Published on Wednesday, June 20, 2001 in the Boston Globe
Would Bush Have Survived His Own Education Plan
by Derrick Z. Jackson
IT SOUNDS so academic.
''Leave no child behind!''
''Raise the bar!''
''Expect the best out of every child''
''People shouldn't fear accountability!''
With those snappy slogans, President Bush's education bill has now passed both the House and Senate. America's public school children will face standardized tests every year. ''If you receive federal money, you've got to test,'' Bush said.
How unambiguous a landscape we are creating for our children. In the 1980s, we told them, ''Just Say No!'' In the 1990s, we screamed ''Zero Tolerance!'' That was for sex, drugs, and rap 'n' roll. After Columbine, children are now suspended from school for waving fingers and saying, ''Bang-bang, you're dead.''
As you can see, we have solved all those problems in one fell slogan. The president has just learned firsthand about the porous qualities of cliches, given how his daughters were just busted for underage drinking. Bush signed the ''zero tolerance'' teen alcohol policy as governor of Texas in 1997.
Undeterred by such anecdotes, Bush has showered us with education rhetoric that needs no rocket science to understand but has nothing to do with putting science labs in the schools. What is almost laughable about Bush's vision for the USA (United Standardized America) is that he, like a lot of rich kids then and now, was of course exempt from such robotic discipline.
Go back to when Bush was in third grade, when he threw a football through a school window. Can you imagine what would happen today to some poor child at some ''zero tolerance'' school? Why, the kid might get suspended for assault.
At Phillips Academy in Andover, Bush flunked his first English essay. The teacher called it ''disgraceful.'' Reaching for a new way to write about his tears over the death of his sister Robin, Bush wrote, ''and the lacerates ran down my cheeks.''
The thesaurus-challenged Bush survived. Today kids who write things like that get sent to the doc for attention deficit or dyslexia and now face being held back. I am being a bit figurative here, but you know what I mean.
Bush said that at Andover, ''I was surrounded by people who were very smart and that encouraged me to rise to the occasion.'' It is not yet clear how this education bill will help today's students to rise to the occasion in science and math, since many teachers are no longer trained in those subjects.
More subtly, but more important, is Bush's claim that ''Andover taught me independence.'' He had the freedom to clown around. In Bill Minutaglio's book ''First Son,'' classmate Bob Marshall said Bush ''was more interested in social standing than what grades he had in order to get into Yale ... He wasn't a scholar, he wasn't a leader, he wasn't a good athlete. He would call people names, derogatory nicknames. Other people would use them behind people's backs, but he was more open about it.''
Anyone who knows about public schools, with student-teacher ratios of 35 to 1 in many overwhelmed urban systems, knows what happens to kids who behave like that. They are labled disruptive and tossed into the refuse bin of special education. One reason Vermont Senator James Jeffords left the Republican Party of Bush was because it has no interest in funding special education.
Bush was able to joke about his middling grades at Yale at his alma mater's commencement. He of course did not speak of his entitlements that preordained his acceptance to Yale, regardless of his middling performance at Andover. He also did not speak about any need to prove himself on standardized tests.
Bush has said, ''When we find children simply being shuffled through the school system without regard to whether they can read or write, we've got to hold somebody accountable.'' Funny how a man who shuffled his way through entitlement now says our least entitled youth will be judged on whether they can be welded on the assembly line of a single test. The independence Bush valued at Andover is of little value on the assembly line, whether we are testing kids for their intelligence or welding them into robots.
At Andover, Bush had the job of shutting the doors for chapel on students who were late. ''There was nowhere else to go on campus when the doors slammed,'' Minutaglio wrote. Bush had the resources not to get lost in the shuffle. His education bill, for all its sloganeering, does not yet tell us if testing is a means to find the lost in order to save them, or to slam the doors shut on them, with nowhere else to go.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company