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Bush’s Education Record

July 6, 2000 at 12:00 AM EST
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BETTY ANN BOWSER: In his race for the White House, education is what George W. Bush talks more than any other issue.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: No one in my state of Texas now doubts that public schools can improve. We’re witnessing the promise of high standards and accountability. We require that every child read by the third grade, without exception or excuse. And every year we test students on academic basics.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: He especially likes to point out how much improvement poor minority kids have made in Texas public schools since he was first elected Governor in 1994. And Worsham Elementary, just North of Houston, is one of the governor’s showcase schools.

WORSHAM ELEMENTARY STUDENTS: The sun has got his hat on, hip hip hip hooray. The sun has got his hat on and he’s coming out today.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Worsham students do indeed have a lot to sing about these days, because the school breaks all the stereotypes about poor minority kids. Eighty six percent of the kids are Hispanic, 88% of the student body is on the federal government’s free or reduced lunch program, a traditional marker of poverty.

TEACHER: Okay, did you work hard?

STUDENTS:(In unison): Yes!

TEACHER: All right, keep it up.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Nevertheless, this school has been cited as an exemplary school for the last six years, the highest rating any school can get from the Texas Education Agency. Worsham has a state-of the art computer lab, and nearly one quarter of the school’s students take after school skills- development courses.

Kids here are eager to participate in school activities, like these third graders rehearsing for a school-wide talent show. And test scores here are soaring. Last year 98% of Hispanic third and fourth graders passed a standardized reading test, beating the statewide average for white students. That runs counter to a nationwide trend, in which minority test scores lag behind those of white students.

MARTY CORTES, Worsham Elementary Third Grade Teacher: Five times four is what, Anna?

ANNA: 20.

MARTY CORTES: 20, all right.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Marty Cortes has been teaching third-grade math and science at Worsham for three years.

MARTY CORTES: When I first got here I was baffled and amazed. I was, “Oh, my God, they’re learning fractions and common denominators.” And they’re learning all these other type of skills, that… and at first you think they can’t learn this. But we have expectations for them, and you work with them, and you teach them, and you see that they get it, and they’re capable and able to do it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Cortes says schools today are very different than the ones he attended 12 years ago, when Texas was ranked near the bottom on national education assessments.

MARTY CORTES: When I grew up here in Texas, there was no accountability system, and I was easily a child who could have fallen between the cracks.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Governor Bush loves to brag about schools like Worsham Elementary, but the education reform movement actually began years before he was elected Governor. Back in the 1980′s, at a time when Texas public schoolchildren were performing in the bottom third of all kids in the United States, a group of business and civic leaders got together, headed by billionaire Ross Perot, and wrote what became the foundation for the education reform movement today.
They call it an accountability system, and it includes testing kids in grades three through eight, and then again in tenth grade, rating the schools according to those scores, and then publishing the ratings in local papers.

Darv Winock helped design the system.

DARV WINOCK, Businessman: You lay out the expectations, then you align those standards with what’s taught. Which means a big job: Getting the right textbooks, getting the right kind of material, training the teachers, but you teach, and then you measure to see whether they taught it, or whether the kids learned it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: If schools receive a low performance rating three years in a row, the teachers and the principal can lose their jobs. None of those ideas was developed by Bush, but he has signed onto them wholeheartedly. And he has significantly raised the bar for schools to be considered successful. Originally, 20% of kids had to pass the Texas assessment of academic skills test, also known as the TAAS Test. Now 50% must pass, or the school is considered unsatisfactory.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: When I ran for governor, I said “Give me a chance to set high standards and elevate the bar. Give me a chance to provide options for parents if the status quo is unacceptable. Give me a chance.”

BETTY ANN BOWSER: One option that Bush was unable to get through the legislature was a voucher system, that would have given state money to children in low-performing schools, so they could transfer to a private school.

TEACHER: In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, amen.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Ironically, private schools are exempt from the whole accountability system which Bush promotes, and although he failed to get it in Texas, Governor Bush has said he would like to see a national voucher system if he’s elected president.

That’s just what worries Bob Chase, head of the National Education Association, because Bush has said he would use federal Title I money, now earmarked for poor children, to fund his program.

