Teacher In Chief

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Rod Paige during his confirmation hearings in Washington

When Rod Paige first took the helm of the struggling Houston public schools seven years ago, Gayle Fallon, president of the local teachers' union, blasted him as "the most antiteacher superintendent we've had in the past decade." By the end of Paige's tenure last month, however, Fallon was giving a far different testimonial. She gushed that Paige "will leave a better district than he came to" and that "he'll be a very effective Secretary of Education."

Fallon explains that in the early days, she and her union members felt threatened by Paige. One of his plans was to give principals more authority to transfer teachers to different schools, for staffing or disciplinary purposes. But she was won over by his collaborative leadership style and his ability to get results where his predecessors had failed. Paige promised, for instance, that within three years, he would rid the district of what Fallon calls "deadwood principals"--the system's longtime underperformers. "Some of them came with the first brick in the building," Fallon says. "We figured nothing was going to blast them out." Three years later, though, those principals had either retired or been demoted. The skeptics, says Fallon, thought, Well, I'll be damned! He followed through!

Today, less than a month into his new job as Secretary of Education, Paige is bringing his knack for bridge building and his emphasis on measurable results to Washington, where he will spearhead President Bush's most promising effort at winning bipartisan support. Although Bush has pledged to push more local control of schools, Paige says, "We can use the bully pulpit to make the point that no child being left behind is not just a statement of sentimentality."

Despite Paige's advocacy of controversial conservative education policies--like the use of tax money for vouchers to send students to private schools--lawmakers in both parties are welcoming him. Senator Barbara Mikulski, a liberal Maryland Democrat, described herself as "really impressed" by Paige's legacy in Houston; Senator Judd Gregg, a New Hampshire Republican, called Paige's leadership "visionary."

Paige, 67, is widely credited with turning around the Houston schools through an emphasis on accountability and efficiency and a receptiveness to new ideas. But he got off to a bumpy start. When the school board chose him as superintendent in 1994, during a closed-door session, the reaction of Hispanic activists and parents, whose children constitute a majority of the schools' students, was an angry sense of feeling excluded. They sued the board.

Rosemary Covalt was a plaintiff in the lawsuit and recalls, "I didn't think much of Paige." Early on, though, she adds, Paige pulled her aside and said, "Ms. Covalt, you've been a thorn in my backside. We need to work together, because I can't sit down anymore." He put Covalt to work on a committee to inspect the district's crumbling school buildings--a job she tackled with gusto.

During Paige's tenure, the number of Houston students passing state achievement tests rose from 44% to 64%. Paige placed principals on performance contracts contingent on student achievement and saved the district money by contracting out lunchroom and maintenance services. With the help of Houston business executives, whose conservative politics had historically been at odds with the district leadership, Paige won voter approval for a $678 million bond issue in 1998--the largest of its kind in Texas--to repair 69 schools and build 10 new ones.

But Paige is not without his critics. Some say the Houston district's gains on statewide tests have been boosted by an abysmal dropout rate, as underperforming students, under constant pressure, simply give up. A report published last month by Johns Hopkins University ranked Houston 28th in school completion out of the nation's 35 largest school systems, with less than half of ninth-graders at most of the district's high schools sticking it out through graduation. Says Guadelupe San Miguel, a parent with three children in the district and an expert on Hispanic education: "The high-stakes testing Paige has built his reputation on has come at a significant cost to the community."

Paige concedes that the dropout rate in Houston is "undesirable" but doesn't blame it on testing. "Most of it had nothing to do with the school-based factors," he says. "We were improving those rapidly." Paige instead faults societal factors such as teen pregnancy and the lure of employment, even for dropouts, in a strong local economy.

Rod Paige has come a long way from where he grew up: the hamlet of Monticello, in the piney woods of south-central Mississippi. His dad was a school principal and a barber, his mother a librarian. Paige was the oldest of five children, all of whom have graduate degrees. "My parents told us the solution to the world's problems was education," says Paige.

He was left in charge when his parents were out at the evening meetings their jobs often required. "Rod would make us listen to him read," remembers his youngest sister Raygene Paige, retired from a state agricultural agency. "And if we didn't pay attention to him, we had to write a book report."

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