Secretary of education, school superintendent
Advancing his way through the education system and overcoming racial barriers, Rod Paige became the first African American and the first school superintendent to serve as the U.S. secretary of education. His extensive knowledge and practical experience in the field of education was most evident through the drafting of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, an education reform legislation.
Roderick Raynor Paige, born June 17, 1933, in Monticello, Mississippi, was the oldest of five children. Paige's father, Raynor C. Paige, was a school principal and a barber. His mother, Sophie, was a librarian who made books a central part of life in the family's four-bedroom house. "My earliest memories were associated with books," Paige told People in an interview. As a young boy, Paige led debates and animated discussions around the dinner table about favorite books and literary characters.
Paige attended Lawrence County Training School in Monticello. A segregated school, the two-story building served black children from the first through the twelfth grades. Paige learned early in life the hardships faced in a segregated educational system. In an interview in Humanities, Paige said: "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." He gained an appetite for proving he was as good as white students, a feeling that continued through college and graduate school.
After high school graduation in 1951, Paige enrolled at Jackson State College in Jackson, Mississippi. He was an honor student and earned a spot on the football team. His football coach, Harrison Wilson, encouraged him to go to graduate school. Following graduation with a B.A. in physical education in 1955, Paige began teaching at a high school in Clinton, Mississippi. Shortly thereafter, he was drafted and joined the Navy, moving to San Diego, California. In July 1956, he married his college sweetheart, Gloria Crawford. Only a few days following his wedding, Paige was sent to Okinawa, where he worked as a medical corpsman.
When he returned home to his family, Paige was anxious to resume his education. Paige served as head football coach at Utica Junior College in Mississippi until 1962 when he returned to coach at his alma mater, Jackson State University. Paige's career aspirations went beyond the football field to the classroom. Because no graduate schools in his home state of Mississippi would accept blacks, Paige enrolled at Indiana University. His academic deficiencies from his background at segregated schools made graduate education extremely challenging. However, Paige overcame his deficiencies to earn an M.A. in 1962 and then a doctorate in physical education in 1970. His dissertation topic was the response time of offensive linemen.
After a brief tenure as an assistant football coach at the University of Cincinnati, he applied in 1971 for the job as head coach and athletic director at Texas Southern University in Houston. Granville Sawyer, then president of Texas Southern, interviewed Paige for the job. He later told Time that "[he] was convinced by the end of [their] conversation that this was a great mind and great educational leader in the making." Paige accepted the job offer with the stipulation that he also have faculty status. In hindsight, Paige told Texas Monthly, this was one of the most important decisions that he ever made.
As the years went by at Texas Southern, Paige became more interested in education than football. Paige admitted to People that he was "increasingly disturbed by the growing commercialism of college sports." At the same time, his family life experienced hardship with the ending of his marriage to Gloria in 1982. Paige was considered for assistant coaching positions in the NFL but chose to stay in academics. In 1984, Paige left coaching to become dean of the College of Education at Texas Southern.
As dean, Paige established the Center for Excellence in Urban Education, a research facility that focuses on issues related to instruction and management in urban school systems. Texas Southern University's education program thrived under Paige's leadership, boasting that 33 percent of teachers and administrators in the Houston Independent School District graduated from the program.
In 1989, Paige decided to run for the Houston Independent School District (HISD) School Board. Despite his inexperience in local politics, his academic credentials and definite ideas about education helped him gain the support of both Republicans and Democrats. John Bettencourt, Harris County tax-assessor and campaign worker, told the Houston Chronicle, "We had a great candidate. He was the newcomer that was already the hot property … He had a vision of what education could be. He was helped by the environment. In 1989, people wanted a change."
The school board elections of 1989 did indeed bring change. Four of the nine members were new that year. The new members wanted to restructure the school district. The board chose to draft a vision statement for the district. The board chairperson appointed Paige to chair the committee that drafted the new statement. On June 18, 1990, the board of education unanimously approved the Declaration of Beliefs and Visions. Beliefs and Visions proposed a radical reform in educational policy and administration from a centralized hierarchy to a student-teacher centered approach. The document also called for district policies to be based on educational outcomes rather than the educational process. Finally, Paige and the other board members insisted that a common core of academic courses based on high standards be established to prepare students for college or the workforce.
The superintendent of the Houston Independent School District, Joan Raymond, was strongly opposed to the board's implementation of Beliefs and Visions. After a year-long battle with the school board, Raymond was fired from the superintendent's post in 1991. Her replacement, Frank Petruzielo, moved forward with the reforms outlined in the document, but not to the extent that was satisfactory to Paige, who was elected board president in 1992. In his book Fighting to Save Our Urban Schools, Donald McAdams quoted Paige as saying that Petruzielo's reforms were "just traditional 'fix the parts' school reform. It's not systemic change."
Heads Houston's School System
When Petruzielo left in 1994, Paige became the prime candidate for superintendent. A majority of the school board expressed their desire to hire Paige while he was still serving on the board without going through a national search process. The Hispanic Education Committee expressed strong opposition to the appointment of Paige and the hiring process that followed. A lawsuit was filed by the committee against the school district. The federal courts vindicated the school district of all charges in the suit, freeing Paige to concentrate on fully implementing the reforms that were outlined in the Beliefs and Visions document.
