A pioneer in reading set to extend reach

The Education Beat

Nominee: The man tapped to be the new education secretary was one of the first urban leaders to support early instruction.

January 07, 2001|By Mike Bowler | Mike Bowler,SUN STAFF

ASKED BY A Dallas Morning News reporter for his political views, Houston schools Superintendent Rod Paige said his Mississippi family had always been "yellow-dog Democrats."

That meant they'd vote for a dog before they'd vote Republican, Paige said. "But the guys lynching us were Democrats, so I became a Republican."

Now Paige, 67, has been nominated U.S. secretary of education, and his selection by President-elect George W. Bush is being praised - even by some of those yellow dogs. If he's confirmed - and there's little doubt he will be - Paige will be the first African-American and first school superintendent to be elevated to the Cabinet post. He'll also be the first Cabinet member to have established a reputation in reading.

Paige was the first urban superintendent to declare that reading by 9 was reading too late. He boldly proclaimed that Houston kids would be reading by 6, in the first grade. Though Houston hasn't reached that goal, it's well on the way. In the mid-1990s, shortly after the beginning of his remarkable seven-year term, Paige ordered an inventory of reading programs in Houston. He found the same uncoordinated mess Baltimore officials encountered when they did the same thing a few years later.

Paige trained all 11,000 teachers in the district to be reading teachers. He moved reading instruction into kindergarten and worked hard on building vocabulary in children of preschool age. (Paige endorses full-day preschools, which might seem a less-than-conservative position.)

Kindergarten instruction in Houston includes systematic phonics. Houston elementary and primary pupils receive 90 minutes of reading instruction a day. About 20 minutes a day is spent listening to classroom teachers reading aloud from books.

Houston was spectacularly successful in one school, Wesley Elementary, in a high-poverty neighborhood. When Houston pupils first took the nationally standardized Stanford Achievement Test in fall 1997, Wesley's first-graders scored at the 82nd percentile in reading, placing the school at the same level as those with more affluent kids. Wesley has sustained that level of performance.

When staff spirits sagged a few years ago at Baltimore's City Springs Elementary, a field trip to Wesley was just what the doctor ordered. The Baltimoreans, witnessing the success of the scripted program at Wesley, known as Direct Instruction, returned ready to resume the battle. City Springs uses that program.(Thaddeus Lott, who achieved national fame as principal of Wesley, went on to manage four Houston schools, one of which is a middle school fed by Wesley. That school's seventh-grade reading scores last year were nothing short of disastrous, raising questions about the long-term effects of Direct Instruction.)

Paige accomplished something else in Houston: He marketed reading as though it were toothpaste. When I visited the district two years ago, every school had a stack of pamphlets in the office telling parents what to expect and what was expected of them. The district sent flashcards so parents could work with their children.

Paige created a high-level and visible central office position, reading manager, and filled it with a bright, indefatigable woman, Phyllis Hunter, who knows her phonemes. Though she left the Houston job recently to work on statewide reading initiatives, Hunter still acts essentially as an ambassador for reading - not only in Houston and Texas, but beyond.

Paige, a longtime Bush friend, and Hunter campaigned for the Texas governor, the latter speaking at the Republican National Convention and in a campaign commercial. Look for her to fill a spot in the new administration. Of the president-elect, she said: "You're going to see an educator on the Cabinet, really for the first time, and you're going to see heavy emphasis on reading. Educators will listen to Rod Paige, black educators especially, whereas they might not have listened to a former Republican governor."

True, Paige has endorsed educational vouchers, the conservative cause du jour. But he's no ideologue, as evidenced by the praise for his nomination from zealots on both sides of the voucher issue.

Bush could have dipped into the ranks of the Republican governors, among the first to jump on his bandwagon. He could have chosen the media's favorite, Arizona state schools Superintendent Lisa Graham Keegan, who promotes vouchers and charter schools.

Instead, he chose Paige, for which we can be thankful. Paige knows how it is to ask the federal government for help in addressing the dire needs of city kids. He shares Bush's ideas about educational accountability. His mother was a teacher.

And he knows from reading.

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