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Education World Goes One-on-One With the Secretary of Ed
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U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige recently met with Education World news editor Ellen R. Delisio. He reflected on his first six months in office and discussed goals for his administration. Included: The "testing backlash" is more media hype than reality, Paige says.

Image Before he was tapped by President George W. Bush to be secretary of education, Rod Paige was the superintendent of the Houston (Texas) Independent School District. In seven years there, he earned praise for improving test scores and management practices within the district.

As the son of two educators, Paige said a teaching career was an assumption for him, not a choice. He began his education career in the classroom and on the playing field, teaching physical education and coaching football at the high school and college levels. Prior to becoming Houston's superintendent, Paige served as dean of the College of Education at Texas Southern University for 10 years.

Now the country's top education official, Paige is drawing on all of his experiences as he becomes part of what he has called "a revolution" in education. Six months into his term, Paige sat down with Education World news editor Ellen R. Delisio to talk about what the job has been like so far, his current concerns, and what his focus will be in the future. He was joined for the interview by Kathleen Mynster, the Department of Education's assistant director of public affairs.

Six Busy Months

Paige has kept busy in his first six months, with both education policy and department housekeeping. In April, a task force was named to study mismanagement in the Department of Education. By mid-July, more than 300 recommendations from outside auditors to improve department management -- out of a total of 661 recommendations -- were implemented.

"I wanted to make sure that I discovered all of the potential problems so that I could correct them and not later on wake up and become the owner of them," Paige told Education World.

Department reforms included reducing the number of credit cards in the department, and setting spending limits on other purchase cards. The department also announced that $65 million in defaulted student loans had been recovered using national employment data.

At the end of June, Paige and Lynne Cheney, the wife of Vice President Dick Cheney, kicked off a summer reading campaign. The goal of the "No Such Thing as a Vacation from Reading" program was to encourage adults to read daily to children during the summer school vacation.

Paige also addressed conventions of the National Education Association (NEA) and the American Federation of Teachers (AFT). His speeches at those conventions stressed that he and the unions have much common ground. He noted that AFT president Sandra Feldman had recently commented on the importance of testing to ensure standards are being met. Paige also praised the NEA membership for its "New Unionism" policy, which stresses teacher collaboration with parents, the community, and businesses to improve education.

"With New Unionism here, and new compassionate activism in Washington, I think we're finally on the same side," Paige said in his speech. "You want to take responsibility for the quality of education in America's schools. So do I."

Education World: Is your background as a teacher and a coach helping you in your current position?

Rod Paige: What I am now is a blend of all of those experiences. The perspective that I bring to the position is probably one of the broadest ones one could imagine -- with my years in the public schools, then in higher education, then in administration in higher education, as dean of education, and then on the school board and then superintendent. All of that blends together. It's hard to pull out any one element and ask what impact that particular element had. All of those experiences taught me some broad lessons. One broad lesson is that education is very much a people business. When changes are to be made to the culture of public education, it will be done by people in the schools, because they want the change.

EW: When you decided to become a teacher, what about teaching appealed to you?

Paige: I never really decided to become an educator; I grew up in that kind of environment. I don't recall waking up one morning and making a choice. It was something I always was going to do, it was what I knew, it was what my parents did for most of their careers, especially my mother; it was what my sister did. And also, at the time I grew up, this was one of the avenues for advancement for African-Americans. You were a teacher, a preacher, or you worked at the post office. It was like that.

EW: Recently, I read about your effort to address mismanagement in the Department of Education. Why did you feel it was important to tackle that issue so early in your administration?

Paige: The public's confidence and congressional confidence was eroding, and I wanted to make sure that I discovered all of the potential problems so that I could correct them and not later on wake up and become the owner of them. I want to be the leader of an organization that is respected.

EW: What is the next step in this process?

Paige: The next step in the process is the overall organizational design of the Department of Education. [That is,] to look at all management elements of the department and to make judgements relative to efficiency and effectiveness.

EW: What has been your biggest disappointment so far as Secretary?

Paige: That the Senate has piled on so many additional programs that expand the complexity of the operations of the organization ... I'm disappointed with the expenditures ... I'm disappointed with the speed at which -- the slowness at which -- we are able to bring on our key officers such as our assistant secretaries. We are just now, six months into the year, getting most of them in place.

EW: Why is that taking longer than you had hoped?

Paige: I think the congressional process that confirms assistant secretaries in all the domestic agencies is antiquated and in serious need of reform. I think the intent of all of the people in the organization is good; the processes, though, need reform.

EW: What has been your greatest surprise about the job?

