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A Call for Powerful Leaders: A Conversation with Rod Paige

Ohanian Comment: Rod Paige actually uses the term "authentic pedagogy" to bolster his case. The interviewer did not indicate if Paige's tongue fell out or his nose increased in length at this moment in the interview.

U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige, the former superintendent of schools in Houston and a long-time ASCD member, recently spoke with Educational Leadership about his vision for U.S. schools. Here, he defends the controversial No Child Left Behind Act and pulls no punches about the need for leadership in these challenging times.

Marge Scherer

The theme of this issue is "Leading in Tough Times." What makes these times so difficult for educators?

If the map were drawn and the course fixed, and all you had to do was keep the boat in the water and paddle, then powerful and great leadership would not be needed.

But the expectations, needs, and demands of our nation have shifted. The speed of telecommunications and the marriage of computers with visuals and data have spun a new world. The nation is asking for leadership in a world where there is little room for those who lack an education. A high level of literacy is required for well-being. And our nation is in competition with our Asian and European counterparts.

Our nation is crying out for leadership in education. We're asking more from schools and asking for it more quickly. That's why I don't want to hear that superintendents and educators are being dragged into change. These are times of stark change, and powerful leadership is needed in times of stark change!

You are the first secretary of education to come from the ranks of educators. How do the challenges of your role as secretary of education compare with those you had as superintendent in Houston?

It has been my privilege to serve in both positions. As secretary of education, I serve my president and his vision of No Child Left Behind that has been embraced by Congress and most Americans. Even those who complain about the difficulties of implementation agree that this vision is worthy of the United States.

In my position, I have the opportunity to visit wonderful schools across the United States that epitomize the president's vision. However, I must also announce to the nation that our data—whether it's NAEP data or international comparisons—indicate that we have far to go to see that vision become a reality.

I must say that implementing system reform is easier when working as a superintendent in a single city in a single state than it is in our federal system with each state creating its own standards and system. However, that gives us 50 seedbeds of innovation to identify new and effective strategies.

How do you envision that the leadership roles of superintendents, principals, and teachers will change as a result of NCLB?

The times call for everyone in education to accept leadership in improving the quality of education offered to every child. Some schools have figured out how to educate those that others call "hard to teach." We need those schools to share their learning with their colleagues. More time needs to be spent looking at what students are learning and how teachers can be more effective at their jobs. If educators look at the evidence of student work, teacher-made tests, and other assignments, they will see where the strengths and weaknesses of each child lie.

How would you answer those who say that large-scale, standardized tests can measure only a limited range of basic competencies, and that NCLB's focus on standardized testing takes attention away from other types of achievement—acquiring reasoning skills and deep understanding, for example?

Standardized tests are only one measure of the quality of education of our children, but they serve as a thermometer to give us an indication of the health of a child's education. Each leader is responsible for ensuring that the students entrusted to his or her care receive a first-class education in all of the core curricular areas. The core is spelled out in the law. But just because we selected a few crucial areas to test—reading, mathematics, and science—does not mean that the arts should be swept aside or that foreign languages should no longer be studied. In fact, limiting the curriculum to just what is tested will not result in a well-educated child who can perform at high levels on the exam.

To some people, the Houston success story exemplifies the kind of reform in which schools become testing factories and achieve higher scores by pushing out low-achieving students. How would you respond to this view?

I would hope that this is not the picture people have of Houston. Houston made its gains in student achievement through the hard work of thousands of teachers and principals. They did it the old-fashioned way—they aligned the curriculum to the standards so every teacher knew what he or she needed to teach. They developed lesson plans and strategies and ensured that all teachers learned how to implement them. They regularly assessed student progress so they knew where students needed more help. They used all the data about students to help them do a better job.

Several recent news stories have reported that a Houston school allowed some students to stay in 9th grade for two years, then go on to 11th grade, thereby skipping the grade in which they would be tested. Did that actually happen, and does this situation suggest that there's a problem with some of the requirements, that the emphasis on testing could lead to cheating?

For a fact, it happened. Our group in Houston was the first to discover this problem, and we worked hard on remedies for dealing with it. The cheating in no way suggests that there is a problem with the requirement, but it is a symptom of a system finding it difficult to change. But the system is going to change. The question is whether it will change from outside or inside. In many school districts, the public distrusts educators' abilities to run school districts and deal with change. When the media suggest that cheating indicates a problem with accountability requirements, they are trying to serve a failing purpose. One school chose to change its data, but please don't indict the entire school district for that one school's misbehavior.

Some people claim that implementation of NCLB is undercut by insufficient funding. How do you respond to these claims? And what is the one thing that leaders could do to improve their schools that wouldn't cost a penny?

