President-elect George W. Bush's nomination of Houston Independent School District (HISD) Superintendent Roderick (Rod) Paige for U.S. secretary of education has drawn praise from those who know Paige personally and by reputation.
Paige, 67, who has been the HISD superintendent since 1994, is accustomed to working with a diverse constituency. Colleagues describe him as a hands-on reformer who is knowledgeable about the problems urban schools face.
The Senate must approve Paige's nomination, as is the case with all cabinet appointments. If the Senate confirms his nomination, Paige will be the first African American to serve as secretary of education.
National and local education officials were quick to respond to news of the nomination. "Like many of our members who work in urban classrooms every day, Rod Paige has seen firsthand the challenges they face," Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association said in a prepared statement. "His sincere and productive work on behalf of urban schools and children will be enormously valuable in his role as U.S. secretary of education."
Dr. Donald McAdams, a member of the Houston Board of Education and the director of The Center for Reform of School Systems at the University of Houston, agreed. "I think he will serve well," McAdams said. "He will be the kind of education secretary who will benefit a lot of kids. He understands the dynamics of urban politics."
To read more about Paige's role in the Houston school district's reform effort, read today's Education World e-interview with McAdams.
In addition to his experience as an administrator, Paige will bring to the secretary of education post his perspectives as a school board member and an academic. He served on the HISD Board of Education from 1989 to 1994 and is the former dean of the school of education at Texas Southern University. Paige also is the secretary-treasurer of the The Council of the Great City Schools (CGCS), an organization that serves urban school districts.
Paige's selection also drew praise from the executive director of the CGCS, Michael Casserly. "Rod Paige is an educator's educator. He has spearheaded reforms to increase student achievement, close racially identifiable achievement gaps, and hold schools accountable for results," said Casserly in a prepared statement. "If, as secretary of education, he can help us improve other city schools as quickly as he helped Houston, then his contribution will have been profound."
Initially, Paige's 1994 appointment as Houston superintendent drew criticism from some members of the Hispanic community because he was appointed without a national search. He has since built support in all sectors of the community, said McAdams, who initially suggested Paige as a candidate for superintendent.
"He is well known and well loved in the city," McAdams said. "He understands the dynamics of urban politics. He sees people as people and treats everyone the same. Over time, people will appreciate that."
In his book Fighting to Save Our Urban SchoolsAnd Winning!, a chronicle of a Houston school reform movement that began in the early 1990s, McAdams praised Paige for his role in turning the district around.
Paige is credited with helping boost HISD student test scores -- even as the population increased and became more diverse. From 1993 to 1998, the percentage of high school students who passed the state's writing exam increased from 65 percent to 80 percent. The percentage of students who passed a state mathematics test rose from fewer than 45 percent in 1992 to 70 percent in 1998, according to E-School News.
Paige also tied the renewal of principals' contracts to school performance and privatized a number of non-academic services.
In a more controversial move, in 1996, HISD began allowing students from overcrowded schools to attend private, non-religious schools at district expense. Paige called them contract placements. Opponents, though, called it a voucher program. Bush has said that he supports using vouchers to allow students from failing schools to attend private schools.
Paige's background will be useful at the federal level, as the performance of students in urban districts continues to be a national concern, several observers noted.
"Large urban districts are crisis points," said McAdams. "Rod understands them and understands what federal involvement means. He understands the complexity of urban education. He reads widely and listens well."
Sandra Feldman, president of the American Federation of Teachers, also is optimistic. "Our union and local leadership in Houston have enjoyed a good relationship with Mr. Paige," she said in a prepared statement. "We hope to continue this spirit of cooperation at the national level. His experience in urban education will be helpful in keeping our nation's schools on the path to reform. Urban school districts in particular have begun to show considerable progress in raising test scores and turning around low-performing schools."
Paige's efforts and accomplishments have earned him national recognition, including the 2000 Harold W. McGraw Jr. Prize in Education for his commitment to improving education. The McGraw-Hill Companies presented the award, and Paige was one of three people so honored. The Council of the Great City Schools, an organization of the nation's largest urban public school systems, named him the top urban educator of 1999.
McAdams said he and others in HISD are proud and pleased for Paige, whose nomination was hardly a surprise.
"Ever since George W. Bush said he would be seeking the presidential nomination, there were people in Houston saying Rod was a likely candidate for secretary of education," according to McAdams. "We knew that given the success of HISD, he would be getting more national attention." Paige also is a Republican and a longtime Bush supporter.
McAdams said he spoke with Paige right before Paige left for Washington, D.C., to meet with Bush, before Paige knew he had the nomination. "He said it was God's will, whatever the decision," McAdams said. "Certainly, he recognizes the work that is ahead."
The only negative aspect of Paige's nomination, added McAdams, is that Houston will lose him. The nation, however, will benefit. "I think in the next few years, the country will come to appreciate him as Houston does now."
Ellen R. Delisio
Copyright © 2000 Education World