He's coached football and boosted troubled urban schools. Now Secretary of Education Rod Paige faces a new challenge: bringing schools in line with sweeping US reforms.
HOUSTON AND WASHINGTON
Nothing in Rod Paige's office speaks of children. There are no drawings on the walls. No kids' books on the square, wooden coffee table. No family photographs in sight.Skip to next paragraph
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The US secretary of education keeps his desktop clear, his files organized, his gray tie in a neat windsor knot. He's an orderly man and a private one, who describes his personal journey with characteristic reserve.
But get Secretary Paige talking about education, and his voice takes on an unexpected fervor. He'll move to the edge of his chair, plant his ostrich-skin cowboy boots on the floor, and, with evangelical passion, tell you of his vision for America's schools.
In order to turn this country's troubled schools around, he'll explain, we first must know what's wrong with them. And that requires testing. Lots of it. Every year.
With an emphatic wave of his hand, he dismisses critics of "teaching to the test." What's wrong with it, he asks, if the tests contain what kids should know?
He sees no problem with holding each school accountable for its performance.
And time and time again, he'll stress the importance of setting high standards for everyone. Especially those who, like Paige, started out at a disadvantage.
"We are not capable of measuring kids' potential," he says. "So we can't just say we'll have this low expectation for this kid, and for this kid over here we'll have this expectation. We'll have high expectations for all."
If it sounds as if Paige is the chief salesman for President Bush's education policy and particularly for the new legislation that requires measuring school performance as never before it's because he is. But spend a little time with Paige, as he crisscrosses the country promoting this vision of learning to educators from Los Angeles to Louisville, Ky., and you'll discover he's much more than a mouthpiece.
Rod Paige is a true believer.
Perhaps that is because he himself is a product of a no-excuses education, a black Mississippian who grew up at a time of separate and unequal schools. It may reflect a toughness forged on the football field, first as a player and then as a coach. Or it could be because the blueprint Paige used as superintendent to improve Houston schools has become the very cornerstone of the administration's No Child Left Behind Act.
"If you don't believe it can be done, you don't put the energy into it," says Paige, dismissing the critics who say the Bush plan is underfunded, ill-thought-out and, ultimately, unworkable. "I have seen lots of elementary schools not just one that are populated by kids who have all these at-risk factors. I've seen these kids soar."
If Paige believes unequivocally in what he's selling, however, it is less clear that the administration believes as firmly in him. Last summer, rumors flew that the president was treating Paige as a token hire, and some still question the secretary's effectiveness. The man credited with turning around Houston's schools has yet to prove himself on the national stage.
But capital insiders shouldn't be too quick to discount Rod Paige, old friends warn. They've seen his drive and tenacity when confronting an issue he cares about, and they say he's an easy man to underestimate.
This is the year that will begin to show who's right, for Paige must not only sell the president's plan for American education, he must also enforce it. How well he succeeds could shape his own legacy as well as the direction of US public schools for years to come.
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To the casual acquaintance, Rod Paige is something of an enigma. He's a black Republican from the Deep South; a former football coach who reads obsessively; a father who keeps close counsel about his son and former wife; a powerful and affluent man who's kept the same modest house for 30 years.
Friends and colleagues acknowledge Paige isn't one to waste words. Yet they see no mystery in his ways. They see the big brother in a family of five who led debates around the kitchen table. They know the man who stayed put as his neighborhood evolved from mostly white to all black, the school superintendent who never got too important to serve as an usher at Houston's Brentwood Baptist Church, where he was one of the first black members. And they see someone who never concedes defeat.
"He's a Nerf ball with a steel core," says friend Don McAdams, who has watched Paige work hard to build consensus but never retreat from his central beliefs. Paige's work for those beliefs, friends add, never seems to end.