Bush League: Learning, in Bridgeport

Helping the president make sure No Child gets Left Behind; deciding what we can learn from the last eight years.

Previously, in Part I of Bush League: How a young liberal became a tiny part of George W. Bush’s $15 billion anti-AIDS plan.

In Part II: Helping the president decide how to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in Mozambique through the Millennium Challenge Account.

III. No Child Left Behind

I arrived in Bridgeport, CT, at the train station in the heart of the downtown district, just a few blocks away from Harbor Yard — a concert arena/baseball stadium built over the memory of the old Jenkins Valve plant; the town’s most visible attempt at a post-industrial renaissance.

I set off, map in hand, away from Harbor Yard and north across the Stratford Avenue bridge that spanned the Pequonnock River. On the far side, the shine and development of downtown gave way to vacant lots littered with trash and broken bottles, stretching out from beneath the overpass. Shuttered-up houses and ice cream stores sagged in mute remembrance of the town’s better days.

After another span over the river, the outlying neighborhoods began. Sun-struck porches and corner stores, second-hand cars with bumper stickers bearing slogans like LOCAL 1150 and SIEMPRE BORICUA. Groups of school kids stood on corners, laughing. Following a few wrong turns and some surreptitious glances at my map, I arrived at the subdivided housing where — according to my directions, anyway — my first two students lived.

A short, pudgy kid cracked open the door to the third-floor apartment, looked at me, and ran away. For half a minute or so I stood there amid the smell of spices and stale tobacco. From somewhere inside the apartment I heard an exchange of hushed, rapid-fire Spanish.

Finally the door opened to reveal a stocky woman with kind, dark eyes. Two children, a boy and a girl, looked out from either side of the woman’s apron.

“Si?” The woman asked.

“Yes, um, hello,” I said. “May I speak English?”

“Not much,” the woman said. The children giggled.

“Okay,” I said. I tried to combine what little Spanish I knew with the Portuguese I spoke fluently to cobble together something intelligible. “Yo soy el tutor. Estoy aqui para ensiñar? Para ensinar os hijos. Ah. Escuela?”

The boy interrupted me.

“I speak English,” he said. “You can tell it to me, and I will say it in Spanish.”

“Oh,” I said, relieved. “Thank you.”

Through the boy, I explained to the woman that I had been sent to help two children, Carolina and Miguel, with their schoolwork. I had called the house on a number of occasions, but had spoken to a woman named Maria who told me, in broken English, that she didn’t actually live there. If I had the wrong house, I said, I was sorry.

“We are Miguel and Carolina!” The boy said, before the woman was able to respond. “And this is our mother!”

The woman, who introduced herself as Gloria, smiled and opened the door. She spoke softly to Miguel.

“She says that we have been waiting for you,” he said as he led me to a small table in the living room. “Oh yeah, and don’t worry about my cousin.” He gestured down the hall at the pudgy kid who had opened the door. “He’s a little crazy, but he won’t hurt you.”

In the opening pages of Mark Twain’s 1889 novel A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court, the main character, Hank Morgan, is struck in head with a crowbar and falls unconscious. The first person he sees when he wakes up in England, AD 528, is an armor-clad man on horseback, complete with shield, sword, and a “prodigious spear.” After some terse questioning, the knight motions for Hank Morgan to follow him:

At the end of an hour we saw a far away town sleeping in a valley by a winding river; and beyond it on a hill, a vast grey fortress, with towers and turrets, the first I had ever seen out of a picture.

“Bridgeport?” Said I, pointing.

“Camelot,” Said he.

Given Morgan’s historical whiplash, there’s a certain logic in his mistaking Arthur’s Camelot for the Bridgeport of the late 1800s. The knight, for instance, would not have been out of place in PT Barnum’s famous traveling show, which wintered in Bridgeport throughout the 1870s. During this time it was not unheard-of to see strange-looking men and exotic animals traipsing around the fields outside of town.

The winding river that flowed through Camelot could easily have been confused with the Pequonnock, an inlet that flows north from the Long Island Sound. The towers and turrets of the medieval fortress would have resembled the manufacturing centers that sprang up in Bridgeport in the late 19th century and went on to power the city’s economy for the next six decades.

