The New Education Secretary Comes to Washington from the Battlefront

Commentary by Pete du Pont

Rod Paige is the first black Secretary of Education, but perhaps of more significance is that he is the first Secretary of Education who has ever actually run a school system - the 210,000-student Houston Independent School District, seventh largest in the nation and 90% minority.

Thus Paige brings an important point of view to Washington, one based on first-hand knowledge of inner-city schools, where many of the most intractable problems facing educators and policy makers are found. Added to that is what he learned as an elected member of the Houston school board for five years before the board named him superintendent in 1994.

So what can we expect from the new secretary? Only about 7% of the money spent on elementary and secondary education comes from the federal government, but the president and the secretary have a bully pulpit for preaching education reform and influencing the behavior of state and local school officials. With education a top priority with the new president, Paige almost certainly will draw on his personal experiences on the battlefront in pushing the Bush agenda.

By most accounts, Paige has been an innovative leader, willing to try new approaches that might give hope to students, parents, and teachers.

Hope - and more - is what the nation's schools, particularly the inner-city schools, need. According to the White House, nearly 70% of inner-city fourth graders can't read at a basic level. Nearly a third of all college freshmen have to take one or more remedial courses before they can begin college-level work.

It may be even worse than that in reality. One former head of an inner-city school system recently told a colleague of mine that his own system spends hundreds of thousands of dollars on vocational education. But in one year he described as typical, 400 students graduated from high schools with auto mechanics training, but only three could get jobs in the field - because they couldn't read the manuals.

In many of these schools, students and parents - and teachers - have to be concerned with safety before they even consider academics. One-third of all middle and high school teachers say discipline is a major classroom problem. One-fourth of the typical teacher's day is spent dealing with disruptive students.

Dr. Mary Jane Pearson, academic director of Community Education Partners, a small private-education company, told a forum last year, "Hardly anyone...seems to realize that [low academic performance and discipline] are interrelated."

But Paige did. Houston had more ninth graders than first graders, but the number in each class after ninth grade declined sharply. The reason: ninth graders were more or less automatically passed up through middle school, but in high school they needed credits - which they couldn't get - to progress farther. Many who didn't drop out were disruptive. The district had alternative schools but Paige said this approach "wasn't working and the cost was prohibitive." So Houston turned to Community Education Partners to set up a special school for children far behind where they should be in reading and in math and for those with serious behavioral problems. The school mainly gets children who have been suspended or expelled from other schools. The program costs less per student than the district's own alternative schools - and the teachers unions support it.

Last year, the district began decentralizing as much of its school funding as possible. Each school gets a budget, and principals can determine what personnel and programs are necessary to meet students' academic needs in that school. In return, the principals are held responsible for academic success and financial stability.

When Paige became superintendent in 1994, he asked several local scholarly experts to volunteer their time to evaluate the district's operations and recommend improvements. Last year he went further and, with financial support from companies and foundations, enlisted eight prominent academics from around the nation for another evaluation.

The latest reports praised the district for providing quality instruction and visionary leadership, and for support from the business community. But they also found the decentralization effort was slowed because so few administrators and teachers "have been able or willing to take advantage of the new opportunities posed by decentralization."

In a speech a couple of years ago, Paige said that when he accepted the Houston superintendency, "We knew that we would have to get in the face of some people who were satisfied with the status quo: people who say 'children first' but don't really mean it. We decided to take that slogan seriously, and truly make children first."

Now he is charged with inspiring all the nation's education establishment to take seriously another slogan: "No child left behind."