Failing in Leadership


Los Angeles Times

November 20, 2004

No matter who had the job of Education secretary these last few years, it was bound to be tough. The No Child Left Behind Act gave the U.S. Department of Education its first big — and controversial — regulatory role. Unfortunately, departing Secretary Rod Paige politicized when he should have united, and was more a passive mouthpiece for administration policies than the bold, perceptive school leader the nation needed.

Early on, Paige seemed a poster child for the accountability movement. Under his tenure as superintendent of Houston schools, scores shot up and dropout rates fell. But then the so-called Houston miracle became the Houston muddle, when it turned out that the district had drastically under- reported its dropout rates and kept half its non-English-speaking students from taking a national reading test — thus assuring itself relatively high scores. This may have been the second most scandalous numbers-polishing exercise in Houston, Enron's hometown. It turns out that school reform requires more than talk about higher standards.

It's a message Paige never quite got. No Child Left Behind was a bipartisan effort with strong Democratic support, yet Paige managed to polarize factions with rigid regulations and a tendency to speak before thinking.

He characterized the nation's largest teachers union as a "terrorist organization" for criticizing the law. He refused to fight for badly needed school funding. And only as outrage over some of the law's most inane provisions reached fever pitch — just as the election season started — did Paige relent and offer more flexible regulations.

As the president's longtime advisor, both on Texas school reform and on national domestic policy, Paige's probable successor, Margaret Spellings, has shown that she deeply cares about public schools, but there is little evidence that she will address the ongoing, crippling weaknesses of No Child Left Behind or continued federal underfunding for education. The schools need someone to bring President Bush's vision for better public schools to fruition by challenging his assumptions about what that will take, not by giving in to them.