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Beating the bush

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The state's new Student Accountability Standards have lots of folks wondering what'll happen to kids who don't pass end-of-grade exams. In the long run, they'll fail--unless state officials, educators, parents and anyone else interested in the welfare of low achievers take steps in the short run to prevent it.

Last week, more than 1,600 educators, legislators and guest speakers from across the country gathered at the Joseph Koury Convention Center in Greensboro to address the problem at a conference called "Closing the Gap," sponsored by the N.C. Department of Public Instruction. Over two days, attendees took their pick of 100 workshops aimed at finding strategies to improve academic achievement among at-risk and minority students. Suggestions included simple things like making sure classroom decor reflects class diversity (i.e., pictures on the walls), to more complex issues like confronting racial stereotypes and accepting different behavioral norms--in other words, black males who wear baggy pants, walk with a "dap" and like to play the "dozens" aren't necessarily threatening.

LouAnne Johnson reinforced that message while addressing the vast crowd during a luncheon. Author of the book My Posse Don't Do Homework, which was adapted for the movie Dangerous Minds, Johnson gave an emotionally charged speech about teaching kids out West who were smart but whose lives in poverty made them "too tired to keep striving. They'd rather go to jail where there's no struggle to eat or have a place to sleep," she said. Heads bobbed and low, "I know, I know" murmurs reverberated through the rapt audience.

Johnson's talk was real and meaty, a shot in the arm to conference-goers in need of a you-can-make-a-difference boost. So why was Johnson suddenly given the "cut" signal from conference coordinators? "Bush is here," was the word circulating among tables (referring to none other than Republican presidential hopeful George W.). "To talk to us?" came astonished replies.

Gov. Bush had gotten timely wind of the huge educational conference--presumably from N.C. Board of Education chairman and fellow Republican Phil Kirk. Before addressing the educators, Bush had already scored votes--and moolah--at a $1,000-a-plate fundraiser luncheon held in another part of the convention center. Still, having signed into Texas state law some of the toughest school reforms in the nation (that, by the way, have led to discrimination lawsuits), Gov. Bush couldn't pass up a near-and-dear platform. Ushered in by umpteen Secret Service agents and campaign advisers--a mere 10 feet away from this writer's table--the Republican governor bounded up on stage.

"We're all part of a new movement in education, part of a bipartisan reform agenda," Gov. Bush told the lukewarm (read: largely Democratic) crowd. "We need to check our partisanship at the door when it comes to the education of our children," he said, sallying forth for the next 10 minutes about the "soft bigotry of low expectations" from at-risk students, and encouraging decentralized reforms. "I trust local people to make decisions about the children," he said, not those "in a faraway land called Washington." (He neglected to mention that just one day prior, he'd made history in that "faraway land" by helping the Republican party raise a record-setting $21 million dollars at one event.)

While calling the failure of low-achieving African-American and Hispanic students "unacceptable," Gov. Bush wasn't exactly sensitive to their plight. "When you see students squirming," he said regarding high-stakes testing, "my only response is 'Too bad, we're gonna measure you.'"

Aside from the light smattering of applause when Gov. Bush concluded his speech, there were other indications that the crowd wasn't impressed. As handlers led him toward the exit door, Gov. Bush suddenly stopped and took a few steps toward this writer's table, apparently in response to what he thought was a black woman's effort to get his attention. "Yeesss?" he fairly drawled, directing a camera-ready "say-cheese" at the special-education teacher from Raleigh.

"I wasn't talking to you," the teacher said flatly, waving her hand in a dismissive gesture. While his advisers sucked their teeth at the political oopsy-daisy, a red-faced Gov. Bush turned on his heel and made a hasty exit. The incident quickly became the talk of the conference--after all, it's not every day you get to snub a would-be president who, as one teacher quaintly put it, "wouldn't know a student accountability standard if he stepped on it." Talk about measuring achievement ... it doesn't get much lower than that.

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