Nation at Risk set off a wave of well-intentioned school reform efforts. In the ensuing decades we saw trillions of dollars, formal standards, and lots of effort applied to the problem like bleach on a tough stain. But what we didn’t see was a solution.

The achievement gap grew wider. Test scores stayed flat. And a disturbing trend emerged: The longer students stayed in school, the farther behind they fell academically. And so as the years progressed, thousands more children–mostly poor and mostly minority–dropped through the cracks to uncertain futures on the margins of society.

In my years, I have seen many of the well-intentioned, well-funded efforts to close the widening achievement gap between those who have and those who don’t. But in all my years, I’ve never seen any movement with greater potential to improve our education system than the No Child Left Behind Act. And with each budget cycle since President Bush took office, he has worked to protect our investment in our children–with historic levels of funding targeted to areas of greatest need.

Clowes: What are the key features of the No Child Left Behind law? Why do you think NCLB will succeed where other reforms haven’t?

Paige: No Child Left Behind rests upon four pillars; local control and flexibility, research-based instruction that works, information and choice to empower parents, and accountability for results.

No Child Left Behind provides the key ingredient that was missing in all previous reform attempts: a framework for change that demands high standards and high expectations for every child in every classroom in every school.

No Child Left Behind is historic in its sweep, its funding, and its commitment to our children. Never before has this nation made the commitment to educate every child–regardless of race, family income, or zip code. And I’m proud to say that we are making good progress in implementing these monumental reforms.

For the first time in the history of public education, all states have submitted accountability plans to show how they intend to improve student achievement, keep parents informed, and provide options for children who aren’t learning. And we are working hand-in-hand with the states to help ensure their success, because we know the stakes are high. One child left behind is one child too many.

This new law fundamentally changes the focus of education to the child–not the system.

Clowes: Why is school choice such an important component of the reform strategy to improve public schools?

Paige: Choice is essential for authentic public school reform, and I’ll tell you why: Ours is a highly mobile, confident nation that has the greatest range of personal choices ever in the history of mankind. Look at the world we live in: Instant messaging. 24-hour news. Personal websites. Global markets. Overnight express. eCommerce.

Every day presents new opportunities to tailor what we see, what we hear, and what we do to our own personal tastes. The world is moving toward more choice, not less. Unless you are poor. In that case, you look around and you see the rest of the country speeding into the future while you’re still trying to catch up with the present.

Americans will not allow themselves to be boxed in by a monopoly. In the 21st century, choice is not the exception–it’s the rule. Only in education would choice and competition be viewed as “innovative” or “radical” or “risky.”

Our education system must change to reflect these times–for all parents and all children from all income levels. No Child Left Behind says we must empower parents by giving them the range of choices for their children’s schooling that many have come to expect in all other parts of their lives–and that low-income parents can only dream about.