Houston tech champ tapped for ED secretary

A significant gap opened in the ranks of tech-savvy school superintendents on Dec. 29, 2000, when Houston’s Rod Paige became the first sitting superintendent ever designated to be U.S. Secretary of Education. During a ceremony in the nation’s capital, President-elect George W. Bush nominated the 67-year-old superintendent to head the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

In the days immediately following Bush’s announcement, the nomination was hailed almost everywhere— both by Democrats and Republicans, educators and politicos—as an inspired choice. Paige is widely credited with turning the Houston Independent School District (HISD) into one of the nation’s finest urban school systems. Only in Houston—with the nation’s seventh largest school system and an annual schools budget of nearly $2 billion—were there expressions of regret. Teachers and administrators there were worried, they said, because they were losing one of their most effective school leaders.

Selected last October as the Texas “Superintendent of the Year,” and, until his nomination as ED secretary, considered a strong contender for the national honor, Paige also has been serving as secretary/treasurer of the Council of Great City Schools. He earned his doctorate in physical education from Indiana University, where his dissertation reportedly addressed the role of the lineman in football.

He is the former dean of the college of education at Texas Southern University, and he was also once the head football coach at that school. He served on the Houston school board from 1989 to 1994 and was elected board president in 1992. He became superintendent in 1994, succeeding Superintendent Frank Petruzielo.

Since his appointment as superintendent, Paige has led a school system whose 210,000-student enrollment is 90 percent minority, where two-thirds of the students qualify for free or reduced-price lunches, and where 25 percent don’t speak English fluently. Under his superintendency, student test scores soared. By 1998, more than 80 percent of the high school students were passing the state’s writing exam, up about 15 percentage points in five years. In 1992, fewer than 45 percent of Houston’s public high school students passed the math test. By 1998, almost 70 percent were passing.

Technology is considered a strong suit for Paige. Driving the transition from old school to eSchool was one of Paige’s primary achievements as superintendent. He pursued a plan of first ensuring the safety and security of students and staff, then streamlining the fiscal and materials management of the district, and then turning to the district’s academic and instructional resources.

Violent school crimes decreased by 20 percent in the district after Paige oversaw the installation of more video cameras in schools, instituted random metal detector checks, established a canine department, and deployed a school police team trained in SWAT tactics.

He continued his reform of education in Houston with a sweeping transformation of school business systems. Paige and his technology team oversaw the installation of a solution that allows principals and other administrators to verify the availability of funds and purchase equipment, services, and supplies online, at the desktop. HISD installed nine SAP R/3 modules implemented on a Windows NT system to streamline plant maintenance, financial operations, and materials management.

In 1999, Texas’ largest school system received national acclaim when Paige announced the installation of data-recording devices—similar to the “black boxes” used for commercial aircraft—on 500 of its school buses. The devices cost $1,000 each and record speed, idle time, hard braking, unsafe stops, excessive acceleration, and other driving information. They are used to train and evaluate bus drivers and improve bus maintenance procedures.

In February of 2000, Paige announced a plan to spend $10 million over three years to digitize all school libraries by adding computers and purchasing electronic reference materials. The plan also called for every school to have a librarian who performs only library duties. The overall strategy was developed in response to an 18-month study that found the average book in one high school library was written in 1979.

Paige has consistently deployed technology as a tool of reform, but his programs in Houston also have featured a strong human element as well.

“At the very heart of what Paige has done is to change the culture of the district,” school board member Don McAdams told the Houston Chronicle. “There is now definitely a growing performance culture throughout the system, which wasn’t there before. Rod has been a magnificent leader in building that performance culture.”

Announcing Paige’s nomination in Washington, D.C., President-elect Bush said, “I looked for someone who is a reformer and someone who had a record of results, someone who understands that it is important for us to set the highest of high standards and not accept any excuse for failure.

“I wanted an educator who had proven that urban schools can be excellent schools, and Rod Paige is the right person.”

Paige is a Republican and longtime Bush family friend. He actively supported Bush during the election campaign, touting the progress made in Houston and Texas school systems to six delegations at the Republican National Convention.

Like Bush, Paige supports voucher-based programs that would allow students from low-performing schools to attend private schools at public expense. He also is an advocate of providing public schools the resources necessary to excel.

In accepting the nomination, Paige praised Bush’s support of schools in Texas.

“Sir,” he told Bush at the press conference, “I . . . saw your compassion for our young people up close. We knew that it was one thing for a candidate for political office to talk about better schools, and it’s quite another to back that talk up with action. We noticed right away. You didn’t just talk the talk; you walked the walk. You indeed have been the education governor, and you will be the education president, too.”

Bush’s selection of Paige won at least preliminary praise even from quarters usually skeptical of Republican education policies.

On the national level, Bob Chase, president of the National Education Association, said Paige’s selection indicates Bush is committed to public education and reform. “We are pleased with the appointment,” he said, “and we look forward to working with Dr. Paige.”

Uniformly smooth relations with union leaders have not marked Paige’s tenure in Houston, but he is generally said to have earned their respect.

“Dr. Paige is a man of principle and intellect,” said Michael Verdone, president of the Congress of Houston Teachers. “He is a reformer and a person [who] set the foundation for the revitalization of urban education. He will be missed, but we wish him well.”

Immediately after his nomination, Paige told reporters it would be “tough” leaving HISD, and he expressed his gratitude to the Houston school board and all his supporters in Texas. Ending his Houston superintendency might be hard for Paige for more than just sentimental reasons.

Paige, who attended a segregated high school as a youth, was born in 1933 in Monticello, Miss., where his mother taught school and his father was a school principal before becoming a U.S. Department of Agriculture county agent.

Last year, Paige became the nation’s highest paid superintendent, with a base salary reported to be $275,000. As the nation’s chief education officer, and the first African-American to hold the post, Paige will receive a salary of $157,000.

But Paige previously has demonstrated he cares more for education than for compensation. When he won a prestigious $25,000 education award several years ago, he donated the money to the school district. The opportunity to effect change on a national scale is what makes the transition worth the financial sacrifice, Paige indicated.

“I did enjoy my responsibility in Houston,” Paige told the Associated Press the day after his nomination, “and it is with some concern that I leave, because I enjoyed it there. It’s a great city. But this is a big responsibility that I think I can help with; I think I can make a difference, and I want to take that opportunity to do it.”

In accepting the nomination, Paige made this promise to President-elect Bush: “I’m humbled by your faith and confidence in me. And I want you to know that I won’t let you down. If I’m honored to be confirmed by the Senate, I will dedicate myself every day to the task of assuring that no child in America will be left behind.”

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