Paige Finds Schools Act a Tough Sell

Times Staff Writer

The Whitney Young Middle School faculty was nothing if not polite when Education Secretary Rod Paige stopped by recently on a two-state trip to pitch President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act.

But Susan Wander, the seventh-grade social studies teacher whose class was the first visited by Paige, said the educators were merely trying to be “good soldiers” -- and trying to avoid criticizing a distinguished visitor in front of the students. In truth, she said, “there is a great deal of frustration” with the law, which many educators resent for forcing them to change their approach to teaching.

Little more than two years after Congress gave Bush his first major domestic policy success by overwhelmingly passing the No Child Left Behind Act, teachers, parents and state officials across the country are balking at the law’s requirements. What figured to be an unquestioned accomplishment for Bush now looks like it could be a liability.


Conservatives attack it as a big-government approach to education reform. Liberals scream about what they call inadequate federal funds to meet the law’s requirements. Legislatures are considering opting out of the law or refusing to comply with any requirements not paid for by Washington.

And Paige, who has traveled to 46 states since taking office, primarily to promote No Child Left Behind, is finding it harder than ever to make his case.

The law was designed to close a long-standing academic achievement gap, primarily between African American and Latino children and their white peers, and enable all children to meet high academic standards. The goal is to wipe out what the president calls “the soft bigotry of low expectations” by holding schools accountable for setting high standards for all students and testing to measure whether each student -- and the school -- has made the grade.

From Wander’s perspective, the law has gone too far in forcing schools to focus on the children at the bottom. “I’ve only got a certain amount of time and energy,” she said, “so it’s to the detriment of someone else.”

In Wander’s case, that means her strongest students. Giving them short shrift, she says, seems doubly wrong at Whitney, which was designed for gifted and talented students.

“Here’s a kid who is making an effort, and he doesn’t have access to my time and energy or the resources at the school,” said Wander, who has spent 10 of her 25 teaching years at Whitney.

To Paige, such complaints show that the law is working, making schools change the way they do their jobs, particularly with the kids who perform poorly.

“It’s an unbelievable change in the way we do education in the United States,” Paige said. “It’s a revolution.”

Those resisting it, he said, were clinging to the status quo -- a world in which 12% of black fourth-graders, 14% of Latino fourth-graders and 39% of white fourth-graders read proficiently at grade level last year, according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

“Let’s see what has resulted from what we had before -- there is an achievement gap, and a large portion of kids are left behind,” Paige said. “Defending the status quo is not what we want.”

But rather than making the case for narrowing the gap, Paige often finds himself responding to criticism about the level of Washington’s financial contribution. Democrats say Bush’s 2005 budget would provide $9 billion less than the $34 billion needed for states to comply with the law.

Paige, who was superintendent of schools in Houston for seven years before becoming secretary of Education, says he understands that money is scarce at many schools now because of state budget crises and the rising costs of energy and healthcare. But he rejected accusations that the president had abandoned his commitment.

“It’s not fair to say the bill isn’t properly funded, because we’re in an environment where dollars are tight,” Paige said.

He also spends a lot of his time responding to questions about whether he became a liability to Bush by calling the National Education Assn., the nation’s largest teachers union, a “terrorist organization” during a private White House address to the nation’s governors last month.

In response to questions in Cleveland, Paige did not sound apologetic. His comment, he said, was “specific to the organization.”

“The organization is not the teachers,” Paige told reporters. “I have the highest respect for teachers.”

But many teachers across the country who have close ties to their union took the comment personally.

“Our members continue to be terribly outraged and insulted by the comment he made,” said Gary Allen, president of the Ohio Education Assn., the 131,000-member state branch of the National Education Assn. “I think he certainly damaged any credibility he may have had with Ohio Education Assn. members.”

In an interview, Paige conceded that “in today’s context, it was a poor choice of words.” But his animosity toward the group and its efforts against No Child Left Behind was palpable.

Paige also faces credibility questions about the school reforms made in Houston under his leadership. New accountings show that the school system underreported its dropout rate in the last two years of Paige’s administration.

The reports were seen as embarrassing to both Paige and Bush, because they had touted education reform in Texas, and Houston in particular, as a model for No Child Left Behind.

Questioned about the reports at a meeting in Cleveland with the editorial board of the Call and Post, one of the nation’s oldest black news groups, Paige said school staffs had made mistakes in reporting data. But he added, “That does not go anywhere near negating the fact that students improved.”

The whoops and cheers the children gave Paige at Whitney Young did not suggest any lack of esteem from the young generation.

Paige, 70, whose broad shoulders and erect bearing belie his age, stressed that the success of No Child Left Behind depended on the teachers. “When schools change, they will do so by the people who look into the eyes of the students,” he said.

But getting teachers -- and everyone else -- to buy into the reform plan has become particularly difficult as the presidential campaign heats up. “It’s harder to communicate now because everything is viewed through politics,” Paige said.

The clamor about funding shortfalls and administrative difficulties is drowning out the concern that should be driving the reform -- the huge numbers of children who are failing to achieve proficiency in math, reading and science, he added.

But there are signs, at least in some schools, that No Child Left Behind is making a difference.

After his stop in Cleveland, Paige went to rural Michigan to visit Pech Schools, a combined elementary and secondary school with a total enrollment of 600 across the street from snow-dusted farm fields.

Huge banners in the hallways and in the gym, where Paige spoke, proclaimed, “No Child Left Behind!” in large colorful block letters.

Responding to No Child Left Behind, the school launched a new tutoring program, teachers started intervening more aggressively when students performed poorly and a peer counseling program was created to resolve conflicts in classes that often distracted teachers and students. Already, the failure rate has been cut in half, said Pech High’s principal, Dave Bush.

In words that Paige would have loved to hear, the principal said: “Some kids who failed for years are now doing much better.”