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Atlanta Journal Constitution: An architect of No Child Left Behind looks back on failed reforms and says, ‘We forgot the why.’

Atlanta Journal Constitution
October 20, 2014

By Maureen Downey

In Atlanta Friday, former U.S. Education Secretary Rod Paige explained the chief cause of decades of failed school reform. Yes, we have overhauled the how, when, where and what of education, but Paige says we ignored the most critical element — the why.

“When kids understand why they are learning something, why it is relevant, they will study,” said Paige, speaking to the Southern K-14 Education Innovation Summit at Georgia Piedmont Technical College.

“It is hard for them to commit themselves to this if they don’t have a why. So far, most reform efforts have been about re-engineering the system. This is not an engineering problem; it’s not about when, how and where. Kids have to understand why it is important to do this. When I coached football, I could tell a kid to jump and the kid jumped. Today, you tell a kid to jump and they say, ‘Why?’  You have to have a good reason,” Paige told the crowd of education leaders.

Paige was superintendent of the Houston, Texas, schools in 2001 when President George W. Bush tapped him to become the seventh U. S. secretary of education. Many of the tenets of Bush’s signature No Child left Behind education law — put into effect during Paige’s tenure leading U.S. DOE — drew from reforms in Houston. Paige had a pivotal role in crafting and promoting NCLB, including its school transfer provisions.

(Paige has long urged public school choice, telling me in  2001 parents will no longer accept arbitrary boundary lines that doom their kids to a failing school when there’s a first-rate school seven miles down the road.)

Paige’s presentation focused on the achievement gap and why it represents the greatest civil rights issue of the day.

“This issue has haunted me because no matter what assessment you look at, there is that gap between Anglos – that is the Texas term for whites – and African-Americans. ACT, Sat, NAEP, you name it. I don’t believe there is anything wrong with that DNA, so I tend to look somewhere to see why this is.’’

Paige broke recent education reform efforts into three buckets, the first the “quality bucket,” which he said concentrates on making things better, “better curriculum, better teachers, better school culture, better, better, better.”

Then, there comes the quantity bucket, which is all about more. “More time on task, longer school days, more days in the year, more, more, more.” He cited the guiding principle of the successful KIPP charter schools, which had their beginnings in one of his schools in Houston — “Great teachers and more of it.”

The third bucket, said Paige, “is the why bucket, which reflects the amount of physical and emotional energy the learner puts into the learning task…too many of our children are not putting in the effort to learn because learning is work. I don’t see this as a kid problem. I see this as an adult problem. Whose responsibility is it to teach kids moral values? Whose responsibility is it to teach them the value of work? Whose responsibility is it to teach them ethics? Kids come to school and try to turn it into a spectator sport where the ‘teacher is wholly responsible for how I learn,’ and that attitude has to change.”

Paige said we have to stop allowing students to excuse poor performance with “I am just not good at math.” Instead, he said we have to counter, “You would be good at math if you just worked at math. We can’t believe there are shortcomings in their ability. There is nothing wrong with their DNA. It’s their attitude.”

Paige emphasized the first teachers explaining the “why” of education to children ought to be their parents. As an example, he cited his late night arrival at a hotel where, exhausted and eager to get to his room, he found himself waiting at an elevator with a mother and baby in a carriage.

“As we got into the elevator, the mother told her child to push the button. She said, ‘We are going to the seventh floor. Can you find seven?’ The baby is in the stroller and you want him to find seven? The baby fumbled around and the baby found seven, and the parent congratulated the child. As the elevator door opened, the mother was still congratulating the baby and still talking to baby. This baby is going to grow up and go to school with 6-year-olds who didn’t get this kind of early learning experience. And this baby is going to have those kids outgunned. We need parents to understand the importance of this.”

Drawing on his own life, Paige credited his parents with making education the top priority. “I didn’t want to do my homework. I wanted to be on the block playing baseball with the boys.”

Asked once by a student in Miami why he decided to go to college, Paige told the teen: “Because I loved breathing. If I didn’t decide to go to college, my parents would have killed me.”