Paige: Some U.S. Students Face a Form of 'Apartheid'

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Secretary of Education Rod Paige used highly charged language last week to describe the pressing need for change in the U.S. education system, and to defend the No Child Left Behind Act against criticism.

For More Info
Read the transcript of Secretary Paige's live chat on Education Week on the Web.
A transcript of Mr. Paige's speech at the National Press Club is posted by the Education Department.

"There's a two-tiered education system in this country," Mr. Paige told an audience at the National Press Club in Washington on Sept. 24. "For the lucky, their education is the best in the world. ... But for others, there's an underperforming system. Students come to school, but they find little education."

"Effectively," Mr. Paige said, "the educational circumstances for these students are not at all unlike a system of apartheid."

Mr. Paige defended the education law, even though he said he recognizes that it presents challenges to states and school districts.

"This is a very rough law, and I think Congress intended it to be so," he said. "[W] e expect that states are going to struggle, and we're sensitive toward that struggle, and that's why we reach out."

Later the same day, Mr. Paige participated in an online chat hosted by Education Week on the newspaper's Web site to discuss the No Child Left Behind law.

Asked whether the Department of Education had any plans to propose revisions to the law "to avoid the 'doomsday' identification of large numbers of failing schools," Mr. Paige emphasized that schools identified as needing improvement under the law are not deemed "failing."

"I don't agree with the notion that identifying schools that may need to focus more on certain subgroups [is] somehow ... a 'doomsday' scenario," he said.

Rod Paige

Mr. Paige made clear that the Bush administration will not revise the mandate that 95 percent of students from all subgroups, such as low-income children, participate in state tests. That criterion alone can lead a school to be identified for improvement.

"We believe the 95 percent participation rate is a vital part of the program," Mr. Paige said in an online response.

A principal from Oregon suggested it was unrealistic to expect schools to achieve 100 percent student proficiency by the year 2014, as the law calls for. "What is the rationale in setting unrealistic goals at an unachievable breakneck pace?" the principal asked in writing during the online chat.

Mr. Paige replied: "Education is currently failing many of our children. We are trying to improve that through [the No Child Left Behind Act]. If you do not support 100 percent of our children, which percentage do you suggest that we leave behind?"

A testing official from Massachusetts suggested that the law's ambitious time frame for ensuring all students are proficient "is a brief period." He added: "We know we don't have a moment to lose. Please outline what might be an appropriate action plan for just the first two years."

Mr. Paige, perhaps a bit touchy on the subject of the law's timeline, reacted passionately to the question.

"Twelve years is a full generation of students," he said. "Are we really willing to say ... that we—the richest and most powerful nation on earth—are simply unable to 'fix' our schools fast enough ...?"

Vol. 23, Issue 5, Page 22

Published in Print: October 1, 2003, as Paige: Some U.S. Students Face a Form of 'Apartheid'
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