BOB CHASE, National Education Association: We know when we look at the voucher experiments that have been going on in Cleveland and Milwaukee that they don’t work. The governor is proposing that we take $1,500 out of Title I money, and let that go with a child to a school of choice, which could be a private school, which could be a sectarian school.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: How about the system that is like it is today? You receive Title I money, you don’t have to show anybody whether or not the children are learning. That doesn’t work. That’s a system that gives up on children.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Governor Bush has also been a strong proponent of charter schools. When he came into office five years ago, there were no independently-run public schools in the state; now there are 180. Most education experts say it’s too early to say whether the charter schools have been successful. There have been some outright failures: three have been shut down by the state, nine others have voluntarily closed their doors.

Overall, the Texas reform movement has attracted the attention of people all across the country, who are looking for ways to improve schools in other states. Amy Wilkins is with the Education Trust, a nonprofit educational organization in Washington, DC.

AMY WILKINS, Education Trust: The Texas education story is really one of the few success stories in the country. What you see in Texas is, you see all students’ scores rising, but you see something that we think is just as important. You see the gap between minority kids and white kids closing, which demonstrates to us that all kids can achieve at high levels, if their schools are required to teach them at high levels. And Texas really does demand that all kids in the state be educated at increasingly high levels. They aren’t there yet. Texas isn’t nirvana. They’ve made mistakes. It’s not perfect. But they are really making progress in areas that other states aren’t making progress in.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Wilkins particularly likes the system because the scores of minority students are broken out and rated separately, instead of having them averaged in with all students’ scores. She says that forces schools to pay more attention to minority students. Again, it wasn’t an innovation made by Governor Bush, but he does fully support it.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: And I can point to Texas and show people where the test scores are up, particularly amongst our African American youngsters, and Hispanic youngsters, because we’ve changed the world. We’ve got a new attitude. We’re going to help people early. We’ve raised the bar. And people are responding, and I want to take that attitude of reform to Washington, DC.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But some educators think there have been negative consequences from the Texas reforms, particularly for minority students. Linda McNeil is a professor at Rice University and has been studying Texas schools for 15 years. She’s also the author of a new book called, Contradictions of School Reform. She says the accountability system does nothing to help poor, minority schools.

LINDA McNEIL, Rice University: It looks very seductive, because it looks inexpensive, and it looks like everybody’s getting the same thing. But, in fact, what the system is doing is masking over the old inequities. It’s not solving the problems of schools that have traditionally not had, you know, good books in a classroom, and not had the highest-educated teachers. It does nothing to remedy the inequities and weaknesses that we have inherited, and instead it gives the appearance that we’ve somehow solved these, because everybody’s being tested the same way.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: And she says, the real problem with the accountability system is it forces educators to abandon rich curriculum, and just teach the test to get high scores.
LINDA McNEIL: The predominant word that we get from teachers is they feel this is causing them to have to do less than their best work. They are having to teach a generic set of skills that is not what their kids really need to succeed beyond the TAAS. They are having to water down the content.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Governor Bush strongly disagrees.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: I oftentimes say in my state, if you teach the child to read, you don’t have to teach the test, because the reading test is a measurement of the capacity to read and comprehend. So teachers shouldn’t feel threatened by the accountability system.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: These three Houston-area high school teachers said they’re not threatened by the notion of accountability, but they do worry that putting so much emphasis on one test may not be good for students.

ELIZABETH FLOREANI, High School Teacher: It seems to me that it is the only thing the public sees. And it’s the only thing that we are judged by, and I think that’s a shame because we do have some wonderful students, and I think the public needs to know about that.

TERRI GOODMAN, High School Teacher: There are other ways to measure. And I think, if you’re just relying on one measure, I’m not sure you are really, you know, evaluating the full complexity of students. And I’m not sure many parents want their child in an environment where that’s the only measure.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: They also worry that the tests may force kids out of school.

SHEILA WITFORD, High School Teacher: I see too many students dropping out, because they feel like they’ll never be able to pass the test. It’s a real tragedy. They have dreams too, and we need to somehow help them build the roads to their dreams.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: The high dropout rate is one of the biggest black marks in the story of Texas school reform. A U.S. Education Department report shows that since the mid-1980′s, the dropout rate has increased by 10%, and about half of black and Hispanic students never graduate. The other troubling issue is how many students actually take the TAAS exam.

