Former Sec. Of Education Wants More Support For Teachers

Education has been called the top civil rights issue of the 21st century. Host Michel Martin asks former U.S. Secretary of Education of Education Rod Paige about whether the nation is winning the battle for equality in schools.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. In a few minutes we'll hear memories of life before and after the civil rights movement from a gold medal-winning senior athlete. That's coming up. First, though, we are continuing our coverage of the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington by talking again about one of the issues that's always been a central concern of the civil rights movement - and that is education. Leaders as diverse as Martin Luther King Jr. to Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have all referred to education as a civil rights issue. Tomorrow we are going to spend the hour talking about what that means. We hope you'll join us on the air and on Twitter using the #NPRedchat. But joining us now is somebody who's spent his career working on that issue - Rod Paige was secretary of education under George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005 and he is with us now. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for joining us once again. We appreciate it.

ROD PAIGE: I'm glad to be here. Thank you for inviting me.

MARTIN: Your most recent book is titled "The Black-White Achievement Gap: Why Closing It Is The Greatest Civil Rights Issue Of Our Time." Now, as we mentioned, you're not the first person to say that. You probably won't be the last. But I just want to ask you, why do you say that?

PAIGE: Because I actually believe that our goal for advancement for African-Americans - freedom, equity, social justice - cannot be completely achieved unless we close the achievement gap. Unless we elevate the level of education of our young people.

MARTIN: Why is it that - given that we have leaders, as we said, from Barack Obama to George W. Bush - I mean even during Barack Obama's first campaign for the presidency, John McCain, the Republican contender, also said that education was the civil rights issue of our time. The former head of the NAACP, legal defense fund, John Payton, said that. Why is it that we seem to still be at loggerheads under some of these fundamental issues?

PAIGE: I think because some of the issues that we fought against have been so terrible - just awful - that we can't quite get over it. And what we have now is a situation where our strategies to achieve our goal, social justice - social equity - is not aligned and freedom is not aligned with the situation that we exist in. So we're still are feeling the pains of previous years and we've not quite gotten over it. But we need new strategies, and our new strategy would be elevating the educational accomplishment of our young people.

MARTIN: Now your efforts - the Bush administration's efforts in this regard are kind of encapsulated as the No Child Left Behind effort. It was controversial then, controversial now. The current education secretary - who we're going to hear from tomorrow - wrote an opinion piece in the Washington Post calling it outmoded and broken. Now certainly the goal of this was laudable, which is to say that you can't hide the lack of success with certain groups under the rubric, you know, of all of them, and yet we don't seem to have attained any movement here. And I wonder if you, first of all, do you agree with my assessment in closing the achievement gap...

PAIGE: Not completely. I think we have...

MARTIN: ...And why is it that we haven't?

PAIGE: ...I think we have obtained some goals. And, first place, it needs to be clearly understood that the No Child Left Behind Act was obviously led by President Bush. But it was a bipartisan effort to pass the act. There was a lot of cooperation between all parts of the Congress. And it was really supported strongly. It just fell apart as we got into some of the power groups in the education field that worked hard to defeat it.

MARTIN: Is this a question of differences over values? Is this a question of differences over resources? Because it would appear that most people do agree on the goal. Most people seem to agree with you and with the former administration - with many, many other people - that you can't have a successful society in which people are achieving at vastly different rates or are not able to meet standards - necessary standards - at similar rates. And yet, there still seems to be this intense disagreement about how to get there. Is this a question of fundamental differences in values or is this a question of willingness to do what is necessary?

PAIGE: Oh, I don't think it's a fundamental difference in values. I think our values are pretty strongly aligned but it's a far more - I think - disagreement in tactics on how to get there.

MARTIN: And so what would bridge that gap in your view? What would make a difference in your view?

PAIGE: Well, I think there's some exciting things that are happening out there right now that would make a big difference. One would be chores. School chores. We see a lot of charter schools now that are really teaching us new things about education, also making it quite clear that all children can learn. We find children in many of these schools who are really excelling who, heretofore we thought were not going to excel quite as well. So, we are learning a lot from that. I think the more that we support authentic choice would be to our benefit.

MARTIN: As you sit here now thinking about all of the work that you did and all of the work that remains to be done - and clearly it concerns you because you wrote, you know, another book about it - are you mainly optimistic or are you pessimistic that we'll ever get to the point that we want to get?

PAIGE: No, I think I'm optimistic. There are some problems that we have to overcome but I think I see on the horizon some things are going to happen and are beginning to happen that gives us a lot of hope. I'm excited about what we're learning, as I've been explaining before about the charter schools. I'm explaining about the development of chores that goes across the United States now. I'm really excited about the fact that parents now are beginning to be dissatisfied with a lot of the operation of our traditional systems and asking for better systems, and asking for better support, and asking for a system that would help their children achieve.

MARTIN: Well, but parents have been dissatisfied for quite some time now - I mean, particularly minority parents. If you consider one of the signature legal cases of the civil rights era, which is Brown v. Board of Ed, it was all about education. I mean, that was 50 years ago. So people have been dissatisfied for quite some time. At what point do you envision them becoming satisfied?

PAIGE: Only when that dissatisfaction translates itself into action does it matter. You can be dissatisfied and don't act and it doesn't matter. And what we see now is more action taking place.

MARTIN: If you could wave a magic wand that would cause this country to move in any particular direction - where would you wave that wand? Would you want to see a March on Washington for education? What would you want to see?

PAIGE: Well, no, I would - in the first place I think the key to the whole thing happens at the magic moment when the teacher and the student comes together. I'd like to see stronger support for teachers. I'd like to see them freed from a lot of the bureaucracy that they are loaded down with. I'd like to see parents support them strongly and take more responsibility for the values that children bring to school. I would like to see all these efforts closer to where the real magic happens, and that is in the classroom where the teachers and the students connect with each other.

National and state policies are obviously important and we are spending a lot of resources and a lot of time there, and we need to do that. But we need more effort and more resources and more support for the magic place where the action takes place, and that's with the teacher and the student in the classroom. We have to change what happens in the classroom.

MARTIN: Rod Paige is a former U.S. secretary of education. He served in that post from 2001 to 2005 under President George W. Bush. He was kind enough to join us from member station KUHF in Houston. Mr. Secretary, thank you so much for speaking with us. I hope we'll speak again.

PAIGE: Well, thank you.

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