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"A Good Teacher and a Willing Student"

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige talks about the ingredients for success in our schools

HUMANITIES, September/October 2004 | Volume 25, Number 5

NEH Chairman Bruce Cole recently spoke with Secretary of Education Rod Paige about closing the gaps in the nation's education system. Paige, who was born in Mississippi twenty-one years before Brown v. Board of Education, recalls the disparities in the "separate but equal" schools and reflects on progress since then.

Bruce Cole: Being a teacher and an educator is often described as a calling. What happened in your life that made you want to be an educator?

Rod Paige: To put that in context, you've got to have a view of the environment in which I grew up. This was a small, rural, highly segregated community in Mississippi, central Mississippi, farmers all around. My mother was a teacher, and during my elementary days my father was a principal. The people in the community who were looked up to were teachers. There was the teacher, the preacher, and that was about it.

The community people called my father "Professor." It was a lovable term, and they looked up to him. They would come to him with their community problems. At night after we had supper, it would not be unusual for ten or fifteen of the community kids to be sitting around the table doing homework. It was an education center.

In those hard days of segregation in Mississippi, we were taught that the solution to most of our problems was education. I've been reading again the history of antebellum America and colonial America with special emphasis on slavery. The historians have been looking at it with new eyes, so I've decided to read about it all over again. I can see where education and learning to read and write were tools. My parents and all the community people taught us that the way to get ahead is education: education would overcome any difficulty. There was no other world to be in.

Cole: I can see that. Education is the American way to improve yourself, to get out of a situation that you don't want to be in, and to expand your horizons for many, many groups who have come to this country.

Paige: I can remember when I was the superintendent of schools in Houston and the first generation of immigrants arrived from Vietnam and Cambodia--they also saw education as a way to get ahead. I see this budding now in a lot of our Asian and European neighbors. They have discovered education as a powerful economic and social tool.

So maybe our parents and people during that time were right. This contemporary environment has lost a little of that punch.

Cole: That has been a characteristic, I think, of our democracy--that for many people it didn't matter where you came from or what your family background was like. I'm not saying that it was a level playing field, but through education you could improve your life. You could make your way in the world. So you don't think that that sort of ethic is as strong now?

Paige: Definitely not. That whole value system has suffered some erosion. I'm not exactly sure why that is, but I'm facing it a lot in our challenge to close the achievement gap. For me, teaching and learning involves activity on the part of the learner. This level of motivation and student engagement is less strong now than during the period that I talked about, but is as strong for first-generation immigrants coming into the United States.

Cole: You were talking about growing up in this small town. This, of course, was before Brown, before the schools were desegregated. Can you tell me what that was like for you?

Paige: With the fiftieth anniversary of Brown versus the Board of Education, I've been asked that question a lot. It brought back a lot of feelings that I thought were gone.

Cole: What kind of feelings?

Paige: In my early years, probably sometime toward the end of my middle school days, I can remember the exact thing that caused me to start noticing the difference. It is rather comical, but the first thing that caused me to start getting angry was the fact that they had a nice gym and we didn't have a gym. We could not play basketball on days when it was raining and muddy. We were out on a clay court. Now of all the ramifications about segregation and separate but equal and all that kind of nonsense, I get mad about the fact that they had a gym. That was my first real awareness that there was something different going on here. We noticed our textbooks were marked up. We learned a lot about the kids in the other schools by reading the notes they wrote in the margin of the books. Some of the pages were torn out.

Then the situation moved to a point of "we're going to show those kids. We are just as good as they are." Every time there was any kind of interaction, our attitude was one of proving ourselves. That carried on through college, and maybe even into graduate school.

Cole: I saw a picture of you and your sister at Jackson State. I think it was on the day that Brown was announced. It must be interesting reflecting on that moment.

Paige: Yes. That was towards the end of school. We got the word and, of course, on a college campus there were pockets of academic discussions all around. We were going to wake up tomorrow and this world was going to be wholly different because Brown versus the Board of Education had come down.

Looking back at it now, you can see how naive those discussions were. We say that you can change laws but you do not change people's hearts. That takes more time.

Cole: Brown was a start. Are we making progress on equal opportunity in education?

Paige: I'm troubled about that. I think saying "denied the opportunity for equal education" may not be appropriate. Going back and reading the history of African American and Negro education, colonial Negro education, antebellum Negro education, Negro education during Reconstruction and forward, there were times when that was really true. I'm not sure that's the case now.

We need to talk now about taking advantage of the opportunities that are here. I lived through an experience where they were denied, and this certainly does not equate to that period. So there's something wrong with this. We've got to approach it from a kind of different point of view.

Students are not maybe investing the kind of energy and engagement into it that we've seen in those more rugged years. This is not true for everybody. As a general rule, we see a thirty-point achievement gap nationally between black and white fourth graders in reading and in math. It is a complicated phenomenon and the No Child Left Behind Act has helped to bridge this gap.

