Three Cheers for Rod Paige

Published January 1, 2005

Outgoing Education Secretary Rod Paige is a great education reformer and distinguished public servant who leaves office after four years of accomplishment, candor, nonstop dedication to America’s children, and loyal service to the Bush administration.

With Cabinet members exiting in droves, it’s difficult to know for sure who’s being nudged out the door and who is leaving on their own volition. Paige had signaled that he was game to stick around a while longer, but the White House reportedly wanted a four-year commitment, which is a lot to ask of a 71-year-old. So as he packs to return to Texas, let us dwell not on the circumstances of his departure but on his achievements, his legacy, and his character.

“We all serve at the pleasure of the President,” he told his staff, “and it is perfectly appropriate that I leave now.”

Rod Paige wasn’t perfect in this role. He is not, for example, a great public speaker when working off a prepared text. (He is wonderfully eloquent, sometimes thrilling, when he speaks from the heart.) He tends to voice the truth as he sees it, even when it upsets folks. One can scarcely forget his apt–if politically incorrect–comparison of the NEA to a “terrorist organization” or his terrific Wall Street Journal critique of the NAACP leadership.

What he was, however, what he is, is a dedicated educator of children and crusader for better breaks for the poorest and neediest among them. A black man who rose from the humblest start in Jim Crow’s Mississippi, a product of segregated schools, he became a teacher, coach, administrator, counselor, dean, school board member, and, in time, the reforming superintendent of the largest school system in Texas.

He left that post to travel to Washington at Bush’s behest, and there he led the U.S. Department of Education for four eventful years. He didn’t always have the leeway he should have to lead it as well as he could. The White House tether was shorter than in previous administrations, far shorter than when I worked there with Bill Bennett in the late 1980s. Paige had limited authority to pick his team and less to pick his policy targets.

The Power of School Choice

Paige is, for example, a stalwart believer in the power of school choice, both to create opportunities for children and to put transformative pressure on “the system.” But, save for the new DC voucher project and the valiant efforts of the Department’s small “innovation and improvement” office, this has not been a choice-minded administration.

Indeed, the person named to be Paige’s successor, White House policy maestro Margaret Spellings, is a standards-testing-accountability booster who can be counted upon to defend and extend the No Child Left Behind Act, but who has signaled that the only way to fix American K-12 education is to lean on “the system” from above, not to empower its clients. A smart woman, Bush loyalist, and skilled staffer, perhaps Spellings will demonstrate in her highly visible new role that she has more than one policy gun in her arsenal and the personal attributes that will cause people to want to follow where she leads. We wish her well.

Back to Paige. A short tether, yes, but he made the most of his position. He tirelessly barnstormed the country, talking of the need to boost achievement and leave no child behind. He implemented NCLB with conviction and steadfastness, occasionally nudging it toward a bit more flexibility and reasonableness. That epochal statute is now, in Paige’s words, “indelibly launched. A culture of accountability is gripping the American educational landscape.”

Teacher Training, Clean Audit

The Secretary also did his best, despite yawns at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, to revamp teacher training and certification; to reform the special ed program (which showed some results in November when the Congressional conference committee finished work on it); and to make overdue changes in higher ed and vocational ed. He invested the Education Department’s skimpy discretionary dollars in boldly reformist initiatives, such as the American Board for Certification of Teaching Excellence. He oversaw a wholesale revamp of the Department’s research and evaluation functions, including wider use of experimental designs (even control groups!) in most federal studies.

Though scarcely noted by the press, Paige also shaped up the Education Department’s tattered management and accounting systems. (He was helped in this venture by such able colleagues as Bill Hansen, Gene Hickok, and John Danielson.) The agency is, for example, getting its third consecutive “clean audit,” which may not sound like much but is a lot better than the alternative–and tons better than what he inherited from the Clinton team.

Rigorous Appraisals

Some of his other accomplishments will bear fruit after his departure, such as rigorous appraisals of curricula and instructional programs by the new “What Works Clearinghouse,” regulations that open the door for single-sex schools, and Washington’s most successful outreach effort to community- and faith-based organizations.

Along the way, Paige showed himself to be a good boss, effective leader, friend to many, and thoroughly decent human being. But he never let the grown-ups get in the kids’ way. He is a children’s educator, not a panderer to adult interests.

And time and again he used his bully pulpit to address the moral imperative of gap-closing and to frame civil rights correctly for the twenty-first century. Read, for example, his superb Harvard address on the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision. In fact, while you’re at it, read a selection of Paige’s speeches and statements (see below). This isn’t just the oeuvre of a dutiful federal official. It’s the work of a dedicated educator, a serious reformer, a rigorous thinker, and a courageous man.

I’m going to miss Rod Paige. So will America’s children.

Chester E. Finn, Jr. ([email protected]) is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and Thomas B. Fordham Institute, senior editor of Education Next, senior fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution, and chairman of Hoover’s Koret Task Force on K-12 Education. This article originally appeared in the November 18, 2004 issue of The Education Gadfly.

For more information …

U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige’s speeches and statements are available online at

His Harvard address on the 50th anniversary of the Brown decision is at

His Wall Street Journal critique of NAACP leadership is at

A June 2003 School Reform News interview with Rod Paige, “Right Man for the Job,” is available online at

The Education Gadfly, a weekly bulletin of news and analysis from the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, is available online at