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The Man Behind No Child Left Behind Has a Surprising Answer on How to Improve Education

March 6, 2014
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The Man Behind No Child Left Behind Has a Surprising Answer on How to Improve Education
Hint: It involves charter schools.

If you’re a music fan or a film buff, guaranteed you’ve heard of South by Southwest, a gathering in Austin, Texas that’s more commonly known by its acronym SXSW. But the annual event isn’t only rocking concerts and documentary viewings. It also attracts some of the brightest, innovative minds in education. The SXSWedu sessions discuss ways to improve teaching and learning and are filled with a-ha moments of invention and inspiration around how to help our kids.

But in a keynote session titled “Education: The Civil Rights Issue of Our Time,” Rod Paige, the former U.S. Secretary of Education, focused on the achievement gap that exists in our country and what needs to change.

After the session ended, NationSwell had the opportunity to ask him two exclusive questions: What is working in education and what is his call to action for the room of people he had just addressed?

He quickly replied: “Go visit Rocketship and visit KIPP.”

By mentioning these charter schools networks (KIPP is national network consisting of 141 schools; Rocketship currently serves three regions: The Bay Area in California; Milwaukee, Wisconsin; and Nashville, Tennessee), Paige echoed what has come up time and again in the full days of conversations and long halls of conference rooms at the Austin Convention Center: The importance of re-imagining the traditional school system. The underlying message of his two answers in one? His belief that bottom-up solutions (such as charter schools) are more exciting than some of the innovations in the public arena.

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The focus of Paige’s keynote conversation with Evan Smith, Editor in Chief and CEO of the Texas Tribune, comes out of a stance the former secretary of education has taken for years — that education is a civil right. That position was a driving force behind his work in the George W. Bush administration and in his book The Black-White Achievement Gap: Why Closing it is the Greatest Civil Rights Issue of Our Time, which was published in 2010.

“There is no strategy available that has a higher leverage opportunity to change the ethnic equality issue than closing the achievement gap in education,” he said on Wednesday. When Smith asked whether closing the gap should be dealt with at the federal level, Paige responded that while the federal government can have some influence, “the primary impact has to be at the place where the people walk the halls of the schools and look in the eyes of the children.”

Coming from a man who helped develop the controversial No Child Left Behind Act, this was certainly an interesting answer. However, Paige said he views education as a three-legged school made up of “the school, the home, and the community.”

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“We are doing all we can” to improve what goes on in the school and “very little” to improve what is going on in the home and the community, Paige added. “A child who has a loving and caring and supportive parent has a huge advantage,” he said. Those who lack that support are at a major disadvantage — a void that a teacher cannot fill on his or her own.

And when it comes to making sure that the original intent of No Child Left Behind Act “to close the achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice” is realized, Paige said the leadership in African American and American Latino communities have to own this issue.

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Still, he said he does see a place for a national approach to education when it comes to the Common Core (also a controversial topic in education), explaining that 50 different state systems cannot control the public education of the United States.

Referencing the 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, Paige said it was called “A Nation at Risk,” not “50 States at Risk,” for a reason. “There has to be some coordination,” he said explaining that there cannot be efficiency when there are too many points of authority.

But real change cannot come without those aforementioned three legs of the stool.

Perhaps that is why Paige was so quick to mention Rocketship. Its motto? “We do more than educate students. We empower teachers, engage parents, and inspire communities.”

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