GABRIEL VASQUEZ, Houston City Councilman: How are you doing?

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Gabriel Vasquez is a Houston city councilman and former school board member. He says for too long schools have been able to exempt students who aren’t likely to do well on the TAAS test.

GERALD VASQUEZ: Most districts, only half of their student population actually take TAAS. The reason for that is because, you can be exempted from taking TAAS if you meet certain requirements. Number one is language. Any student that had a problem with speaking English didn’t take the TAAS, and they were exempted.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: How was that determined?

GERALD VASQUEZ: It was determined subjectively at the individual school level.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: An examination of Texas education agency documents shows that at least one school did claim exemptions as high as 50% in 1998, but overall statewide that year, exemptions averaged 11%. And, after Governor Bush tightened up exemption rules last year, they averaged 9%.

While Governor Bush did not invent the accountability system, supporters of it say that he has done much to further it, by putting in place a number of other measures.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: Reading is the basis for all learning, and it must be the foundation for all other education reforms: To succeed in science or math our children have to read. To be able to access the Internet, the children have to read.

GOV. GEORGE W. BUSH: (reading to children) And by the light of the moon.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Three years ago Bush launched a reading program, which shows teachers new ways to teach reading in the early grades.

TEACHER: Show me a capital letter.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: It also requires teachers to assess the reading abilities of every child in kindergarten through third grade, and to hold children back a grade until they have reached a satisfactory reading level.

TEACHER: When I, if all by herself, does she say, “I?”

STUDENTS: (In unison): No.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Although it is too early to tell whether this program has been successful, some critics worry that again, this puts too much emphasis on the testing process.

LINDA McNEIL: There is no one way that children learn to read, so finding the multiple ways of teaching and multiple ways of assessing kids’ reading is going to be essential.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: But Worsham kindergarten teacher Sheila Shuman says the 30-minute oral assessment helps both her and the children.

SHEILA SHUMAN, Kindergarten Teacher: It makes the children think. If a child is having problems in that area then I know that I have to work with that child on comprehension. It tests for different sounds, different rhyming words. I see that they… If that particular child needs help in that area, I will work with that child. Another child may have a totally different need, and I will work with that child, and you know, helping that child with his needs.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Governor Bush has also increased state spending on education by over 50% to $23 billion a year. And just last year he signed into law a pay raise for Texas teachers, who previously had been some of the lowest-paid in the nation. While the teachers only got $3,000 more per year, which was half of what they were asking for, Gayle Fallon, head of the Houston Teachers Union, says she was thrilled.
GAYLE FALLON, Houston Federation of Teachers: All in all it was one of those legislative sessions where we saw the biggest pay raise that had ever gone into the pockets of our teachers. Our first increase in retirement. It’s a very hard legislative session to criticize. We got a lot of things for the teachers.

CORRESPONDENT: How much credit does the governor deserve for what was done?

GAYLE FALLON: What we always believe is the governor gets the credit when we get things, and he gets the blame if we don’t, if the pay raise had gone down, it would have been his fault, so we’ve got to give him credit for it.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Darv Winock gives Bush high marks, too.

DARV WINOCK: He has done all of the right things, and they’re major. They’re major changes in the behavior expected from the system. And I think Texas kids are probably going to set the scores that the nation has to aspire to.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: Indeed, Governor Bush campaigns on the theme that Texas should be the model for reform, and that is precisely what worries McNeil.

LINDA McNEIL: I think before any state rushes to emulate Texas, they need to look at what are the experiences of our best teachers who are having the worst time right now — what are the experiences of our poorest children and now most recently how our middle-class kids suddenly feeling that their richest education is vulnerable under this system. We have many pockets of strength and many extraordinary teachers and principals. Right now they are finding it very hard to do their best work in our public schools.

BETTY ANN BOWSER: In spite of such criticism, Governor Bush is expected to continue praising what he calls the Texas miracle, as he keeps education at the forefront of his campaign message.