The U.S. education secretary identified education equity as the remaining front of the civil rights battle and cast his own controversial program as the modern legacy of the Brown v. Board of Education decision in a talk at the John F. Kennedy Jr. Forum last night.
Rod Paige used the Forum to argue that U.S. public education—long criticized for the “achievement gap” it has perpetuated—is on the road to remediation. Paige’s talk kicked off a conference this weekend commemorating Brown’s fiftieth anniversary at the Kennedy School of Government.
He said President Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act, of which he was a major architect, follows through on Brown’s goals.
“Those who fought against Brown were on the wrong side of history, and those against No Child Left Behind will be judged so as well,” he told the packed Forum.
Opponents of Bush’s program were among the audience members. Several members of the educational community from Harvard and elsewhere openly criticized the policy during a question-and-answer session that followed Paige’s talk.
The program requires all students to meet statewide education standards by high school graduation. Evaluation is based on a system of annual standardized testing in reading and mathematics.
Schools that do not show progress toward the standards are scrutinized and, in some cases, restructured.
Some critics in the audience contended that the program could unintentionally drive educational standards down rather than up. Others questioned the program’s reliance on standardized testing to evaluate schools’ needs and success.
But Paige said he didn’t think reliance on standardized testing as an indicator of success is unreasonable.
He rejected charges that “teaching to the test,” as a result of the program’s requirements, would impair U.S. education.
“We don’t make a big distinction between the test and the standards,” he said. “They should be essentially the same thing.”
A large amount of information, he also said, could easily translate into success in the classroom.
“We think that with a high level of information, it makes the instruction much better,” he said.
Emphasizing what he called the program’s “accountability,” Paige tied the recent educational legislation to the 1954 Brown decision.
“Brown opened the door, and now No Child Left Behind allows opportunities within the building,” he said, referring to an effort to overcome the achievement gap that presently plagues higher education as “the civil rights struggle of our time.”
Paige discussed his own experience growing up in racially segregated Mississippi, claiming that the experience continues to inform his educational outlook.
“I wonder whether anyone who has not lived through segregation can imagine how horrible it was,” he said. “You knew first-hand that anything you did was wrong.”
Paige, who had to travel north to be enrolled in a graduate program, said he remembered exactly where he was when he first heard about the Brown decision.
Still, he said, segregation did not immediately disappear—leaving many of the inequity problems that the No Child Left Behind attempts to address today.
“We have a long way to go,” he said. “And education is the battlefront.”
Last night, Paige declined to comment on his description of the National Education Association—which spoke against No Child Left Behind—as a “terrorist organization” at February meeting of state governors.
—Staff writer Nathan J. Heller can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.