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Politics or Progress?

Politics or Progress?
Education observers ponder significance of Paige’s appointment, tenure.

Congratulations and photo ops ended months ago. The swearing-in of former Houston schools chief Dr. Roderick Paige as education secretary seems like eons ago. And the “attaboys” for Paige raising test scores in a sprawling urban district have subsided. So a year after Paige assumed the top education job in the country, what does his presence signify for minority interests in education? Has he helped minorities progress in education and in politics?
Depends on who you ask, of course. “There’s nothing to me that’s noteworthy,” says Richard Cooper, professor of social work at Widener University. Cooper, whose dissertation is about urban education, has researched socio-cultural and political issues among Blacks. “We have waited. We’re not seeing much. It’s been a year of receptions and coffee klatches.”
Cooper believes that among other things, Paige could have been more forceful about the recent state takeover of the Philadelphia public school system, resulting in abolishment of the school board. A for-profit company took control of more than 40 low-performing schools and its 200,000 students. “He could easily have dealt with people behind the scenes, but he didn’t,” Cooper says.
Others disagree about Paige’s effectiveness. Policy leaders, like Paige, who are pushing initiatives such as Pell Grant expansion deserve praise, says Dr. Charlie Nelms, vice president for student development and diversity for the Indiana University system. “Having Paige on board is a good thing,” Nelms says. “The current combination of programs is very positive not only for people of color but economically disadvantaged people, too.”
In recent interviews, education observers agree that the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and President Bush’s war on terrorism derailed earlier plans to make education reform a signature of the Bush White House. So how should Paige proceed, given the emphasis on tax cuts, defense spending and the Office of Homeland Security?
“Let’s press him hard,” Cooper says. “Let’s have some tough interviews about what he’s going to do for minorities and for the poor…”
Dr. Gary Orfield, Harvard University professor of education and social policy, adds, “I would hope Paige would not just repeat soundbites but provide some real leadership.” Orfield calls the Bush administration “dominated by what I would call a corporate suburban world view.”
“Paige has at least had real urban experiences both at the college level and in Houston public schools,” Orfield says.
Paige rose from controversy to lead Houston, the nation’s seventh-largest school district, where 90 percent of the 209,000 students are minorities. In fact, he was the nation’s highest-paid superintendent at $275,000 because his board worried he would be hired away.
Education surrounded Paige when he was born in 1933 in Monticello, Miss. His mother taught school and his father was a principal before becoming a U.S. Department of Agriculture county agent. Paige attended a segregated high school, where  he cultivated a love for sports. But he saw how another high school in town had a gym and his didn’t, how the other school had a lighted football field and his didn’t.
Paige ran track while earning his bachelor’s degree at Jackson State University. He earned a master’s and, in 1969, a doctorate in physical education from Indiana University.
A football coaching job at Texas Southern University lured Paige to Houston. He nixed NFL coaching offers to follow in his parents’ footsteps in education. As dean of TSU’s college of education, he groomed a reputation as an aggressive hustler of foundation dollars. Consequently, about one-third of the teachers joining Houston public schools at that time were TSU graduates.
“He never thought educators had all of the answers,” Audean Allman, who taught at TSU for more than 30 years, said in an interview shortly after Bush tapped Paige. “Rod had vision. He believed in going to the community for input, for support. He instilled programs and brought in dollars that this college hasn’t seen the likes of, ever since. He really is one of the greatest educators I have ever known.”
By 1989, Paige won a seat on the Houston Independent School District (HISD) board. He was one of several trustees who called for the district to decentralize. He chose to judge accountability by student performance, rather than by rules compliance.
In 1994, Paige became superintendent. But a maelstrom of controversy dogged him for months while Hispanics sued him; TV cameras hounded him about unqualified Houston teachers hired in Mexico; and the state of Texas investigated the school district. It turned out Houston school trustees had so hastily hired Paige as schools chief after a quick, closed-door meeting that predecessor Frank Petruzielo had not even resigned, and Paige had not resigned as trustee. Hispanics, as a result, complained about being locked out of the decision-making process and the lack of a national search. They sued, although the case was later kicked out of court. Meanwhile, news reports emerged about massive corruption in Houston’s alternative-education program. An investigation resulted in two firings and six reassignments. A state senator persuaded lawmakers to order a performance audit of the school district because high failure rates had led to enforcing the state’s so-called “no pass, no play” policies against most Houston high schoolers. Dropout rates were so high the Texas Education Agency lowered HISD’s accreditation standing. And before the state audit ended, Houston voters rejected a $390 million bond issue.
But Paige drew national attention — and praise — as his tenure progressed. He gave more power to principals who now sign two-year, at-will contracts under Texas’ open shop. Principals of schools failing to meet performance standards could be fired. A new reading curriculum combining phonics and children’s literature gained acclaim. Students in third through eighth grades were required to pass either the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills (TAAS) or the Stanford Achievement Test (SAT) to be promoted. Parents were allowed to send kids to any school in the district as long as space was available. And private schools contracted with HISD to enroll students at crowded campuses or students who struggled academically.
Meanwhile, the number of students passing all standardized tests increased from about 43 percent in 1994, when Paige became superintendent, to nearly 70 percent in 1998. That same year, more than 80 percent of Houston high schoolers passed the state’s writing exam, up about 15 percentage points in five years. In 1992, fewer than 45 percent of high school students passed the math test. By 1998, almost 70 percent were passing.
Still, not everyone agrees with Paige’s policies affecting Houston students, of which two-thirds qualify for free or reduced-price lunches and about one-fourth isn’t fluent in English.
Critics say Paige’s policies forced teachers to teach to the standardized tests. Dr. Linda McNeil, a Rice University professor who has studied Houston schools since 1984, says teachers often have told her they must set aside regular history and literature lesson plans for at least three months to prepare students for the TAAS.
“This is a very tight accountability model with the unintended consequences of a declining quality of education,” says McNeil. 
A Passionate Promoter
A longtime Republican, Paige’s name vaulted to the short list for education secretary after trumpeting Bush’s Texas gubernatorial record to six state delegations at the 2000 National Republican Convention. The Houston Chronicle later reported that Paige once told a detractor of how Democrats lynched Blacks in his native Mississippi.
In the Senate confirmation hearings, Paige said he supported Bush’s plan to increase local control of schools, accountability, higher standards and parental choice. Describing himself as a “passionate promoter” of public schools, Paige said voucher-based programs were not a priority, though Bush has advocated using federal dollars to let students from low-performing public schools attend private schools.
Paige’s nomination was so non-controversial that on Bush’s inauguration, he was one of seven Cabinet picks confirmed by the Senate. Fewer than a dozen senators were present for the “en bloc” voice vote, according to news reports. The move was unusual because only Cabinet posts like Defense and State are usually approved on Inauguration Day because of national security priorities.
“Of course, we want one of our own to succeed, but I hope we have moved beyond just being happy that he’s brown,” Widener’s Cooper says.

