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Education World Goes One-on-One With the Secretary of Education!

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Where does Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley get his passion and energy for education? What do the final months of his term hold in store? Then what? If he leaves the Department of Education at the end of his term, which accomplishment will he be most proud of? As the Success Express rolled along the river, Riley took a few minutes to chat with Education World. Today, we share that conversation.

Education World was privileged to travel with Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley during his annual America Goes Back to School trip. This year's trip aboard the Success Express traveled throughout the Mississippi Delta region; Riley made 20 stops in seven states during the five-day trek!

Education World was the only education publication to travel the entire route with "the Secretary," this year. Our exclusive stop-by-stop coverage is available in our archive. See All Aboard the Success Express: On the Road With the Secretary of Education.

In spite of the grueling schedule, Riley took time out somewhere between Marianna, Arkansas, and Memphis, Tennessee, to talk with Education World. Today, we share that conversation!

Education World: When was your interest in education issues born? Can you pinpoint a moment of epiphany -- perhaps an event -- that motivates the sense of purpose you have today?

Secretary Riley: I had wonderful teachers, wonderful parents, but as I got really interested in public service and public policymaking in the South -- in South Carolina -- it became very clear to me from our history that South Carolina had had a weak history in terms of education. African American children were systematically undereducated. We had just a small percentage of children who were college bound. It was a bad system.

I realized that I had some authority as a member of the state government and state senate for ten years, and then as governor for ten years, to do something about that. I was determined then to get heavily involved in education to try to help all children reach not just the average, but excellence. I've worked for that diligently ever since. And I'll tell you, the South is a pretty good statement. Many parts of the South are doing very well. This part -- the rural Delta region -- is a one that still hasn't reached the top level of economic success. That's one reason we're traveling this area -- to let these people know that education is the way.

EW: Let's get right to the point. What happens at the end of your term in January? What are your plans?

Riley: I have reached a commitment with my wife not to even think about that. I have a very important position. Every day is important. If I get off into what Dick Riley is going to do in January, I will be preoccupied with that. I am determined not to do that. I promised President Clinton that I would stay here until the end of the term, and I'm going to stay absolutely focused until the very last day.

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EW: If you're interested in a job, Education World is looking for an executive education officer.

Secretary Riley: Come January 22, give me a call.

EW: You have less than five months left in your term. I doubt you'll be slowing down! What do those months hold in store for you and the country's educators?

Riley: The nature of the process is that our appropriations bill -- labor, education, and health -- is a hard one. It usually comes up at the end of the year. It's going to be passed one way or another in September. Just as it's been since 1995 -- when Republicans had a majority in the House and Senate -- our main weapon was the president's veto. We were able then to have some leverage at the end of the year -- because you have to pass a budget.

We've been successful in past years to get positive things to happen for education in September and October. This is an election year, so September will probably be the end of the term. We're very anxious for this September to be an education month. I hope Congress realizes what's at stake -- it's the future of our country.

EW: How much progress have you seen in seven years in the nation's efforts to "leave no child behind" -- to bridge the digital divide -- when it comes to providing access to technology?

Riley: A lot of the children we're seeing here in the Delta region are children whose parents did not have an education, probably didn't have an opportunity to have an education. Certainly their grandparents did not. These are kids who, when they come home at night, they don't have a computer. Their opportunity to learn this language of technology has to come out of the school.

In the school we just visited [Whitten Elementary School in Marianna, Arkansas], technology is one of the real priorities. Every classroom had at least six computers. That's way above average. They have a computer lab too. They have very good software. Every classroom is connected to the Internet. You don't see that in many schools around the country. That school has placed a lot of emphasis on letting these poor children work with computers, learn how to use computers, learn how to learn with computers.

Most of those computers were bought with Title I funds. Most of the connections and the use of the computers were paid for with the E-rate -- that 90 percent discount the E-rate brings about is very critical to bridging the digital divide. With the E-rate and with technology funds we have coming down and with other flexible funds such as Title I, I hope that schools will really begin to help solve the digital divide. Did you know that of every education dollar, only 7 cents of it comes from the federal government? But in technology, that figure is about 25 percent. So you can see that the federal government is doing a lot more in technology than in general education.

EW: What is being done to "leave no teacher behind" when it comes to teaching teachers to effectively use technology?

Riley: Vice President Gore defines technology as four legs of a stool. One leg is to connect up the school to the Internet. The second leg is to have quality hardware. The third leg is to have quality software. The fourth leg is a very important leg. If you don't have that, the stool falls down. That fourth leg is teacher preparation -- the professional development of teachers to teach with technology. We have a number of programs that are involved with that.

The president has requested $1 billion for teacher professional development and recruitment of teachers. That's to be decided in September. We have a program that we passed a couple years ago that deals primarily with new teachers. It was $75 million, and we're trying to raise that to $150 million to have new teachers have an intensive training opportunity for learning how to teach with technology. That's going to be very important. I hope we can get that $150 million in the appropriations bill this year.

EW: You're the longest-serving secretary of education ever. If you leave the post at the end of the Clinton administration, what accomplishment will make you proudest?

Riley: I could name a lot of things. I am very big in the standards movement. I really felt that we had to get something to get our arms around in terms of education. With Goals 2000, we pushed to have every state get into the standards movement -- and they have. All 50 states have defined what education should be -- what a child in the third grade should know about math, what a child in the eighth grade should know about algebra ... Those are standards and the standards then give us a foundation to build education on. You have everything drive to make sure those children know those standards, and the assessment -- of course -- is linked to those standards. That's in place. That's big. I believe that's a major enhancement of education in the country.

I can look at many other things that I'm very proud of but the fact that the country has education as a top priority [is very important]. All categories of people -- working people, wealthy people, poor people, minorities, majorities, people on the street, people on Wall Street -- have education as a top priority. I think the leadership the president has provided and [the Department of Education's] serious involvement with education has helped bring that about.

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