By Peter Baker
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 27, 2007
NEW YORK, Sept. 26 -- As a candidate, George W. Bush once asked, "Is our children learning?"
Now he has an answer.
"Childrens do learn," he said Wednesday.
The setting was, yes, an education event where the president was taking credit for rising test scores and promoting congressional renewal of his signature education law. To create the right image, the White House summoned the city's chancellor of schools, a principal, some teachers and about 20 eager students from P.S. 76.
The visual worked fine. The oral? Not so much. For Bush, it was a classic malapropism, the sort of verbal miscue that occasionally bedevils him in public speaking and provides critics and the media easy fodder for ridicule. Subject-verb agreement actually is taught at Andover, Yale and Harvard, the president's alma maters, but in an unforgiving job that requires him to speak hundreds of thousands of words with cameras rolling, the tongue sometimes veers off in mysterious ways -- and someone always seems to notice.
His latest misstatement masked a serious issue, of course. As Bush's first-term No Child Left Behind law comes up for reauthorization, many in Congress are attacking it from both the left and the right. The president is trying to preserve what he sees as one of his most significant domestic achievements, an effort to increase accountability through rigorous standardized testing. The latest report card released by the National Assessment of Educational Progress gave him some ammunition.
"The No Child Left Behind Act is working," Bush said with first lady Laura Bush, Education Secretary Margaret Spellings, New York Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg (I) and Schools Chancellor Joel Klein at his side. "I say that because the nation's report card says it's working. Scores are improving, in some instances hitting all-time highs."
Bush said that lawmakers should pay attention and not mess with success. "My call to the Congress is: Don't water down this good law," he said. "Don't go backwards when it comes to educational excellence. Don't roll back accountability. We've come too far to turn back."
Others offered a more measured assessment. "Unfortunately, this administration has dropped the ball on education reform by shortchanging this law to the tune of $56 billion since its enactment," said Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.), chairman of the Senate education committee. He vowed "to provide the solutions and the resources needed to ensure that students and schools can succeed."
The test results released Tuesday are not the ones used under No Child Left Behind, but the administration said that they show the progress since the law was passed with bipartisan support. Math scores improved among fourth- and eighth-graders, and black and Hispanic students made gains, although they still trailed their white counterparts. Eighth-grade reading scores, on the other hand, have not changed much since 1998.
Education specialists are divided on whether the federal law has succeeded in raising achievement for all students or in narrowing the historic achievement gaps between demographic groups. Passage rates are rising on many tests given to satisfy the law, including those in Maryland, Virginia and the District. The gap between white and black students is shrinking in some places.
But some scholars do not credit the education law. NAEP scores, for example, rose in some states and fell in others, and the general upward trend began well before No Child Left Behind. "My general view of this is that the president has been serially dishonest in claiming that No Child is accomplishing its mission," said Bruce Fuller, a professor of education and public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.
Perhaps the law's greatest success, according to educators, is its requirement that students of all racial and demographic "subgroups" attain the same proficiency, which has focused schools on closing achievement gaps. The gap "is starting to narrow," said Amy Wilkins, a vice president of the Education Trust, who helped draft the law. "But not fast enough."
The education innovators, however, have not come up with a solution to the gap that sometimes separates the president's meaning from his words. Bush's grammatical goof here Wednesday seemed to track neatly perhaps his most famous verbal faux pas. While in South Carolina in January 2000, he said: "Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?" Democratic strategist Paul Begala gleefully used it as the title of a Bush-bashing book he wrote.
At Wednesday's event, Bush was pointing to the test results when he stumbled. "As yesterday's positive report card shows," he said, "childrens do learn when standards are high and results are measured." Bush pushed on without pausing to correct himself, but the official White House transcript released later cleaned up the sentence for him by making it "children."
The gaffe came a day after a White House draft of his speech to the U.N. General Assembly was mistakenly posted on the U.N. Web site, complete with phonetic guides to the names of various foreign countries and leaders -- "KEYR-geez-stan" (Kyrgyzstan), "moor-EH-tain-ee-a" (Mauritania), "sar-KO-zee" (French President Nicolas Sarkozy). A White House spokeswoman said it was "offensive" to ask if that indicated Bush has problems pronouncing foreign names.
Still, during his trip to the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Australia last month, Bush did seem to have a bit of a pronunciation problem. "Thank you for being such a fine host for the OPEC summit," he told the prime minister of Australia, which like the United States is not actually a member of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries. He also thanked the Australian leader for visiting "Austrian troops" in Iraq.
While such moments amount to a Full Employment Act for Late-Night Comedians, Bush has effectively played them off, regularly telling audiences that he was only a C student and casting himself as an ordinary fellow and not some elite intellectual, never mind his Ivy League education. Supporters see such moments as humanizing -- who wouldn't lose his verbal footing from time to time?
At a dinner with broadcast journalists in 2001, Bush poked fun of himself for his "Is our children learning?" statement. "Let us analyze that sentence for a moment," he said. "If you're a stickler, you probably think the singular verb 'is' should have been the plural 'are.' But if you read it closely, you'll see I'm using the intransitive plural subjunctive tense. So the word 'is' are correct."
Staff writer Daniel de Vise in Washington contributed to this report.