Looking Ahead
So what lies ahead?
Some believe that the results in Houston, based on McNeil’s research, could repeat themselves in the national arena, such as in so-called high-stakes testing.
“Paige promotes an agenda that reduces schooling to test coaching,” says Monty Neill, executive director of the Cambridge, Mass.-based FairTest, which argues that test scores don’t necessarily equal merit. Among other things, the nonprofit FairTest also works to eliminate what it perceives as racial and cultural barriers to equal opportunity posed by standardized tests.
“He pushes an agenda that does not help recent immigrants, minorities, kids of color and poor kids,” sums up Neill. “It is not the agenda of civil rights groups or the Black or Latino caucuses in Congress. Paige has been heavily promoting testing and using Texas as proof that it works. Many children will be left behind. I believe in accountability, but like many people, I’m concerned about teaching to the test. It’s shallow.”
“Paige has made some speeches on the national scene, but there have been no questions asked of him,” Neill says. “He’s stiffing education.” 
Meanwhile, others counter that Paige is a fair administrator who weighs options.
“His success as a superintendent is based on embracing alternative teaching techniques,” says Dr. Douglas Reeves, president of the Denver-based International Center for Education Accountability. Reeves has researched Houston’s reading programs. “Dr. Paige is not an ideologue. He does not say ‘My way or the highway.’ His philosophy is to help kids read better.”
Nelms and others suggest Paige could be most effective the remainder of his tenure by forging closer alliances with his counterparts in the Housing, Labor and Health and Human Services departments. “I haven’t seen a compendium of issues,” Nelms says. “That’s the frustration I have, because education is not an isolated initiative.” 
— By Lydia Lum

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