It is what we do with the funds we have that matters. The one thing to do that wouldn't cost a penny is to align the curriculum across all grade levels and across the district. You can go in a school today where three different programs are being taught in three 3rd grade classrooms. If a student changes classrooms or schools in the same system, that student is set back for days. So states and districts must standardize curriculum in the early grades, especially in math and reading. Train teachers in that curriculum. Align curriculum with staff training, assessment, and the reporting system.

When you were a superintendent, you worked closely with the business community. What lessons from the business community can education leaders draw?

The business community was smart enough to go to social psychology, behavioral sciences, and the literature of management to find how to make organizations work better. Educators must look at this research more closely to limit our failures. We can stop making so many decisions based on the way we've always acted. We can be accountable for results and use research-based practices. We can be open to our customers—the people we are serving—and make them a part of our operation. And we must provide choice to the people we are serving. The great enterprises of the world are providing lots of choices. They are customizing services. We in education are in the same competitive world.

You have stated that "schools are not going to be reformed until we get school choice." Is there evidence that school choice has improved public schools in localities where it has been implemented?

Choice makes public schools recognize that students will not have to stay if the school is not meeting their needs. It is the jolt that some schools need to put them on the path to improvement. I opened all schools in Houston to choice because I believe that teachers, students, and parents are more engaged when they have all made the active decision to be there.

You've been a coach and a football player. Have you taken any personal lessons on leadership from sports?

Sports—such a wonderful laboratory of life! The big lesson of sports is the importance of teamwork. In life, there are few things you can accomplish alone. The people who are really successful garner the support of others and rally them behind important ideas and initiatives.

In athletics, you learn that a coach cannot cross the white line. The team has to play. The coach has to instill in the players the need for victory, the sense of working together, a sense of sacrifice, the idea that you don't quit when you are in pain. And you have to understand that the last man standing is going to be the winner. The other guy is just as tired as you are.

As secretary of education, do you see yourself as a visionary, a consensus builder, a top-down leader?

My motto is, "Hire Rembrandt to do the painting and don't tell him how to paint." You paint the vision and you point the direction and then you hire the best people, remembering that good people won't work in bad circumstances. People have brains. They want to maximize their potential and be important players, not robots. Leaders must craft the vision and communicate it to others so that many people want to join in the effort. But then they must hire the best people and trust them.

When I talk with teachers, many say they are discouraged because they spend so much of their time teaching to tests. What is your response to them?

Teachers can be frustrated by testing if they feel that students are just being tested for the sake of being tested, but it does not have to be that way. The teachers I know understand that testing plays an important part in effective teaching and learning. They know that the purpose of testing is to inform instruction. Teachers who become effective in using data find their teaching job easier. Testing is a solution, not a problem, when done properly. We do need to help teachers learn more about how to use data. Those schools that regularly use data applaud testing.

How can schools become learning communities where parents, businesses, students, and teachers learn together?

One of the biggest problems of schools is that they have pulled themselves away from the public. There cannot be a border between the school and the community, where the school ends and the community starts. The school system is there to benefit the public. And so the more we can integrate community activities and school activities, the better. I used to tell principals and district superintendents to conduct themselves like the mayor of the community—attend community meetings, know the people.

For me, the leader has three managerial responsibilities. One is to manage up, which means dealing with the school board, the business community, and the religious community. When you need their support, you don't want them to say that this is the first time they've seen you. Second, a leader manages himself. Like the athlete, you play when you are hurt, you lead even when you'd like to go home, when you don't have the feeling for the job. It means having both integrity and thick skin. And finally, you have to manage down—although perhaps "laterally" is a better term. Managing people is important.

I know that one mission close to your heart is closing the achievement gap. But how much can schools really do when so much depends on changes in society?

We have to start with the perception that schools can and must do 100 percent. Anything else would be making excuses. Now, I don't want to sound like someone who doesn't understand outside factors. There are many, but we don't have control over them. There is no sense moaning about them. We're in the teaching business. The problems outside school make our job even more difficult. But they do not give us an excuse not to do our jobs.

I believe that schools can close the gaps by engaging teachers and students in authentic pedagogy. We cannot afford to wait until every child has two parents or a middle-class income before we assume the responsibility for educating all children well. U.S. schools have always been the means to rise from poverty to wealth, and we have many examples—from Abraham Lincoln to Vernon Jordan—that prove that case.

Do you have some final advice for your fellow superintendents?

I'm not so naive that I don't understand that superintendents are under a lot of pressure and that times are tough. But I believe superintendents are also tough. I believe that superintendents are the best agents for change and have a great opportunity at hand. They need to step up and take action.

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Rod Paige is Secretary of Education, U.S. Department of Education; (800) USA-Learn. Marge Scherer is Editor in Chief of Educational Leadership; mscherer@ascd.org.

— Marge Scherer
Learning in Tough Times
Educational Leadership
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