True believer

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.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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.

* * *

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.

"Rod, you're going to be successful," his mother would say, according to Mr. McAdams. "The reason is not because you're smarter than everybody else. There are always going to be people out there smarter. But nobody'll work harder than you. You just work twice as hard as the other guy. If he's working 20 hours a day, you work 21."

Paige's father was a principal, a church deacon, a Boy Scout leader. His mother was a teacher and librarian. Both parents emphasized that education was the way out of tiny Monticello, Miss., at a time when the Klan still defined much of what passed for justice.

It was never an option for the Paige children not to go to college.

All five siblings graduated from four-year schools. Three completed doctorates. And like their parents, four went on to be educators. All this despite the fact that students in the Paiges' segregated, wooden schoolhouse had few textbooks. Education was something you sought out back then, not something you were handed.

And Raynor and Sophie Paige made sure their children were seekers.Every night, they would gather around the kitchen table to do their homework. If they finished, they read. If friends stopped by, they did homework too.

When Rod, the oldest, was left in charge, he enforced those rules. "He doesn't understand people who don't read all the time," says sister Elaine Witty, who recently retired as dean of the education school at Norfolk State University in Virginia.

Even today, when Paige thinks back on his childhood, he thinks of animated discussions about books.

These often led to debates, another favorite family pastime. In order to beat their brother, Ms. Witty remembers, she and her two sisters used to gang up on him. "It took three of us to outtalk him," she says. But though Paige loved learning, sports were his passion.

When he enrolled at Mississippi's Jackson State College in 1951, he majored in physical education and was an end on the school's football team. It was his coach, Harrison Wilson, who persuaded him to go to graduate school. "Here was a guy who had his doctorate, who we referred to as Dr. Wilson. We looked up to him," Paige remembers. Like Wilson, he went to Indiana University, for a PhD in physical education. His dissertation topic: the reflex times of offensive linemen.

It was football that brought Paige to Houston in 1971, as a coach and athletic director at Texas Southern University. He bought a three-bedroom, one-story brick house in a development south of town, the kind of neighborhood where every front lawn is manicured and cars are all garaged.

Today, his neighborhood is a mix of professionals and blue-collar workers. Paige stayed, even when he became a dean at TSU, even after his salary as superintendent of Houston public schools climbed to $275,000 a year.

"Why would Rod move?" asks Rick Holden, a neighbor and former member of Paige's coaching staff. "That's one of his best friends over there" – he points across the street – "and down there's another college dean he knew. Over there is a man who worked at TSU with both of us."

One thing, however, did separate Paige from his neighbors.

He'd been a registered Republican ever since George H.W. Bush invited him to attend the Republican National Convention in 1980 by way of thanks for working on his campaign in the Texas primaries. Though GOP campaign signs had a way of disappearing from Paige's front yard, his neighbors usually looked past his politics. When he ran for school board in 1989, he won easily.

"People who didn't support Bush still supported Rod," says Joe Samuel Ratliff, pastor of Paige's church. "You never sensed he wasn't in touch with his community."

* * *

In Don McAdams's office at the Center for Reform of School Systems, a small framed note hangs by his desk. Scrawled on a piece of paper, it reads, "Dr. McAdams, 'You da mann.' " It is signed, "Rod Paige."

A reminder of McAdams's years on the school board, the note refers to one of many line-in-the-sand battles he and Paige fought together.

The year was 1998, and a group of newly elected board members wanted to reverse a policy that gave the superintendent total hiring and firing authority in the district. The morning of the vote, Paige, McAdams, and another supporter on the board met at Starbucks to plot strategy. The other member recommended compromise – perhaps Paige could cede authority on the most senior positions. Paige was adamant: He kept all authority, or he resigned.

In the tense meeting that followed, McAdams used that threat to help sway two critical votes. The note by his desk, he says, shows just how steely his easygoing friend can become when pushed.

There were other tests. Even Paige's appointment, in 1994, was mired in controversy. That the school board had picked one of its own as superintendent, without a search process, made some citizens furious. Hispanics felt it was high time for a Latino superintendent. Bitter disputes played out in board meetings, in community hearings, in the pages of the Houston Chronicle.

Yet one by one, Paige won over his critics.

He asked advice from business leaders and listened to what they had to say. When reading wars raged between phonics advocates and those who prefer a more-varied approach, Paige helped carve out common ground. And when a $390 million bond issue was voted down in 1996, he spent two years listening to parents, community members, and union leaders – time that helped him push through a $678 million bond issue in 1998. "He is a consensus-builder," says local NAACP president Howard Jefferson.

His low-key demeanor was refreshing for acity used to superintendents with big cars, big houses, and big egos. Indeed, Gayle Fallon, the head of Houston's teachers' union, chuckles when she imagines Paige in protocol-minded Washington. "Rod would as soon go to a cafeteria for lunch as go to a high-end restaurant," she says.

Ms. Fallon was once an outspoken critic of Paige. What changed her mind, she says, was his commitment to his beliefs. "He is a truly decent human being. He's not necessarily in [politics] so he can make Rod look better, but because he truly believes every child can learn."

In Houston schools, children seemed to be learning.

Under Paige, social promotion ended. Houston became the first Texas school district to tie principals' contracts to performance. Between 1994 and 2000, reading and math scores on the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) rose substantially. More significantly, the achievement gap in mathematics between white and Hispanic students narrowed from 36 percent to 14 percent.