When I arrived in Bridgeport, a hundred-odd years after Twain wrote A Connecticut Yankee, it seemed that the town was suffering from its own historical whiplash. The rapid deindustrialization that came at the end of World War II had not spared Bridgeport. Factory closures had led to massive unemployment and the flight of middle-class families. Crime had blossomed, and corruption had worked its way into local politics. By the turn of the 21st century, Bridgeport had become one of Connecticut’s poorest towns, with one-fifth of its citizens living below the poverty line.

These hardships quickly took their toll on Bridgeport’s schools. By the time of George W. Bush’s inauguration in January of 2001, roughly 30 percent of the city’s high school students were dropping out. Less than 33 percent of 8th grade students met the state standards for reading and math mastery. Poor and minority students were affected the most.

These problems were not unique to Bridgeport. All across the country, schools were struggling to deal with the challenges of poverty, demographic change, unqualified teachers, and overcrowding. One of the first tasks Bush set for himself as president was to reform the country’s failing schools.

Three days after President Bush took office, he laid out the basics of the No Child Left Behind act. His plan was an attempt to tie together the loose strands of the standards-based education movement, a decades-old push to define competencies and hold individual schools responsible for the performance of their students. Under NCLB, schools that failed to impart the state-wide standards would be labeled as “failing” — funding could be cut, and parents would have the option of sending their child to another school.

Many parents, frustrated by uninspired (and often tenured) teachers and underperforming schools, welcomed Bush’s plan. Others decried the punitive nature of the act, claiming NCLB would further marginalize both struggling and high-achieving students as teachers were forced to “teach to the test.”

Over these objections, the No Child Left Behind Act was signed into law on January 8, 2002. Five years later I was hired by a company that provided NCLB-mandated in-home tutoring to struggling students in Bridgeport.

For the third and final time, I found myself enlisted in President Bush’s struggle to make things right.

Miguel and Carolina were only two of my five students. Judah and Justice were brothers from a Guyanese family whose mother spoke a liltingly Caribbean form of English; the other was a boy named Guilherme born to Brazilian parents who were pleased to learn I spoke Portuguese. All three families had requested extra help for their children and were happy to have me in their houses.

After an initial assessment of each student, I tried to focus on what each child needed the most. Miguel, Carolina, and Guilherme were all smart, hardworking kids whose bilingual existence was hurting their classroom performance. While their fluency in two languages would eventually be a great benefit to them, they were struggling to keep up with their peers in the language arts. Justice was having some serious trouble with math, and Judah was behind the curve in both reading and math.

Following the first few lessons, both the parents and I agreed on one thing: The hours allotted to each student for the tutoring program would probably not be enough to give them all the help they needed. I brought these concerns back to my supervisor. She sympathized but shrugged her shoulders.

“There just isn’t enough money,” she told me. “And it’s a shame, because everyone knows that.”

As the weeks went on, I learned another important lesson: Not to eat a late lunch on the days that I tutored. At each house, the families would prepare something for me to eat or drink. Judah and Justice’s older sister usually offered me something freshly-baked — cookies, cake, brownies — with a tall glass of mango juice. Miguel and Carolina’s mother welcomed me with a plate of bocados and a cup of coffee. Guilherme’s parents insisted that I eat dinner with them after the lesson was over. His mother was a wonderful cook, and as we shared plates of feijoada or chicken with rice she told me stories of crime and splendor from Brazil. Following the meal, Guilherme’s father would drive me to the train station.

Over time, my association with the families deepened. Carolina and Miguel invited me to their joint First Communion party. (This prompted Miguel to give me an ad hoc lesson on Mexican cultural celebrations: “There will be beer,” he told me, almost apologetically, “and much dancing.”) I began giving English lessons to Guilherme’s mother; inspired, Guilherme’s father suggested that we open an English language school together — he would provide the space in the renovated second-floor apartment, and I could supply the expertise. The idea never came to fruition.

Coming home on the train after these late nights, I would be tired but happy. What I was doing, inadequate and underfunded though it was, seemed to me the essence of what was right about America. Immigrant parents — some of them struggling to learn English themselves — were working hard to give their children the best educations possible. The government was providing the means to do that, by paying me to go into their houses and teach. The families, in turn, were enriching me through the sharing of meals, laughter, and friendship.

It was what was supposed to happen. It was how things were meant to work.