- Born in Monticello, Mississippi on June 17
- Receives B.A. from Jackson State College
- Marries Gloria Crawford
- Becomes football coach at Jackson State University
- Earns M.A. in physical education from Indiana University
- Earns Ed.D. in physical education from Indiana University
- Serves as head football coach and athletic director at Texas Southern University
- Leaves coaching to become dean of the College of Education at Texas Southern University
- Serves on the Houston Independent School District school board
- Serves as superintendent of Houston Independent school district
- Serves as U.S. secretary of education
Paige began his administration in 1994 by focusing on the reform of the district's administration. He sought to work in partnership with leaders in the business community. At his request the school district formed numerous task forces made up of outside experts to recommend ways to improve efficiency. Business leaders were impressed with Paige's management style and straightforward approach to solving problems. Many of the rec-ommendations were implemented by the district, and Paige called the reform program a huge success.
However, some of Paige's reforms were not well received by teachers and employees in the district. When principals were granted more authority to make personnel decisions on their campuses, Gayle Fallon of the area union told the Houston Chronicle, "We didn't see a check and balance on what we considered unbridled power." Several employees argued against the decentralizing of student services and special education from the district offices to the schools. Despite the criticism and the failure of a $390 million bond election, Paige stayed the course of his Beliefs and Visions plan.
In 1996, the state of Texas, led by comptroller John Sharp, conducted a full-scale audit of HISD. Paige was able to utilize the audit to accelerate his plan for decentralization and reorganization of the district. He privatized several of the district's services, including food service, school maintenance, and employee benefits. The district launched an overhaul of curriculum management and instructional training, implementing standardized testing for all students third grade and up. The district contracted with private secular schools to relieve overcrowding and take children that were struggling academically. Teacher and administrator evaluations were modified to focus on individual performance. Sharp praised Paige for his assistance with the auditors and credited him and his colleagues with the turnaround of HISD.
By 2000, Paige's reforms were making a real difference. Education Week reported that between 1994 and 1999, the proportion of students passing the Texas Assessment of Academic Skills rose from 49 percent to 74 percent. Brad Duggan of the watchdog group "Just for Kids" told the Houston Chronicle that 26 percent of HISD's elementary schools were performing better than comparable schools elsewhere in the state. The public's endorsement of Paige's leadership came in 1998 with the approval of a record $678 million bond issue to launch the largest building program in the district's history.
Becomes U.S. Secretary of Education
In December 2000, Texas governor and U.S. president-elect George W. Bush asked Paige to accept the position of U.S. secretary of education. Paige became acquainted with the Bush family during the 1970s when he was active in community groups helping the poorer neighborhoods in Houston. Paige volunteered for the George Bush presidential campaign of 1980 and became one of the delegates to the Republican national convention that summer. As governor, George W. Bush showed great regard for Paige and his reforms, frequently citing Houston as an exemplary urban school district to be emulated in other cities.
On January 24, 2001 Paige was sworn in as secretary of education. With the strong support of the Bush administration, Paige began his tenure by pushing the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act. The NCLB Act focused on many of the same issues that Paige had successfully implemented in Houston: greater choices for parents and students attending low-performing schools, standardized testing, and greater accountability and local control for school administrators and teachers. Paige was successful in gaining bi-partisan support of the U.S. Congress for the bill. The act was signed on January 8, 2002.
As the year progressed, however, Paige was harshly criticized for his performance as secretary and for the problems arising from the NCLB Act. Funding was a critical issue for the bill, and circumstances following the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks diverted key funds from the provisions of the NCLB Act to other programs related to homeland security. Also, some political analysts questioned Paige's role in the development of the NCLB Act. White House education advisor Sandy Kress conceded in an interview with the Wall Street Journal that Paige was "a little bit on the periphery" because a large portion of the legislation had been drafted during the campaign before Paige took office.
The most significant criticism came from education organizations and state legislatures which opposed the strict testing and high achievement standards required by the act. The National Education Association expressed its disapproval of the law for its impairment of the education process through emphasis on standardized testing. Paige abruptly responded, calling the association a "terrorist organization," but later apologizing for the remark. Lawmakers in twenty states introduced resolutions opposing all or part of the NCLB Act. Former "blue-ribbon" schools found themselves on the failing list under the new standards imposed by the act. Several states, including Vermont, threatened to refuse federal funds rather than comply with the new guidelines. The Christian Science Monitor quoted governor Howard Dean's objection as "the one-size-fits-all unfunded mandate … What's good in Houston is not necessarily good in Iowa or Minnesota or Vermont."
In 2002, Paige went on a twenty-five city tour to gather support for the NCLB Act and encourage more active involvement of parents, teachers, principals, and administrators in the educational process. Paige started the tour in April 2002 in Albuquerque, New Mexico and finished in Bronx, New York in September of that year. At each stop on the tour he toured facilities, met with key politicians, and held town hall meetings with the various constituencies.
Throughout the remainder of his term as secretary, Paige was the administration's public voice on the No Child Left Behind Act. On November 15, 2004, Paige announced his resignation, stating that "No Child Left Behind is indelibly launched" and that he was interested in pursuing personal interests at home.
In March 2005, Paige accepted a position as public policy scholar at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington D.C. to work on the "Academic Achievement Gap" project, including a book on the achievement gap and African American leadership. Paige also joined the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, an education think tank, as a trustee.
McAdams, Donald R. Fighting to Save Our Urban Schools—and Winning!: Lessons from Houston. New York: Teachers College Press, 2000.
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Mark L. McCallon