Wednesday, October 27, 2004
DON C. BRUNELL
Selling change is always difficult, but when it involves public schools and our kids' education, it is daunting at best. Dr. Rod Paige is President Bush's Secretary of Education and the chief architect of "No Child Left Behind." Surprisingly, he is the first superintendent of schools to hold that post.
Paige's father was a public school principal, his mother a public school librarian. Born in 1933 in segregated Monticello, Mississippi, Paige earned a Bachelor's degree from Jackson State University and a Master's and Doctoral degree from Indiana University. Prior to joining the Bush Cabinet, he was superintendent of schools in Houston.
Dr. Paige has a disarming style. For example, while in Seattle recently, he conducted a town hall meeting where teachers and activists confronted him over their frustrations with Washington's school reforms, the Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL), and "No Child Left Behind." He listened carefully and thoughtfully responded. Most importantly, while he may have disagreed with the speaker, he respected their right to disagree.
At the end of the evening, some of his antagonists continued to disagree with him and the school reforms he supports, but he commanded the respect due to a top federal education official. Dr. Paige told the audience that tests are necessary to evaluate a student's progress. For example, without a sphygmomanometer and stethoscope, there is no way to know if a person has high blood pressure and to monitor it to ensure that treatment is working. The same goes for education-you need tools and measurements to make informed decisions.
Paige also believes test scores are a measure of where students have problems, and he rejects the notion of averaging school and district test scores as an indicator of progress.
"No Child Left Behind" is not about averaging the scores of high performers and low achievers. It is about ensuring that kids don't fall through the cracks, passed from grade to grade unable to master the skills they'll need to succeed in the real world.
For example, studies show that if a student cannot read proficiently after the third grade, their problems in school only compound. He encourages parents to read to their children and have their children read to them. "No Child Left Behind" also sets aside federal funds for tutoring students from low income and disadvantaged families.
Dr. Paige reminded his audience that President Bush has increased education funding by nearly 60 percent since the Clinton Administration left office. He also was quick to point out that funding for K-12 is the state's responsibility and the federal government supplements, not supplants, that support.
Finally, Paige unabashedly supports school choice and charter schools-highly unpopular with the teachers' union. He believes all students and parents should have choices, not just the families who can afford to send their children to private schools.
Being on the front line, battling for change is a tough job even with less volatile issues, but Dr. Paige has handled his job well. Americans should be grateful there are dedicated educators like Paige because their persistence will keep our country competitive and full of opportunity.
Like Gov. Locke, Education Secretary Rod Paige is convinced that education breaks down racial, cultural and poverty barriers. It is the great equalizer in our culture.
Don C. Brunell is President of the Association of Washington Business.