Paige: I've been surprised to find that many persons who I didn't expect a lot of assistance from are very helpful; Sen. (Edward) Kennedy [a ranking member of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions] would be an example. His leadership is very much appreciated and respected. So I've been surprised by the good will of a lot of people. I'm surprised, too, at the quality of individuals who work in the department. I held the same view that many people in the private sector hold about government employees. If the ones in the department are an example, that's not a true image, because we are populated with highly qualified and committed people [who are] career people.

EW: I'm sure you have started to hear and read about some of what is being called the "teacher backlash" to the standardized testing proposal on the national scene...

Paige: Well, I don't accept that as teacher backlash.


Paige: I think if there is a backlash, if you trace it down, that backlash will be from, usually, the leadership of the teacher organizations. And I don't think it's even that deep in the leadership of the teacher organizations. There are some teacher organizations that have [expressed] backlash; I think some of the teacher organizations are showing progress towards the kind of change we want. I would particularly point out the statement that the executive director of the American Federation of Teachers made about testing. I would caution one to be careful in evaluating [reported backlash], because what we see are pockets of resistance. Those pockets are magnified by their ability to attract great attention, primarily from the media, because they represent the kind of conflict that's interesting to readers and listeners.

EW: Some teachers feel the money for testing would be better spent on more teacher training and developing what they call new "powerful curriculum." Would you say they are putting testing in the wrong perspective?

Paige: Listen, I worked in the Houston Independent School District where I was the superintendent for seven long years, and I had the opportunity to interface with all of the other superintendents in Texas, which has a long history of testing, similar to what is contained in these two [federal education] bills. And although there are pockets of resistance from some teachers, in the main, teachers understand the beneficial aspects of this program and understand it is to help kids. Teachers want to help kids, and I think that is a part of what we will see as we undergo change. But I don't accept that there is wide teacher opposition to testing. I do accept that there exist some pockets of [resistance], and those people, when they get access to the media, can amplify their voices such that it might appear that is the case. But this I know about teachers; teachers care about teaching and they care about students learning. And testing is an integral part of teaching and learning.

EW: I know that's an important part of the education agenda...

Paige: It's the core of it.

EW: What would you say are the next priorities?

Paige: The priorities will be the implementation of what I think to be the greatest amount of change that public education has undergone since 1965. And so we have got to manage that change effectively, and we've also got to help states and school districts develop the capacity to manage the amount of data that is going to be available under this program.

EW: Among the other issues that people are concerned about is the high school dropout rate for Hispanic and African-American students, (which) remains high. How do you plan to respond to that?

Paige: I think I would agree that the dropout rate is much too high in our schools, in our system, and our society, and especially among our African-American and Hispanic youngsters. However, the dropout rate now is the lowest ever in the history of public schooling. What has happened is our expectations have changed now, such that we believe that our society cannot absorb large numbers of uneducated people, so the expectation now is 100 percent of the population being educated. And so I think that this is a goal, a worthy goal too, that we should work hard on.

But there are a lot of factors involved in this very complicated issue. I think schools are taking giant efforts to remedy the dropout [problem], but there are other factors they need help with. Some of those factors have to do with employment, some of them have to do with other social factors. ... The school is responsible for student learning and can overcome many of the external barriers. They are difficult, but they can be overcome. But dropping out is not like that; there are factors outside of the school that are important. Early marriage is one; incarceration is one, the drug culture is one.

Kathleen Mynster: Hopefully, assessing student performance in [grades] three through eight will help find those problems early before they get to that ninth grade dropout point we always talk about.

EW: What would you say is your vision for the nation's educational system and what changes would you like to see by the end of your term?

Paige: I would see the nation's education system shift from its 20th century factory metaphor to a learning organization consistent with the realities of the 21st century. Most of the institutions and organizations in our society have already made this leap ... two institutions that have yet to make that change would be government and public schooling.

EW: How do you see that shift occurring?

Paige: I think schools are going to have to change to meet the reality of today's people. I think the one thing that characterizes today's people is that they are exposed to a wide variety of choices for almost every aspect of their lives, with the exception of schooling. That's going to change. The question, is who is going to participate in modifying and controlling the change?

EW: Where do you see schools moving next in terms of technology? I know initially there was a push nationwide just to get it into schools; what do you see as the next step?

Paige: I would like to see a lot of emphasis on teacher training with respect to its use, and its use linked to student achievement. Just having the availability of technology is not the goal that we seek. The goal is student achievement, and that's going to require teachers to be highly skilled in the use of these important electronic tools.