Saturday, February 25, 2006

The Bush clan, and the dumbing down of America.

A few people have been linking back to this 2003 piece from the Washington Post to point out, in the wake of "Portgate," the connections of Bush sibling Neil to the United Arab Emirates. But that's not the part I find so entertaining.

Me, I like Neil Bush's approach to education which, because of the apparent need for free registration, I have reproduced in full.

It was the spring of 2002 and [Neil] Bush was speaking about education at Whitney High School in Cerritos, Calif., considered one of the best public schools in America. He was touting Ignite!, which was being tested there. In the audience was writer Edward Humes, taking notes for his book on Whitney, "School of Dreams," published last summer.

Ignite! is designed, Bush said, to make learning fun for "hunter-warrior" kids who don't like reading. It's a computer curriculum that uses music, graphics and animation to teach middle school kids.

The program's first course -- eighth-grade American history -- was tested over the last two years in schools in a dozen states. Available commercially for the first time this year, it is being used by about 40,000 students in 120 school districts, mostly in Texas, at a cost of about $30 per pupil.

One school that uses Ignite! is Mendez Middle, a predominantly poor and Hispanic school in Austin. After three years of using the program, says Principal Connie Barr, the number of students who passed the state's eighth-grade history test has risen from 50 percent to 87 percent. "That's incredible," says Barr. "It doesn't replace the teacher or the textbook. What it does is give the teacher another way to deliver the information."

However, Ignite! has been attacked by other educators for dumbing down history. Among its controversial aspects is a lesson that depicts the Seminole Wars in a cartoon football game -- "the Jacksons vs. the Seminoles" -- the animated Indians smashing helmets with animated white settlers. The Constitutional Convention is taught in a rap song:

It was 55 delegates from 12 states

Took one hot Philadelphia summer to create

A perfect document for their imperfect times

Franklin, Madison, Washington -- a lot of the cats

Who used to be in the Continental Congress way back

Ignite! is working well, Bush wrote in an e-mail: "Teachers and students have given anecdotal feedback that confirms the powerful impact our program is having on student achievement, student focus and attitudes, and teacher success in reaching all of their students."

But at Whitney reviews were less laudatory. "The kids felt pretty strongly that what this was about was lowering the bar," says Humes.

Humes wasn't impressed, either. "There was a lot of rhyming and games," he says. "It reminded me of what my son uses -- but he's in kindergarten."

When Bush spoke at Whitney, several students began arguing with him.

"He was very surprised," Humes recalls. "You had to see the look on his face when one young woman got up and said she liked calculus. He said it was useless. This is the branch of mathematics that makes space travel possible, and he said it was useless."

So how can this come as any surprise?

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