Rod Paige is not happy. The 67-year-old superintendent of the Houston Independent School District is brandishing that morning’s Houston Chronicle , and his voice is full of heat. “Seventy-one percent of our students are classified as low income compared with twenty-nine percent across the nation,” he says to an aide. “Yet our students are performing at the national average on test scores. That’s phenomenal, and they missed the whole damn thing.” He is so exasperated he repeats himself: “They missed the whole damn thing.” The cause of Paige’s ire is a front-page story that emphasizes the poor reading and math scores among Houston middle school students on the Stanford Achievement Test. He argues that of the eleven grades tested, seven improved in language and reading and all but one improved in math. “You can’t find that in the other big cities. All we want is for people to recognize the victories we achieve. But if they don’t, that’s fine. We’ll keep shoving success at them until it chokes them.”
Since Paige took over the state’s largest public school system six years ago, he has produced a lot of success to shove. Test scores have risen by 20 percent and the dropout rate has decreased by half, even though the district’s proportion of low-income students has increased from 58 percent to 71 percent. In 1998 Houston voters overwhelmingly approved the largest school bond package in Texas history—$678 million—after defeating a smaller proposal just two years before. Paige’s achievements have caused colleagues everywhere to take notice: Last October the Council of the Great City Schools named him the most outstanding urban educator in the country.
At a time when many big-city school districts are reeling from a lack of stable leadership, Paige is one of the longest-serving superintendents in the country. While the Dallas Independent School District has embarrassed itself with the high-profile failures of superintendents Yvonne Gonzalez (who lasted ten months) and Bill Rojas (who lasted eleven) and infighting on its school board, Paige has unified Houston’s board members as well as the interest groups—teachers unions, business leaders, religious groups, and minority activists—that have often crippled other districts. “The community has to come together to support the schools,” Paige says. “Divisiveness is the largest barrier for the functioning of a school district.” The Houston board showed its support four months ago by voting unanimously to give Paige a 26 percent pay raise. He is now the highest-paid superintendent in the country, earning $275,000 a year plus incentives.
Paige seems born for his job as an educator—his mother was a librarianin Mississippi’s segregated schools and his father was a principal—but much of his career was spent in sports. He coached football at Jackson State, in Mississippi, and the University of Cincinnati and earned a Ph.D. in physical education with a minor in educational measurements at Indiana University. In 1971 he was offered a job as the head football coach at Texas Southern, in Houston. He took it with the condition that he also be hired as a faculty member—a stipulation he regards as one of the most important decisions he ever made. He went on to become the dean of the college of education, and in 1989 he won a seat on the local school board.So how has Paige achieved his results? He is all business when it comes to education: He approaches his job as if his title were CEO instead of superintendent. “We are taught that schools are self-contained organizations that are different from other organizations in the world, and they are really not,” he says. “I believe the instructional process can be managed just like anything else can be managed.” He uses terms like “total quality management” and “organizational coherence.” He stresses accountability for his principals and administrators—whom he sometimes calls “managers”—by issuing at-will contracts to speed the dismissal of low-performing employees. He has initiated Project Clear, which outlines in far more detail than the state requires the exact objectives teachers are responsible for, and he has reduced the number of exemptions for standardized tests. “Some people believe that students become disadvantaged by testing,” he says, “but the worst thing that can happen is that students are not tested.”
Paige’s tenure has not been without its bumps. While test scores have improved, Houston still lags behind other urban districts in the state. He has been criticized for not doing more for the 54 percent of HISD students who are Hispanic. Another trouble spot is teacher pay. Paige vowed to make HISD the highest paying district in the Houston area, but even though salaries are up 21 percent, the suburbs have matched his increases. Regardless, Paige is passionate about proving that HISD can compete with other districts in every way. “What we have been able to do is right the ship,” he says. “We’ll continue to make the case that an urban school district can be managed, can be productive, and can compete with suburbia or the private-school world.”