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Mr. Bush's Speech: A View From the Bar

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A Reuters reporter calls our school: Can you get some kids to watch the President's speech tomorrow so I can interview them about their reactions?

Always looking for an authentic learning opportunity--we say "No problem" and hang up.

A few hours before Mr. Bush is scheduled to speak, it occurs to someone that only CNN is carrying the broadcast. For those who mistakenly think education is an issue of national significance, think again. Only CNN, no other TV network or radio station, thought the issue newsworthy enough to broadcast the speech.

CNN is, of course, cable. There may be some who are impressed by articles about laser-disk players, scanners, and multi-megabyte computers--who think technology reigns in public school. Take note: Nowhere in my or any school within striking distance is there a cable hookup. Indeed, most schools don't have decent enough reception to use live TV, cable or otherwise.

With the reporter standing by, we think: Where do neighborhood residents go for state-of-the-art TV? To a bar, of course, and in our school's neighborhood, it's McManus' Bar, equipped with not one, but two, cable TV's. A quick phone call secures a gracious invitation from the proprietor.

So off we go: six teenagers, ages 14 to 18, the Reuters reporter, and a teacher, to hear President Bush deliver the major education speech of his Administration.

What better place to get reactions to a political speech?--a neighborhood bar, jukebox blaring, TV mounted high above the liquor bottles, filled with workingmen still wearing their sweaty T-shirts, arms the size of watermelons and fannies overhanging their bar stools. In a gesture of gratitude, I order a round of Cokes.

The students huddle in a corner staring up at the television. The reporter grabs a seat at barside in order to take notes, and I survey the scene. My heart sinks. How can these kids be expected to comment intelligently about the speech? Hearing above the din is problematic; notetaking out of the question.

Mr. Bush's exclamations about "excellence, standards, incentives" are mimicked periodically by the barman at the far end of the bar; others punctuate the speech with "Yeah!"

The speech over, the group retreats to a table in the back to answer the reporter's questions. What did the students think about the speech? Did they agree with the President? What about Mr. Bush's comments on testing? On dropouts? I look on apprehensively.

To my amazement, the next 45 minutes are a tour de force, insightful comments backed up with evidence and verbatim references. Marie begins with a concise summary of the entire speech, and ends by saying: "The speech was an outline, it was vague. It isn't clear how the points Bush mentioned would actually happen."

Julian calls it a "pep talk" and offers a sophisticated comparison between Mr. Bush's stand on education and the way he handled the Gulf War. "If he was really serious about education," the student argues, "he would not give one speech. He would give several and would be on TV talking about education a lot." When asked why he thought President Bush had given the speech in the first place, Julian points out that Mr. Bush had been criticized during the war for fighting a battle abroad, when there were clearly problems, such as education, back home that needed attention.

Ricky wonders how Mr. Bush intended to "liberate all schools from violence and drugs by the year 2000." How is he going to do that? he asks. "The President had no specifics," he says. "What's his program?" "And how," several students wonder, was the President going to "ensure that 90 percent of those attending high school across the country would graduate?" "What specifically would make that happen?" they ask.

Several students are critical of Mr. Bush's call for New American Schools devoted to innovation and excellence. "We go to an excellent school," they argue. "And it, like others in New York City, are in danger because of the city's budget crisis." "What is the President going to do about protecting the schools that exist already?" asks one.

When, at one point, the reporter misquoted Mr. Bush, she was quickly corrected. The President had argued that spending on education had increased by 33 percent during the last 10 years. When the reporter assumed the figure was unadjusted for inflation, several students corrected her, pointing out that the President was talking about an increase in "real dollars."

Jennifer is skeptical of the way Mr. Bush handled the issue of funding. "The entire speech," she says, "was an attempt to convince us that things could be done without funding--to take our attention away from the need for more money. I don't believe we can get improvement without money."

Mr. Bush's call for national testing is greeted with great skepticism. Several students point out how often students are tested already, almost every year once they enter school, without it seeming to make a significant difference in learning. "Testing," says David B., "doesn't seem to improve performance, because most tests don't measure things you learn. They test what you remember, not whether you can apply what you learn to everyday life."

As the students left the bar, the reporter thanked them all. Then, turning to me, she remarked: "This was great. The only problem is that the interviews don't work very well as 'man on the street' type reactions. These kids were much too analytic."

Vol. 10, Issue 34, Page 28

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