Cole: This circles back to what we were talking about before--about the value of education and how you have to understand that if the opportunity is there, you've got to seize it.

Paige: Absolutely. That's the perplexing part about our educational circumstances today. I think if it were understood how important this is and how easily it can make a difference in your life, then people would be willing to put more effort towards attaining it.

Cole: I think we were both lucky in that we had parents who valued education. I was the first person in my family to go to college. My parents understood that that was the way that one could get ahead, that you needed to get that education. That was drilled into us from the very beginning.

Paige: Absolutely. Somebody asked me one time, a long time ago, "Why did you decide to go to college?" I responded, "Because I enjoy breathing." My parents would have killed me otherwise. There was no not going to college. (Laughter.)

Cole: That's right. It was not an option.

Paige: It was not an option. So my parents were much like your parents.

Cole: You do visit a lot of schools?

Paige: A lot, and I always enjoy it.

Cole: Where have you been lately?

Paige: One of the most fascinating schools that I visited was in Virginia, in Newport News. I visited a charter school there. It reminds you, once again, of how eager these young kids are to learn. They sit with bright eyes. They're eager to please you. It's just wonderful to be in good schools like that. But something happens as they go into their middle school years and into high school. Something goes away. I don't know what it is.

Cole: You had a lot of on-the-job training before you became secretary. You were a teacher, a dean, super.intendent of schools--what makes a good school?

Paige: A good teacher and a willing student. This process has essentially three simple parts: it is the quality of the instructional process, the quantity of the instructional process, the engagement of the student. When I say "teacher," I include the principal and the counselor and other people involved, because they are all teachers. They all have to have an interest in student achievement.

I just talked to a principal from the Houston School District, where I served as superintendent for many years, who had gone to another city to be interviewed for a job as the academic officer. She talked to me on the phone and over and over she kept saying, "They do not have a crisp academic focus."

She is coming from an environment where we were clear. We said, "The district exists to support the relationship between the teacher and the student. The place where the teacher and the student come together is where the magic happens. Everything else in this whole district is valuable to the extent that it supports this interaction, the interaction between the teacher and the student."

Cole: It's not about anything else.

Paige: We have a transportation system to get them there. We have a food system to feed them. We have nice facilities for them to study in. But all of that is to support the interaction between the teacher and the student. That can overcome everything else.

Cole: And sometimes that can get lost because that whole support system is really the focus rather than that critical interaction between the student and teacher.

Paige: That's exactly right.

Cole: You were superintendent for almost eight years in Houston. Can you talk about that experience a little bit? What was that like?

Paige: I was a member of the school board. Our superintendent abruptly decided to take another job and we were talking about how we were going to go out and hire another superintendent. We had had a very turbulent superintendent search process two years earlier and I think the board didn't want to go through that again. So they were looking for a shortcut.

Later that night at home, I got a telephone call from one of the board members saying, "We had some discussions after you left and we decided to ask you to at least help us by finishing Frank's term, which is about fourteen more months. Would you do that while we get ourselves together to hire a new superintendent?" I agonized over it a while, but finally decided to do it. I became superintendent and stayed there for better than seven years.

I had never been a school leader before. I had been a teacher in public schools, but never a principal or a superintendent. But I had been fascinated by the concept of how organizations work and had been spending a lot of time reading about management efficiency. I had read Drucker and Crosby and Juran and Ishikawa and Deming and all those gurus. So I took that approach to schools. How do you make an organization work? I asked myself, what is it we are trying to accomplish? What is the Houston school district? What is its purpose? Why is it here? What do we hang on the school board? What does victory look like? What does defeat look like? I spent a lot of time dealing with that and talking about that with the people in the organization and finally came up with some clear direction. One was that the Houston School District exists to support the interaction between the teacher and the student.

Cole: That sense of mission, that focus, right?

Paige: That's right. We called it our strategic intent. Our strategic intent was to earn so much respect from the citizens of Houston that the Houston Independent School District would become the K through 12 educational delivery system of choice. We had to earn this. That implied that we provide a choice. I think our approach resulted from the fact that somebody just said, "You're the superintendent. Here's the key." There was no training, so I had to draw on my experiences in other ways.

It reminded me of this little story that I'll tell you. There's a story of this student who came to his professor in a university where the policy was noncompulsory attendance, but you had to pass the courses. So he came to the class, the professor's class, the first day and got the textbooks and the outline and everything like that and did not show up again until the final examination day. So the professor saw him and said, "You've got to be kidding me. You can't take my exam. You haven't been here. You've missed all my lectures. How do you expect to pass?"

So the kid said, "But isn't noncompulsory attendance the policy of this university?"

He said, "Yes, so I guess I do have to let you take the exam, but you don't have to worry about passing, because you missed all my lectures."

