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Bush Vows to Make High Schools a Priority

Ohanian Comment: Giving high school diplomas more meaning is a great example of political doublespeak. What it really means is fewer students will get high school diplomas.. Yes, those who get them will qualify for college, but they were going to college anyway. The sole purpose seems to be to reduce the number of high school graduates.

WASHINGTON -- President Bush is promising to make secondary schools a priority in a second term, broadening an education agenda that critics say has left high schools behind.

Bush, who made raising achievement among young children the centerpiece of his domestic agenda, is putting new emphasis on the preparation older students get for college or work.

"In our high schools, we will fund early intervention programs to help students at risk," Bush said Thursday in accepting his party's nomination at the Republican National Convention in New York City. "We will place a new focus on math and science. As we make progress, we will require a rigorous exam before graduation."

Bush announced he wants to require states to test students annually in reading and math in grades three through 11. That's an expansion of the law he signed in 2002, which requires those tests in grades three through eight, and at least once during grades 10 to 12.

The two additional years of tests would come with $250 million a year, Bush said.

The idea, part of the second-term vision Bush outlined, reflects his recent campaign message of giving a high school diploma more meaning. The focus on high school grades is a natural extension of the No Child Left Behind law, Bush aides say, which called for higher achievement of all students, but particularly younger ones, minorities and poor children.

Bush's move also comes as education officials are sounding the alarm that high school -- the gateway to college or work -- has been overlooked.

His rival, Democratic Sen. John Kerry of Massachusetts, has campaigned on high school reform and criticized Bush for failing to enforce his own law's monitoring of graduation rates.

"They should be focusing on high schools," said Kati Haycock, director of the Education Trust, a nonprofit that advocates for poor and minority children. "It's the part of the education system that's been least well attended to by federal policy and by the states."

Among Bush's new proposals:

--$500 million for states and school districts to reward teachers whose students show increases in achievement.

--$200 million for schools to use eighth-grade test data to develop performance plans for students entering high school.

--$125 million to expand community college programs, including dual-enrollment courses that allow high-school students to earn college credit.

Kerry's campaign responded by accusing Bush of breaking his word on education by requesting $27 billion less than his education law authorized. Such shortfalls have prevented schools from meeting the law and drawn protests nationwide, the campaign says.

A string of studies has raised awareness recently about high school woes, describing students without skills for college or work, graduation exams that lack clarity or rigor, and graduation rates that are far less rosy than the ones the government reports.

"We need to radically rethink what we're doing at high school," said Naomi Housman, coordinator of the National High School Alliance, a coalition of 46 organizations. "We have to think about what the purpose is. If we just improve it in isolation of what the work force needs and what higher education is looking for, that's ridiculous."

Bush is promising more money for the State Scholars program, which requires tougher high school courses, and college aid money for poor students who enroll in it. He's also proposing programs to help students struggling with math, to expand Advanced Placement access for poorer students, and to lure private-sector workers into teaching math and science.

Bush's approval rating on education is the lowest since he took office, according to the Gallup Tuesday Briefing, a subscription service run by the polling firm.

Gallup found 47 percent of adults approve of the way Bush is handling education, down nine percentage points since January and 18 points since shortly after he took office in 2001. Those attitudes may reflect more about political polarization in the country as the election nears than they do views about Bush's education plan, the Gallup briefing said.

Copyright 2004 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

— Ben Feller, Associated Press
Boston Globe


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