Of course, there were constant reminders that I was there precisely because the system wasn’t working. In spite of more than four years of No Child Left Behind, Bridgeport was still struggling to help its students meet even the basic standards assessed by the state’s mastery test. Of the third to eighth grade Bridgeport public school students who took the Connecticut Mastery Test in the spring of 2007, only 45 percent met federal standards of proficiency — compared to a statewide average of 74 percent. More than one in five public high school students were dropping out.

Much of this had to do with the continued economic hardship in which most of Bridgeport’s public school students lived. Ninety-five percent of these students lived in economically disadvantaged families. Bridgeport’s rate of child poverty was more than twice the statewide rate. Given the poor state of the economy as a whole, things were not getting better for the city’s youth.

I saw this in the households of the students that I taught. For Miguel and Carolina’s father, who worked in painting and construction, income was always precarious.

“Some days there is work,” he said. “Many days there is not.”

Guilherme’s parents confessed that high gas prices were eating into the family’s budget. Judah and Justice complained about the lack of computers and CDs at their local public library.

The reality of the situation crashed home in March 2007, when the mayor of Bridgeport, Bud Finch, announced a round of budget cuts that would leave the board of education $5 million short of what it needed to cover its expenses. This meant serious cuts to school libraries, extracurricular programs, and school-based health centers; some schools were to be stripped of nurses altogether.

This was terrible news for the families I worked with, all of whom were uninsured; the school-based centers were the first and only recourse to health care for the children. I talked with Guilherme’s mother one evening after the budget cut announcement. She whispered so her son wouldn’t hear.

“I am without a way,” she said in Portuguese. “What happens when Gui gets hurt, or needs a new pair of glasses? Where will we go then?”

I didn’t have an answer.

At the height of the uproar over the budget cuts, I received an e-mail from my supervisor.

“Dear tutors,” it read. “Our offices have just been notified that all tutoring services need to be discontinued effective immediately.”

I didn’t know it at the time, but roughly two years prior to my stint as a Bridgeport tutor, the state of Connecticut brought a lawsuit against the federal government over No Child Left Behind. The state’s Attorney General, Richard Blumenthal, argued that NCLB was actually making things worse for the state’s underserved students. Before the legislation, he maintained, Connecticut had been nationally recognized for its efforts to close the achievement gap. After NCLB and its unfunded testing mandates, however, Connecticut had been forced to divert resources from these programs to cover the costs of the summative assessments imposed by the federal government. In the lawsuit, Blumenthal called for greater flexibility in terms of local assessment and fiscal responsibility on behalf of the federal government.

The federal government was not happy about this. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings called the lawsuit “un-American,” contending that Connecticut was merely “trying to find a loophole to get out of the law as opposed to attending the needs of those kids.” The lawsuit lasted for years and was a constant source of contention between the state and the federal government over one of Bush’s most prized initiatives. In many ways it served as a lightening rod for the critics of No Child Left Behind, both in Connecticut and across the country.

In late April of 2008 the lawsuit was dismissed by a federal judge. Less than two weeks later, a state government audit found some sort of problem in an independent branch of the company I worked for. It meant the end of the company’s tutoring services in at least three cities, including Bridgeport.

“I just don’t understand it,” my supervisor told me the last time we met. “We’re a franchise. Shutting us down because of something that happened in another branch is like shutting down a McDonald’s in Tucson because of a bad hamburger sold in Boston. Maybe it was something with the corporate office, I don’t know. But our books were fine.”

I could see that she was seriously upset, and with good reason: the move was not only a blow to the tutees, but to her business as well. Overnight, she had lost most of her clients. She had been forced to tell her employees, like me, that they were out of their jobs.

“I don’t understand it,” she said again. I had nothing to say back to her.

It was only later, when I heard about the lawsuit, that I began to wonder. I wondered about the Attorney General’s office, and how they must have felt when the lawsuit was dismissed after years of arguments and lawyer’s fees; I wondered about the state of Connecticut, strapped for cash, having to pay for assessment programs it didn’t want; I wondered how easy it was to make a call to the state’s auditors and ask them to look into the accounts of contractors working on NCLB mandated programs.

Sometimes, I still wonder about these things.

Miguel and Carolina’s apartment was my last stop. I hesitated before knocking on the door. It had taken me a long time to compose myself after the visit to Judah and Justice’s house, and longer still after I spoke to Guilherme and his family. I was tired and just wanted to get it over with without coming apart.