So the student came back to get his paper. The professor said, "Doggone. You made 95 out of 100."

The kid said, "Rats. I knew I shouldn't have come that first day." (Laughter.)

Cole: We had a noncompulsory policy where I was teaching and I would tell the kids on the first day, "I can't compel you to come to class, and you can just come and take the midterm and you can take the final. But I must tell you there is a high correlation between sitting in the lectures and good grades." But every once in a while I would have someone who could do that. They could come in and do well.

I don't believe there has ever been another secretary with the kind of background you bring to the job--as teacher, dean of a school of education, superintendent. Obviously, that makes you look at education and your position in a very special way.

Paige: Schools are organizations, and they operate according to the same organizational behavior principles that social psychologists and researchers have put out over the years. Now every organization is different. The military has a unique culture. Corporations have a unique culture. But there is a unique culture in a school that is unlike other organizations. When I read through the history of education policy in the United States, there's an absence of the practitioner's point of view. I believe that's the source of many of the problems that we have had and the reason we have spent a lot of money trying to accomplish things that were not accomplished. There seems to be a mentality that we can see into these schools and know what is going on there. We do not know. Even legislators say, "Well, I visit schools." That is not enough.

I ask Ray Simon about this a lot-- Ray is our assistant superintendent for elementary and secondary education -- because he is a practitioner, too. He was the chief education officer in Arkansas. Gene Hickok was the same thing in Pennsylvania. They are people who have actually been in the schools.

A guiding principle--for me, at least--is that we can make policy, we can provide resources, we can encourage, we can cajole, but when and if schools change they will do so as a result of the people who walk up and down the halls of the schools and look into the eyeballs of the kids. They will not change as a result of what goes on on the outside.

It is almost like coaching football. You must create an environment where the players are willing to take the pain that anyone takes on the football field in order to get something done. That is part of what has been missing in education policy in the United States.

Cole: You don't have a typical day, but what is your day like?

Paige: My day starts the night before. There are several things I do at night before I go to bed. I fix my automatic coffee maker. I set it so that the coffee is cooking at about a quarter to six. I get up about 5:30. Twenty minutes later I'm downstairs drinking a cup of coffee. Then I do devotion. After that, I spend a little time on whatever my project is--right now it's reading about American history--and maybe just take a glimpse at the front page news on the Internet to see if the world is still out there, what's happened.

The driver then picks me up at 6:30. It's about a five-minute drive from there to Gold's Gym where I work out. I get forty-five to fifty minutes in and then I go to the office and take a shower and get dressed and try to be ready for my deputy at eight o'clock. Cole: I'd have to take a nap at that point. (Laughter.)

Paige: Sometimes when I go in the gym I am in a mood for a strong workout. If I had a bad day before and I just don't feel up to it, I'll have a kind of a weak workout. I am not training for the Olympics. I just want to feel good.

Cole: Have you always worked out?

Paige: Yes, but not quite as regularly as here because it is so easy to go to the gym. I did the same thing when I was superintendent of schools in Houston. Because I enjoy it.

Cole: So you get in the office?

Paige: I meet Anne [Chief of Staff Anne-Imelda Radice] for breakfast at eight o'clock and she gives me the news of the day. She lets me know what we have planned for the day, or if there's some fire we have to put out. Then to our executive team meeting, which is the deputy, the undersecretary, general counsel, and sometimes the assistant secretaries. We go over the issues of the day and plan the day and talk some about the future. Then we leave and we launch into the schedule. It usually starts around nine o'clock.

Cole: Let's talk a little bit about history --I remember your telling me you didn't especially appreciate history when you were being taught it in school.

Paige: When I was being taught history in school, it had to do with memorizing a lot of dates that seemed to have no relevance to me. It was rote and it didn't come alive. After I graduated from college, I bumped into a little book about the Amistad mutiny and I read it and it was exciting. I ended up reading several books about it, because the Amistad mutiny had multiple directions: maritime law, ownership of property, the Constitution of the United States, the relationship with Britain, the relationship with Spain. Was this vessel Cuba's or was it ours, or could the military navy officer who captured the Amistad own this because of salvage laws? There was a lot going on. Then, I peeked into John Quincy Adams. When you read that kind of material, it makes you want to go back and get other answers. That's where I got my real spark for history.

Cole: That spark. That's a great gift a teacher can give to a student--to somehow get them excited about the subject. You want to get the person you're talking to as excited about it as you are. That's one of the things we're interested in: to get teachers to get that spark. We have a new series we call Landmark Workshops. We're bringing teachers to places where history was made--to Spanish St. Augustine and Birmingham, all over the country--to bring these K through 12 teachers together with experts at places where history was made to get them that spark. And history is a great story.

Paige: That is the key: people love stories. History is a collection of really great stories. When it is approached that way, it is fascinating.

