Failure Is Not an Option
An interview with U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige
Leading the charge for No Child Left Behind, U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige wants to hold schools accountable for results. We spoke with him about what the new federal education reform will mean for your schools
What are some of the biggest challenges facing American public school systems today?
The American public school system has some wonderful examples of excellence — I call them "islands of excellence." But as a whole, it is not serving all of our children.
One of the important issues is the civic capacity of our communities to support the public school system. When you don't have that broad civic capacity underpinning the public schools, you get narrow turnouts for school board elections. In one big city I know of, the school district has 53,000 eligible voters — but fewer than 1,400 people voted in the school board election. Right there is your first clue; that's your first problem.
Other issues include accountability at all levels, local control and flexibility, options for parents, and a sound pedagogy — teaching strategies and teaching methods underpinned by research and science. We need good, sound research in education to inform instruction.
What does the No Child Left Behind Act mean for school administrators?
The first thing it means for them is that every single child under their auspices now has to get major attention. Because it is no child left behind — even the ones most difficult to teach, even the ones with the limited English proficiency, even the ones who are disruptive in the classroom, even the ones who bring special education barriers to be overcome. So the first thing it means is an attitude that represents a determination to educate all of our kids.
Let me see if I can put this in another context. Some years ago, management literature was dominated by a concept called Total Quality Management. That means fixing the production process so that defects are corrected before the product gets to the end of the pipeline.
That's kind of analogous to what we're doing here. We're switching to a zero-defect attitude and saying that each step along the teaching pipeline has to correct its own defects — so that when a person goes through the system and exits on the other end, they are assured mastery of the concepts expected by the high standards in that particular state.
So when we say "no child left behind," that's another way of saying "zero defects."
What about children who come to school unprepared to learn?
Those children, also. Even those children who come from environments where literacy and learning are not highly prized. We include them, too. In other words, there's no excuse. I don't know how to say this any more vividly, but all means all of them.
Let's deal with the response that I get from a lot of people. "That's sentimental," they say. "That's piousness; that's sloganism." Well, no, it's not — because I can point to schools all across America that are doing this right now. There are schools where children would, in some other places, be considered unable to learn — but in these schools, they are learning.
So the evidence proves it is possible, because it is happening even now, in a lot of places. So, one must ask the question, "If it is happening now in a lot of places, why can't it happen in other places?" And the answer is, "It can." And the other answer is, "It must."
The new law requires that schools use federal funds for programs backed by "scientifically based research." Can you elaborate?
Well, let's approach it this way. I've visited some districts that say, "We're using a wonderful program, been using it for a long time, and our teachers love it." And my question is: "How many of your kids are learning? How many of the kids are passing the state tests?" And usually, the answer is something like 40 or 60 percent. That's not a wonderful program from my point of view.
Would a program that is producing significant achievement results meet the definition?
Well, if no students are being left behind, and students are really learning as a result of the use of that particular program, then we've got a program that has demonstrated success. What we mean by "scientifically based" is that the program has a scientific history of effective performance, and has been certified as effective through scientific research. And so if the program can stand up to that test, then that is a "scientifically based" program.
But I need to add that in a lot of subjects, we don't have the scientific research we need. For example, we need to do a lot more in math, and we are working with the National Science Foundation and others to help us come up with good scientifically based principles and practices. But in the subject of reading, we do know what works — because of the work of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, and the National Institutes of Health.
Some states — such as Vermont — already have advanced testing and accountability systems in place. Will these states have flexibility in meeting federal testing standards?
The federal testing standards are reasonably straightforward: There are no degrees of freedom in the annual assessments for grades 38. That is the law. We've on several occasions responded to the comments we've gotten from Vermont, and we would just simply urge a more careful look at the law. Understand that it is a bipartisan law, and that it is aimed at what is best for children.
We are reaching out to all the states, and Vermont is no exception. We are offering all the help we can to help them overcome some of what we know are difficult changes in their testing systems. And that is one of the goals of our effort here — we want to become partners with the states and help them, because our success relies heavily on their success.
What is your vision for the use of technology in schools?
Improving student achievement through the use of technology is an important goal for us, as it is for everyone interested in the education of our children.
The online opportunity for coursework is one such example — that's why we started the virtual school when I was superintendent in the Houston Independent School District.
We wanted to be able to reach out to those who felt that this kind of learning modality was best for them. We also wanted to be able to provide wonderful learning opportunities to those who were confined to their homes and could not get to school every day. And we wanted to overcome some of the transportation problems caused by having special courses that we couldn't put all across the city. Our solution was e-learning, or online learning.
Other examples include online testing, so students can get results back right away. Data management systems help manage student records quickly, so schools can start on the first day. We use technology in transportation to enhance the opportunities for kids to get to school on time. And we use technology in food service, too.
In every aspect of school district operations, the effective use of technology is a must if we are going to achieve a system that leaves no child behind. Just as technology has enhanced productivity in every industry and every enterprise in the world, so it must be true in education. But one of the most important outcomes is that students themselves learn to be proficient in using technology.
What is the Bush Administration's strategy on closing the digital divide?
We have in the President's budget proposal, and also in the No Child Left Behind Act, resources that are available to school systems for the use of technology. Technology grants have increased 56 percent. The biggest change is that at least 25 percent of the funds will be spent on professional development for teachers, to teach them how to use technology efficiently.
Although there is a digital divide, the biggest divide we have now is making sure that the people at the local schools are equipped to use the technology that's available to them.
Can you comment on the significance of the Supreme Court's decision on school choice?
In the words of Abraham Lincoln, this is a "new birth of freedom," especially for disadvantaged children — Hispanic, African-American, and inner-city kids — who are tied to systems that are failing them.
It's not about whether or not we have choice. We have choice, and people with means are exercising that choice. The Washington Times ran an article that showed that almost half the members of Congress have at least one child in private school.
It's interesting that 35 percent of the Congressional Black Caucus and 33 percent of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus have children in private schools — all while they are voting to deny this choice to others. So this isn't about whether or not we have choice, it's about who has the choice. The Supreme Court decision now says people without means also have the choice.
The introduction of choice will also have the benefit of making the public school system stronger. When public schools respond to the challenge of these external delivery systems — such as vouchers and charter schools — they tend to respond with strength.
Lars Kongshem is the senior editor of Scholastic Administrator.