U.S. Secretary of Education Rod Paige told a Kennedy School conference on education and accountability Monday (June 10) that the Bush administration’s reform program of testing, accountability, and school choice is a solution for American schools that are failing to educate a sizeable number of children
Paige highlighted the problem facing American public schools, saying two out of three fourth-graders can’t read and that one-third of college freshmen need some kind of remedial work before they can embark on their college studies. The problem is particularly acute in the cities and among minority groups, he said.
“You might make the case that we’re destroying the future, one child at a time,” Paige said.
To meet this challenge, Paige promoted the “No Child Left Behind” legislation, signed by President George Bush on Jan. 8. The legislation provides greater control over educational choices to local districts, but mandates achievement testing and allows parents the option of pulling their children from failing public schools and sending them to better-performing ones.
“If you believe every child can learn, and the evidence is that every child is not learning, then you have to do something,” Paige said. “We believe this goal is the only one worthy of this nation.”
Paige made his comments before several hundred gathered at the Kennedy School. The two-day conference, “Taking Account of Accountability: Assessing Politics and Policy,” was sponsored by the Program on Education Policy and Governance.
Paige was introduced by Harvard President Lawrence H. Summers, who said that improving education is one of the most important jobs facing the nation.
“For an institution like Harvard, a leader in higher education, there is little more important that we can do than maximize the debate on American public schools,” Summers said. “Improving education and improving American public schools is the most important priority for improving our country.”
The conference featured panel discussions on different types of accountability efforts in different parts of the country. Discussions focused on the experiences in California and Chicago, and on exit examinations, school choice, the politics surrounding accountability, and a look at the future.
For his part, Paige said the future is one of implementation. Though increased funding is available with the No Child Left Behind legislation, he said funds have been increased regularly in the past with no increase in performance. The problem, he said, is a systemic one and needs to be attacked by taking a different approach.
“We do need to have adequate resources, but we also have to ask, ‘Is the system right?'” Paige said. “We have decades of proof it [money] is not the only problem.”
That approach, he said, is embodied in the new federal legislation, and he called on the education community, parents, and others involved in schools to set aside their personal differences and work together to improve education.
“It is time to override personal political concerns and work together to address the failing education system in this country,” Paige said. “We have islands of excellence, but we don’t have a system that ensures every child can be educated.”
Paige said the new legislation’s testing requirements will serve as important indicators of where students are, educationally, and where their weaknesses are. With that information, he said, teachers can address those weaknesses. He said the school choice provisions of the bill give parents a powerful new role in determining their child’s education.
“We believe parents should have more to say about how this works,” Paige said. “The most powerful force in school reform is an informed parent with options.”