Miguel and Carolina’s little cousin opened the door. He saw me, grinned, squeezed my legs in an improvised wrestling move, and ran away. A second later, Miguel and Carolina’s mother appeared.

Buenas noches,” I said.

“Oh, hi,” she replied, a tinge of confusion showing in her eyes.

“I know this isn’t my usual time to tutor,” I began. Gloria was smiling, but I could see that she didn’t understand.

Adelante,” she said. She motioned for me to come in and sit at the kitchen table. Miguel and Carolina emerged from their bedroom. We all sat around in silence as I searched for words. I decided to get right to the point.

“Miguel,” I said. “Please tell your mother I am sorry, but I cannot tutor you or your sister anymore.”

Miguel said nothing. He just sat there, looking at me.

“Please, Miguel,” I said.

He translated, in a voice that was barely above a whisper.

“It is not under my control,” I explained. “I received an e-mail from my boss. It has something to do with money, and the government.”

I spoke to Miguel.

“I like to work with you and your sister. But they are telling me to stop.”

“You told us we would have tutoring until the end of the year,” Miguel said, speaking for himself.

“I know. That’s what I thought also. But something has happened, and even I don’t understand it exactly.”

Without waiting for a translation, Gloria spoke.

“She says it is just like the nurses,” Miguel explained. “That you are leaving because no one wants to help anymore. She said she is disappointed.”

Disappointed. It was a word my parents had used when I was a child to show that they were worse than angry. As I sat there in the kitchen, trying to explain something that Gloria already understood, I wondered what the cumulative effect of all these disappointments amounted to. Maybe, as a society, we weren’t what we thought we were. Maybe all this talk about opportunity and betterment were just soft myths that blew away when times got tough, precisely when they were needed the most.

Maybe we had mistaken Camelot for a town that was drifting into abandon.

After 20 minutes or so, I said goodbye to Miguel and Carolina. Outside, the air was warm; summer was pushing at the edges of evening. City buses were plying the streets and kids were going home to eat dinner. To the south, across the highway, the lights of downtown bled into the Long Island Sound. From a distance, it could have been anything.


Thinking back again to the protest eight years ago in Philadelphia, one image keeps resurfacing — that of a group of kids marching down Market Street, playing instruments, singing, and pushing a handmade float made of plywood with painted-on slogans about art and beauty. At the time, I thought it was stupid. What are you even protesting? I had thought.

In retrospect, I think I understand their message a little better. It wasn’t so much a protest as it was a reminder — and a kind of music.

In jazz, a melody is brought forth, a mood, a rhythm. It is held in the collective charge of a group of musicians, and at the same time it is re-invented by each individual. There is response and there is improvisation. There is chance and there is study. If any music can be called democratic, it is jazz.

Jazz is not just a form of music, those kids in Philadelphia might have been saying. It is a strategy.

In the coming months, we as a society will make decisions about what to keep and what to discard. We will take a look at the last eight years and try to figure out what worked and what didn’t. There will be a temptation, especially for those of us who opposed so much of what George W. Bush endorsed, to cynically dismiss every initiative his administration brought to life. Bush used PEPFAR to promote abstinence; his MCC initiatives helped funnel money to wealthy consultants; NCLB was underfunded and overly standardized — Oh, that explains everything, we might say.

But it doesn’t. Such an offhand dismissal doesn’t suit us Americans as practitioners of jazz. It ignores the hard-won contributions made by good people who worked on these initiatives. It dismisses as flukes the lives that were touched and changed and saved. It attributes too much power to a single man, and takes away too much responsibility from everyone else. Perhaps most dangerously, it prevents us from learning from our mistakes and our successes.

Instead of throwing down our instruments, we need to take a closer look. Sometimes the melody was right, but the mood was inappropriate. Sometimes we fell out of rhythm. Sometimes we failed to make the most out of a solo. Other times, however, it worked; things came together, creativity and structure merged, and the song lived.

It doesn’t help us to blame or pin our hopes on any one man. As good jazz musicians, we need to communicate, argue, practice, and compromise. We need to fuse passion with technicality. We need to borrow from different styles and traditions.

We need to have trust in ourselves — in our ability to make music out of everything, and out of nothing.

Article © 2008 by Dennis Wilson