Cole: We've talked about this before, but knowing our history and knowing where we've come from and how the past influences the present is essential for the survival of our democracy.

But it's something that also should be enjoyable. Besides the larger and vital civic component, it also happens to be a lot of fun.

Paige: Yes. Interesting.

Cole: Let's talk a little bit about No Child Left Behind. What are the essential elements?

Paige: The discussion about helping children in school actually started during the Kennedy Administration; it became law as part of Lyndon Johnson's War on Poverty program back in the early sixties. Johnson pushed for the passage of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, which he said was aimed at lifting poor children out of poverty through education.

Cole: That was a long-range goal.

Paige: Yes. He was under the belief that lack of education was underpinning a lot of poverty. He said a great society should have great education and all its kids should be doing better. So the solution was this targeted program with additional resources for poor kids. He budgeted about a billion dollars for this.

The No Child Left Behind Act is the eighth reauthorization of that act. Since Lyndon Johnson, we have spent about $260 billion through the same program to lift poor children out of poverty through education. But research has demonstrated that very little difference has been made as a result of all this effort.

Now President George H.W. Bush was concerned about this, so he had a summit of governors in Charlottesville early in his administration. No educators. It was just the governors and their key advisers. They decided that accountability should be a driver. A strong supporter for this movement was the governor of Arkansas, who became president of the United States. Under the Clinton Admin.istration, the seventh reauthorization was called the Improving American Schools Act of 1994. It was the first time that accountability was embedded into federal policy for public schools.

We came in 2001. I viewed the No Child Left Behind Act the way it was enacted by Congress as a statement by the Congress that there was some impatience here and some dissatis.faction with the result that they had achieved with this huge amount of expenditure over the years. So the No Child Left Behind Act put teeth in the accountability issues that were embedded in law in 1994.

Cole: Has there been time to see some progress in accountability?

Paige: The No Child Left Behind Act changed the direction. The first thing that it did was require states to set standards. Supporters of local control and flexibility recognized that the fifty states were at different points in terms of progress toward school reform. We must respect that and let the local people drive, but we have set certain frameworks within which they must operate. We do not want to micro- manage what is going on on the ground; the various situations are so different. The theme is local control and flexibility in parental options. We think there is no logic in chaining a child to a school that is not serving him well.

In our society, we have choice in every aspect of our lives. The great enterprises that are moving forward are even customizing services for the customers, but schools are operating on the same bureaucratic lack-of-choice model that we had back in the early twenties. So we want to get more choice: charter schools and that type of thing.

And, finally, we want teachers to use methods that we know work. We don't want teachers to experiment with kids in the classrooms. We want to do the proper research to make sure that we can be comfortable that, if you use this method, the child will learn, assuming the right kind of response from the child.

The purpose of this is to close the achievement gap between the ethnic communities in our country. And the funding is historic, notwithstanding the fact that we have a lot of pontificating to the contrary.

Cole: It's interesting to me that accountability has come in so late.

Paige: Absolutely. When we were talking about Houston a few minutes ago I was telling you about my studying organizational development. It strikes me--what other enterprise can you name where standards and accountability will be an innovation? It's routine. But in our business-- education--it is an innovation.

Cole: As a former teacher, I just can't imagine education without accountability. What are your benchmarks? How do you measure success?

Paige: I think there's only one measurement for us and that is through students' improvement based on authentic, reliable, objective assessment tools. The best one out there right now is the National Assessment of Education Progress, the nation's report card--we call it NAEP--which is administered every two years to a sample in every state.

For us there are two primary measures. One is the objective measurable assessment that students achieve on their state-mandated test and the second one would be how they do on the national one. There can be a big difference because a state can have soft standards and students could score higher against those soft standards. When they take the NAEP, that's going to reveal the differences. Take states like Florida and Massachusetts, which have unbelievable test standards. Those kids do well on the NAEP test. Florida kids score number one in fourth grade reading.

That is how we measure it. We are not going to evaluate based on whether people feel good--on self- esteem. Rather, did the student do better based on an objective measurement? We have measured all along, but we have not tied it back to the standards. There is another area we need to concentrate on, and that is the gap in science and math between our students' performance and our inter-national neighbors in Europe and Asia. That gap needs to be closed, too.

Cole: And the humanities?

Paige: Oh, I think a person cannot be fully educated unless the humanities is a strong part of the educational program. The No Child Left Behind Act recognizes this. Two or three years from now, we will begin testing in social studies. I think the NEH will be a great asset to this whole process. I anticipate in the next couple of years, when states have to develop standards in the humanities, heated discussions will probably occur about what should be taught. Maybe you and your staff can be the referees. (Laughter.)

Cole: That's right. Well, Mr. Secretary, I want to thank you. It's been very exciting.

Paige: I always enjoy talking to you.