As a child growing up in southern Mississippi, Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige remembers sneaking envious glances at the imposing two-story brick building in downtown Monticello where white students went to school. He was even more taken aback when he got a peek inside the beautiful indoor gym with its wooden floor and bright lighting.

His own all-black school was housed in a flimsy, two-story wooden building set above the ground on foundation piles. More than half a century later, Paige still remembers the big-bellied, wood-burning heater with a stove pipe that took the smoke out the window. The students used hand-me-down textbooks from the white school, complete with graffiti in the margins.

And then there was the basketball court -- a patch of dirt outside with light bulbs strung overhead for illumination. "When it was wet, you couldn't play, because it turned to mud, and it was impossible to dribble," Paige recalled in an interview in his large, well-furnished Washington office near the Mall.

As the nation marks the 50th anniversary of the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision that struck down the doctrine of "separate but equal" schools, Paige thinks back to his own upbringing in one of the most segregated parts of the country. The memory of those days, he makes clear, has played a vital role in shaping his ideas of what he wants to achieve as secretary of education.

Brown v. Board, said Paige, "changed everything." Before Brown, the U.S. Constitution was "an empty promise as far as I was concerned. The American ideal did not include us. Now it does."

But the promise of Brown remains "unfulfilled," the secretary adds, noting that black and Hispanic students perform significantly worse on standardized tests than their white peers across the country. Although the "achievement gap" has narrowed in some schools, it still remains formidable, particularly at the high school level, mocking the notion that integration would lead automatically to the equalization of educational opportunity.

The achievement gap is a civil rights issue, says Paige, 70, who grappled with the problem of underachieving minority students as school superintendent in Houston for six years before moving to Washington in 2001. "It's a basic matter of fairness. We are producing results that look like an apartheid system."

For Paige, the solution is obvious. He sees the Bush administration's No Child Left Behind initiative -- which aims to make every child in the country proficient in reading and math by 2014 -- as "the logical next step" to Brown. The basic premise behind the law, Paige says, is that students in predominantly minority schools should be held accountable to "the same high standards" that pertain in middle-class white schools.

Whether No Child Left Behind is actually improving educational opportunities for blacks and other minorities is at the center of today's education debate. As Paige tours the country to promote the plan, he has run into a chorus of criticism from school administrators, teachers and state legislators who say the program can never work.

Some say the program is underfunded. Some say it narrows the curriculum and causes teachers to "teach to the test." And some argue that it condemns schools with a large minority population to failure by setting goals that are impossible to achieve, and then penalizes schools that fail to meet those targets by taking away their students and eventually cutting their funding.

Paige seems unfazed by the criticism and continues to defend No Child Left Behind with almost evangelical fervor. He has compared opponents of the education law to segregationist southern leaders who stood in schoolhouse doors to prevent black students from attending integrated schools. He argues that U.S. taxpayers have a right to hold students and teachers accountable to certain basic standards, given the nearly $400 billion they invest in public education every year, and that No Child Left Behind allows them to exercise that right.

As an African American who uses the language of the civil rights movement to advance the agenda of the Bush administration, Paige has clashed with other African Americans who see themselves as the true defenders of the Brown vision. Theodore M. Shaw, president of the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, whose founder, Thurgood Marshall, was the lead litigator in Brown, said conservatives such as Paige have become adept at "taking our heroes, stealing their images and turning their legacies on their heads."

For Paige, it is organizations such as the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund that are on "the wrong side of history."

He brushes aside a question about re-segregation trends in U.S. schools since the abandonment of mandatory busing by many school systems at the beginning of the 1990s. He points out that a seemingly integrated school can be segregated on the inside, with different groups of students attending very different kinds of classes.

"I have never viewed integration as the goal," Paige said. The true goal, he said, is making sure that all students receive "a quality education."

Paige and his sister Elaine pictured at Jackson State University in 1954, the year Brown v. Board of Education ordered schools to be desegregated. Paige, who grew up in Mississippi, recalls his all-black school was a flimsy, wooden building where students used old textbooks from the white school.Education Secretary Roderick R. Paige, left, encourages a high school Advanced Placement class in Richland, Miss.