Paige on Paige: A Talk With the Secretary

By Alan Richard & Joetta L. Sack — July 11, 2001 16 min read
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Secretary of Education Rod Paige, the superintendent of schools in Houston before he was tapped by President Bush to head the Department of Education, will complete his first six months on the job later this month. He agreed last month to an hourlong interview with Staff Writers Alan Richard and Joetta L. Sack. What follows are excerpts from that June 19 discussion.

Q. First of all, what are your impressions of the job, moving from big-city superintendent to secretary of education? Has it met your expectations, and are you happy with the job?

A. ... On the day before Christmas, I get the word that I’m out of that kind of business, and I’m in this kind of business. Now that was a drastic transition for me, OK? ...

Washington rumors, published in June, said Education Secretary Rod Paige was on the verge of resignation. “Under no circumstances, no way,” Mr. Paige says.
— Allison Shelley

The week everybody else was celebrating Christmas, I’m reading all the briefing papers, reading all the president’s speeches on the campaign trail, reading the bios of all the people in the Senate, especially the committees, going around shaking hands and doing courtesy visits, getting ready for the confirmation process, the hearings—studying the issues for the hearing. Now the point I’m making about this, is the first two months was a blur. Boom, OK?...

I met the key senators. I formed relationships with them, and I’m beginning to be comfortable that when I go to meet them, they’re courteous, they’re interested in education. Some of them have ideas that are different from my own, but they’re nonetheless interested in what they’re talking about ... So, I’m feeling confident, ready to go into ideological combat. In other words, discuss the issues, debate the issues, and in a civil way, discuss these things, because of the confidence in our points of view.

Because, see, listen, I’m not just talking about here, theory, of something that is speculative. I realized what I was talking about is my life, and what I’ve done for the last seven years, and I’ve seen things. So I know when somebody tells me, “This won’t work,” you know, that it, sometimes it just boils down to that they just politically can’t digest it. ... But if it’s an issue about “it won’t work,” out of practical reasons, you’re talking to the wrong guy. ... But sometimes there are people, who I think are good people, just get to an ideological, political stalemate. They’re not going there, because it’s politically not right. ... I’m extremely comfortable in it. And I feel like I’ve got a lot to offer, and it all emanates from the fact that I’m the only one up here that can say, ‘I did it. I’ve been there. I’ve done that.’ This ain’t theory, you know?

Q. So, would you like to use this opportunity to lay to rest any rumors that you might be thinking about resignation?

A. If I knew how to lay that to rest, I would. But it appears that it doesn’t have to have any substantial basis to endure. ... I was a little bit ambivalent about it because, anybody, usually, who knows me would have already known the answer to that anyway.

Q. So that isn’t happening?

A. Under no circumstances, no way. The answer is no. ... Because it’s not even been a thought in my mind. It’s never even been a flicker of thought in my mind.

Q. With that said, we wanted to talk a little bit about how you view the role of secretary of education. How do you view the role, and what do you want to get out of this job?

A. I am the person charged with the leadership, of changing the culture of public education. Now, I want to say this with a genteel expression. There are pockets of success all across America in terms of public schools. There are wonderful, excellent public schools. And all of these schools are such because of the hard work and excellence of the people in the schools: the principals, board members, teachers, and all like that. Looking at the data, we cannot depart from the issue that as a system, we have not gotten it done yet. And it’s not pointing in the right direction. ..

‘So, what is my role in this? It’s making the point, pointing the way, providing the resources and technical assistance, changing direction. Net effect: a new day in education in the United States of America.’

So, what is my role in this? It’s making the point, pointing the way, providing the resources and technical assistance, changing direction. Net effect: a new day in education in the United States of America. ... There’s a home schooling system that’s growing, ... the private school system is growing, there’s a cyber system, Internet system—I mean that system just has the potential to do really big things, OK? In other words, things have changed. Now I don’t want to get academic, but there has to be a requisite amount of change in what we’re doing in the public system to match up with this. And that’s my role, to help point that out and bring that about.

Q. Do you see part of your job as going out into schools to talk and using sort of the bully pulpit to talk about education, or do you see yourself as more of a policymaker?

A. I’m going to be both. ...We’ve got 50 [states]. ... And inside these 50, they have differences. They have different districts with different ideas inside of 50 states. Now, that’s just a kind of complexity unknown to mankind. So then part of the problem . . . is making sure that this one knows what this one is doing, because this one’s having success over here. Because there’s a lot of good stuff going on, but each one of these systems acts so independent until they’re not even aware that other stuff’s going on that’s good.

Now, back to the policy part. We have reauthorization of the [Individuals with Disabilities Education Act] that we’re working on. That’s going to be a fantastic policy consideration. What we just finished dealing with is the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act—just one of the many five-year reauthorizations we’ll have to do; ... the other ones are going to be quite unlike this one. ... The ideas that underpin the change in the Elementary and Secondary Education Act were in the box when the whistle blew.

