Politics or Progress? Education Observers Ponder Significance of Paige's Appointment, Tenure

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HOUSTON

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 sound-bites 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. …