Rod Paige was raised in a small Mississippi town at a time when segregation prevailed. He attended a then-segregated college, Jackson State University, and in fact first sat next to a Caucasian student in a graduate school course at Indiana University.

"But I had advantages even in a racially disparaging society," recounted Paige. "I had caring parents who shielded me and taught me that education was the solution to our problems."

Inspired by his parents' example, Paige has devoted his life to education, as a teacher, dean, and coach, and ultimately rose to his highest rank as secretary of education during President Bush's first term. For the past seven months, Paige was a public policy scholar at the Wilson Center researching the academic achievement gap, specifically the performance disparity between African-American and white youth in grades K-12 across the United States.

Paige contends two main forces drive the academic achievement gap. In-school forces are important and can be enhanced by such legislation as the No Child Left Behind Act—which he argues is succeeding in improving the education system—and equally important are the after-school forces, or what Paige deems cultural factors, such as parenting practices. Paige said African-American leaders can play a major role in closing the gap and underscored the need for their advocacy.

In July, the National Assessment of Educational Progress released its long-term study based on some 30 years of data and concluded the achievement gap actually has declined in the past several years. Paige said the study found that reading, math, and science scores have risen dramatically for African American students, particularly younger students. Typically, he said, the gap is greater in younger children and shows up before they even reach the first grade.

But there still is a long way to go and Paige believes narrowing the achievement gap would alleviate societal ills by advancing the potential of every citizen. After all, he said, education levels drive so many factors, including the wage gap, stereotypical thinking, propensity for crime, and health issues.

"I feel closing the achievement gap would do more toward advancing the traditional, historic African-American goal of full citizenship and racial equality than any other strategy," said Paige.

After graduate school, Paige joined the faculty and football coaching staff at the University of Cincinnati and then became head football coach at Texas Southern University, where he later served as dean of its College of Education for 10 years. While serving on Houston's independent school board, he was appointed superintendent, a post he held for nearly eight years, in charge of the seventh largest school district in the nation. "President Bush was governor at that time," Paige said, "and serving as school superintendent in Houston brought our paths together." President Bush appointed Paige secretary of education in 2001, and he served in that capacity until early 2005.

To close the academic achievement gap, Paige emphasized valuing and assisting teachers. He said, "I am a teacher and, as a dean who trained teachers, I say we must find a way to offer them better teacher preparation programs." Paige supports a strong support network, a reformed pay system, and greater teacher choice to prevent monopolistic tendencies within the system. "When teachers have more choice, we'll see more efficiency, creativity, and innovation."