Q. Meaning, they were already rolling when you came in?

A. No, I was part of the rolling during the campaign. ... All that was developed during the campaign, the two years of the campaign. ... So there was not a lot of sitting up here figuring out what we were going to do. ... For idea, we’re going to be talking to the people in the field; we’ll be collecting information. We’ll be doing the whole thing because we’ll be developing ideas that we’ll be putting on the table. ... In this particular case [with the esea], we’re simply defending the ideas, then selling them, because the ideas are pretty well there.

Q. So you were OK with your role in the, as you say, the defense part of the “No Child Left Behind” plan, and the ideas that went into the ESEA. You never felt like you were left out in the cold on that?

A. Whoever came up with those ideas had not the foggiest idea about what actually happened around here.

Q. Could you say just a little bit about what your role was?

A. First, the big ideas were pretty well in the box. The thought was, most of the work had to do with talking to people, explaining to them and hearing their point of view, so almost every day or so there was a list of people for me to interact with. So, up on the Hill talking to the senators and House members, about the various issues. Meeting with the president to get the big decisions, where we get to a point where you’ve got to go this way or you’ve got to go that way. Meet with staff, I mean congressional staff. Talking to the press, trying to get our point of view out into the public domain to reinforce it. Going to other cities in order to highlight an idea—you know, find a school that has success with this idea and try to put it in the public domain.

Q. A lot of people internally, and also some that work in education on the outside, would like to know how much interaction you have with the White House staff, as well as the president himself.

A. I’d say the president’s Cabinet meetings, we’ve had about four or five of those. I’ve had two individually where just he and I were there. I’ve had about three informal meetings where just he and I were in the back of the limousine going somewhere.

Q. You walked into a very large role in overseeing the thousands of employees here. What are your concerns about the management of the Education Department, and its ability to do its work effectively and efficiently?

The secretary’s Mississippi roots are audible in the soft tones of his accent. His voice also is evidence of his years in Texas, not to mention the tall Western boots he wears to work in Washington.
—Allison Shelley

A. This is one of the things I raised to the president prior to coming here ... We didn’t have a clean audit ... and it pointed out several areas of deep concern. One of my first tasks was to empower a SWAT team, so to speak, ... to trace out all these areas we need work on. ... And they’ve been very aggressive. We meet once a week with them in our weekly leadership meeting, and hear reports back. What they’ve been able to do has been fantastic. I think that we’re going to be able to achieve our goal a little more sharply than I thought we would. Then the next thing is to be able to get that information out to the public. ... Our idea was to hit it with a sledgehammer, to make the point that integrity is important to us, and we couldn’t be in a position to accept that kind of conduct. So that, in itself, has been a big issue for us.

There are several other issues. There are some legal issues, some civil rights issues, some other things that we walked into that couldn’t wait for us to ride this legislative process. ... Action had to take place doing these kind of survival issues. And to complicate this, consider that for a long time I was the only confirmed person in this building. And now I have one other; that’s [Deputy Secretary] Bill [Hansen], OK? So, I’m deeply appreciative of career staff. They shouldered a lot of load that they shouldn’t have to. And this whole idea about federal employees ... not being highly motivated people ... [is] hogwash, because what I’ve found is extremely positive, uplifting, motivated people, expert in their business.

Q. What do you know about what you’d like to do with the department in terms of the structure, how it works? I imagine there’s going to be something that changes because of ESEA requirements?

A. Here is the first thing we do. One is, we serve as exemplars of the president’s behavior. That is, to be courteous, to be all those things. Secondly, the president has made some pretty strong statements out in the campaign trail. My job is to convert those statements to reality ... A lot of the ideas were pretty well-developed around here. There are some others where the ideas for how to do it are not quite as well-developed, and we are working now to do them.

One is the overhaul of [the office of educational research and improvement]. What the president has said is that he wants the department to drastically elevate the quality of its research. . . . So this is going to require structural changes, operational changes, funding changes. So, that’s a more ground-up job than the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. That’s going to change that organization considerably. ... We hope that they would be able to give us the scientific principles by which we can elevate the pedagogy considerably.

Q. What will changes in the Department of Education mean for its employees?

A. In the first place, we’re always going to take care of the employees. ... The employees will only have to be concerned about their performance. And I just complimented this department’s employees. But we didn’t come here to replicate the unit that we found here. We came here to fulfill the president’s plan. The president, ultimately, wants to close the achievement gap. So, there will be different ways of operating the department of elementary and secondary education. And the president wants to make sure we serve young children who have physical and emotional barriers to learning. So that means we’ve got to do a better job of the idea.

Q. So, no plans for downsizing the department? People don’t need to worry about that kind of thing?

A. Well, you know, there’s always attrition, the way you do that. I did it in Houston. I had a four-part theory, or criteria. ... If it worked better, cost less, and if you take care of the employees and the results are guaranteed, we’ll do it. So, a similar thing will be done here. We will do what it takes to get the president’s commitments carried out.

