Outgoing Secretary of Education Rod Paige [pictured] spoke Tuesday at the Heritage Foundation. Paige reflected on his tenure at the Department of Education and asserted the importance of continuing the reforms of the past four years.
During Paige’s time as Secretary, the Department of Education departed from its historical aversion to fundamental reform. “Studies gathered dust,” Paige said, and policy makers did not press for change. The election of President Bush marked a change in the institutional attitude at the Department. “President Bush broke the ice of this comfortable consensus,” said Paige. Bush adopted a policy of “embrace change or get out of the way.”
With the ardent support of the President, Paige pursued and carried out reform. “I’ve been part of some great work over the past four years,” he said. While the mission of the reforms is far from accomplished, Paige spoke of a “nascent education revolution,” a revolution of higher standards and higher expectations.
The signature event of Paige’s tenure was the passage of the No Child Left Behind bill. The bill is already proving effective, and it is important to “stay true to No Child Left Behind,” according to Paige. In the coming term, the President will push to move the reforms of No Child Left Behind into high schools.
This was the first administration to implement policy regarding school choice, and Paige oversaw significant gains in the area of school choice. A controversial issue, “school choice is now on the books,” Paige said, who noted that parents are no longer “chained” to a poorly performing school. Paige also pointed to the success of a voucher program in Washington, D.C. The program, which had bipartisan support, now allows 1000 children to attend area private schools.
The effects of school choice are felt in schools that are unaffected by such measures. “Once you empower people with choice, the system as a whole improves,” Paige said.
Despite Paige’s success at implementing reforms, the education system in this country still faces significant problems. “So many of our nation’s children have been pushed to the back of the educational bus,” Paige said.
The most daunting education problem the nation faces is the achievement gap, the lag of black and Hispanic academic success behind that of whites and Asians. Currently, blacks rank four years behind whites and Asians by the 12th grade.
The achievement gap—the result of the “soft bigotry of low expectations”—is the “crisis of our generation,” according to Paige.
The education reforms of the past four years remain works in progress. “The ideas of reform are embedded in the laws of the land,” Paige said.
“We’ve reached a turning point, and we must stay the course.”
Larry Scholer is a staff writer at Accuracy in Academia.