The news began to trickle out. The Council of Great City Schools gave Paige its award for outstanding urban educators in 1999; in 2000, he won the Harold W. McGraw Jr. prize in education; in 2001, the American Association of School Administrators named him superintendent of the year. "Houston had as healthy a political environment as any school system in America," says Sandy Kress, Bush's former education adviser, who was a school board member in Dallas at the time. "It got egos to the side, people moving in the same direction. Does [Paige] deserve all the credit? No. But a lot of it? You bet."

Not everyone agreed. Some said that Terry Abbot, the PR whiz Paige hired, was responsible for spinning the success story. A few educators and parents complained the schools had become virtual testing factories. Others claimed that higher test scores masked the fact that many low-achieving students had dropped out.

But with national praise, a compelling story of personal achievement, and a friendship with the Bush family, Paige was a natural pick for the cabinet. He headed to Washington with more experience in the field than any previous education secretary – and no experience in the corridors and back rooms of the capital.

* * *

Paige learned one difference early on: In Washington, he no longer sits atop the chain of command. For a man used to leading, that took some adjusting.

"Here, it's the president's plan. If I take an action, the next day the Washington Post doesn't say, 'Rod Paige did this.' It says, 'the Bush administration.' I'm part of a team now. That part of it took some consideration."

By insiders' accounts, other aspects of life in Washington also required adjustment. Last summer, rumors flew that the president had shut Paige out of his inner circle of advisers.One particularly harsh article in The New Republic called him "dead weight." Some said Mr. Kress had far more influence in shaping No Child Left Behind.

"His personality doesn't seem to be the type that succeeds in Washington," says Jack Jennings, director of the nonpartisan Center on Education Policy. "I get a feeling he doesn't know how to fight for what he believes in in policy councils, or how to assert himself as a leader."

But those who fought with and against him in Houston found he was assertive and effective. It's telling that many of Paige's former foes have become admirers.

Now, perhaps more than ever, he will need those consensus-building skills to lead educators. In January, the No Child Left Behind Act was a "historic bill" beloved in Washington by both parties. As the reality of its demands closes in, the reaction is less rosy.

Some former blue-ribbon schools find themselves on the failing list based on the new grading system. Superintendents who oversee below-par schools scratch their heads over how to arrange transportation for children who, under the new law, must be allowed to attend other schools. And Vermont Gov. Howard Dean made headlines by declaring he might just refuse all federal education money if it comes with so many strings attached.

It's not the principles of the act that he has a problem with, says Governor Dean. "It's the one-size-fits-all unfunded mandate.... What's good in Houston is not necessarily good in Iowa or Minnesota or Vermont." Since the new legislation asks states to set their own standards, and Vermont's are much higher than most, Dean says, many of his state's schools may be ranked artificially low. In such cases, the federal government may require expensive changes without offering funds to make them.

Supporters of the law hope Paige will offer a credibility that few in Washington can claim. That's why some believe he will yet have a higher profile than many previous education secretaries.

For now, Paige, who is just finishing a 25-city tour, is trying to sketch out his vision. He may need a broader palette to paint the future he imagines, not just for one district but for an entire country. But it's a task he relishes. In Houston, his proudest achievement, he says, was "painting in people's minds the possibilities – painting the future's fate in such vivid, attractive terms that people would want to go there and felt they could."

• E-mail comments to paulsona@csmonitor.com

In an interview, Secretary of Education Rod Paige shared his thoughts on ...

Expectations for children:

The biggest sin is setting low expectations. We are not capable of measuring kids' potential.... We need to give them our maximum effort, because we don't know what they're going to do and how they're going to bloom.

Testing:

[Critics] want to separate testing from teaching. Teaching and testing are the same thing for us. You cannot teach if you don't test. If you don't test [students] ... how do you know where their greatest needs are? How do you know where their deficits are?

Accountability:

Some of us may not want our vulnerabilities to be seen. But they must be in order to be corrected. Even those who argue about disaggregating data ... don't want us to say – well, these African-American kids are not doing well, the Hispanic kids are not doing well, the rural kids are not doing well. But when you say they're not doing well ... you've got to do something. If you don't see them not doing well, they stay invisible.

School choice:

[My] attraction [to] school choice [is] not because I want to erode the public school system. It is because I know the public system cannot grow protecting its market. It has to expose itself to competition. And when it does, it is capable of beating the competition. Everyone who knows Education Secretary Rod Paige comments on his voracious appetite for books.

Paige's page turners

Everyone who knows Education Secretary Rod Paige comments on his voracious appetite for books.

Here's a selection from Mr. Paige's current reading list:

Birth of the Chaordic Age by Dee Hock

Jack: Straight From the Gut by Jack Welch

The Next Deal: The Future of Public Life in the Information Age by Andrei Cherny

Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies by James Collins and Jerry Porras

Tinkering Toward Utopia: A Century of Public School Reform by David Tyack

The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a BIg Difference by Malcolm Gladwell

The Complexity Advantage by Susanne Kelly and Mary Ann Allison

Building CIvic Capacity: The Politics of Reforming Urban Schools by Clarence Stone, Jeffrey Henig, Bryan Jones, and Carol Pierannunzi

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