Q. Could you describe your leadership style, and how it’s changed from your days in Houston, if at all?

A. Well, it hasn’t changed. It’s based on the premise that none of us are as smart as all of us. ... We have decision conferences here, where we make key decisions like we did in Houston, meaning there are diverse people who have responsibilities in these areas, who have a chance to sit around a table, and put their ideas on the table, answer questions or question other people who have different ideas. And we sit through that and we listen, and then we come out of that with the decision. So this decision is a much stronger decision than somebody just bringing a paper in here and I sign it to go out.

Q. Your political appointments have been slow to come. Can you talk about that?

A. Today, I’m on the phone, with members of the Senate, OK? Essentially a plea to them saying, ‘Look, we need our people in place to get on down the road with the people’s business.’ It has been a burden of the first class to be this far down the road without our first team on the field. I don’t think there’s any negative reasons, or there’s any individual responsible. But the system impedes progress and needs to be fixed really bad ... just like we’ve got to change the system in public education and in education in general, we’ve also got to change the political system that underpins it.

Q. We’re trying to understand, and I think people who work here, and people who work with the department, are trying to understand where you’re headed. Early on, there was a memo saying that all decisions in the agency must come through the secretary’s office. Can you could tell us how that has worked?

A. Here’s the point of that, ... the organization needs to speak with one voice. They’ll have their voices heard, but the decisions will be made by the organization because the organization is the only one that has all of the different, all of the widest perspectives. So, this isn’t to demean anybody. It is to say that we are not a coalition of stovepipes and silos.

If your action, by whatever office, can be considered to be an action of the department, then the department is, I think, justified in saying, ‘Here are the mechanisms in place through which these kinds of decisions are made.’

Q. We’ve heard employees are frustrated about sending every single request through your office: approval for publications, grant-money checks, hiring, travel—everything.

A. This is part of the transition process, part of the transition issue. This is a new administration. We’re not here to perpetuate the continuation of what existed.

And so it is necessary, for a time, for these, for all the organizations to be involved in what we’re trying to accomplish for President Bush, and his ‘No Child Left Behind’ plan. So, much of what they were accustomed to, much of what they’re into, what they’ve built their lives around for the last eight years, is not here anymore.

There are a couple of squeaky wheels in almost any organization this size, with 5,000 people. Many of those squeaky wheels have got not only practical investment in what they’re doing, but some ideological investment in what they’re doing, OK? And maybe they’re doing good, who knows, but the point is, let’s look at it. ... We have to have people in place to look at that, and in most of these places you’re talking about, their chief officer is not in place.

Q. Are you planning to revive the voucher issue through different legislation?

A. I think expanded parental choice is a necessary condition for authentic public schools reform. However, my job is to implement the language that we get from the Congress, and we’re going to do that. ...

‘In Houston, I had a policy of not tying kids to failing schools. ... for people who say that [school choice] hurts public schools, look at Houston. ...What it did for it was make it stronger.’

The more opportunity for parental choice, the stronger the education enterprise will be. Now, here again, this isn’t speculation either. This is based on live experience. In Houston, I had a policy of not tying kids to failing schools. Students could, if they were failing in a failing school, opt to go somewhere, even a private school, and take their everyday, their portion of everyday attendance [money] with them, OK? Now for people who say that hurts public schools, look at Houston and see what it did for it. What it did for it was make it stronger.

Q. Tell us what you’d like to see in the future at the Department of Education and in schools across the country, and what your role will be in reaching those goals.

A. What I want to see in five or six years, when I look back, is, I want to see a whole culture change. One that has changed from compliance—and by the way, what I mean by that is, [from] my superintendent’s point of view and a principal’s point of view, is sitting down and filling out 16 tons of paper to comply with regulations.

‘What I want to see in five or six years ... is ... a culture change ... from [success defined by] compliance. ... [to] success based on how many students have achieved and the extent of student achievement.’

... We would see that considerably changed, considerably reduced. And so the people at the bottom line won’t define success based on how many pounds of papers they fill out and how many regulations they met, but will define success based on how many students have achieved and the extent of student achievement.

We’d like to see in place a system where management by data can be elevated. ... We’d like to see an early-reading structure that links the pre-K and K system to the 1st, 2nd, and 3rd grade so that they’re not operating like independent entities.

We want to see a better-functioning system of providing support for the students that are handicapped. There’s a lot of good intentions about that in this town, but there is less understanding about how it really works on the bottom, on the ground floor. The overenrollment of minority students is probably one of the most egregious parts, especially males, the overenrollment classified as learning-disabled.

Q. What would you like to see in the department itself?

A. I’d like to see it ... viewed by the public as a place of high credibility, experts, and support in resources, a place that you can get help, and a place that’s on the cutting edge of education. ... And pride in membership.

Q. How long do you see staying on as secretary?

A. I really don’t know the answer to that, but I know I really want to stay at least through the first Bush term, and I’d like to at least start the second one. The reason for that is that the reauthorizations are set in five-year packages. So I want to take this five-year cycle, and the changes we didn’t get done here, into the next one, [so] we’ll get it done.


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