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A Conversation With the New Secretary of Education

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Following are excerpts from an interview with Secretary of Education William J. Bennett. He spoke last week with Staff Writers James Hertling and Alina Tugend.


QHow do you evaluate the changes that have resulted from the reform movement?


AI've probably spent too much time in Washington the last two years to be able to give first-hand accounts, but from what I read, reform has very much taken place. Every state has set up its own commission; there is a lot of energy and activity. I said a couple of months ago, the wax is still warm and the impressions are still being made. I think that we might actually be--and I don't have to exaggerate these things--in the most dramatic period of educational reform that we've seen in this country in 50 or 60 years.


QIs it a systemic change, or just kind of raising the standards, more of the same?


AOne of the interesting features of this reform movement is that it is populist, that it really started and it still is in the hands of the people. It is not in the hands of the education establishment, which has acted sometimes to resist. [This reform movement] is aimed at results; it is focusing not so much on the process of schooling but on the ends of schooling--[to get] the scores up, having indices of competency, and the like. We declared war two years ago and we're now in a long twilight struggle. This is the harder part. But I am guardedly optimistic, provided reform remains in the hands of the people who are interested--parents, union leaders, school boards, and others.


QThe national dropout rate is now nearly 30 percent and over 50 percent for some inner-city minority groups. How should the federal government respond?


AI don't know. I don't know enough yet about our programs and how they are helpful or not helpful. ... Apart from deciding whether it is the federal government [that should act], we have to look at what works and what does not work. I have always respected schools' literature. Do we have some literature on schools and school districts or areas that have had high dropout rates and managed to turn it around? Surely, some people and places have done better at this than others. We need to find out where they are and how they did it. I would see it as the federal responsibility certainly to make our best information and experience on this better known.


QYou said college student-aid proposals target the government's limited resources on the neediest, yet some would say the excellence movement is at the expense of a similar kind of equity. Do you see a paradox here?


ANo, I don't. I don't think excellence is at the price of those who do need some help or that it limits our commitment to equity. This is an American theme that runs throughout our history. Every 20 years or so, it surfaces in another form.

... The main beneficiaries of the excellence movement seem to be the people who need it the most. The people who need it the most are poor, those who do not have the advantages of the wealthy. They are the people who need good teaching the most; they are the people who need standards the most, not for purposes of punishment, but for aspiration, for internalizing those standards.

While we see a decline in the performance and expectations of the schools over 20 years, the children of the upper-middle class and upper class succeed. They graduate, go on to good colleges, and get good jobs. Why? Because this is the way of the world. They always will. But when school standards decline, the people who are hit the hardest are the ones who have the most to gain from effective teaching in school. That is why, it seems to me, the excellence movement is properly directed and aimed at equity.

Granted, if you have standards, and honest standards, that means you will have failure, but failure at one point in time in the system is not failure forever. It is better for a student to be held back for a couple of grades until gaining mastery or competency of material, than letting the person graduate and certifying that they have completed a course of study, when they have not mastered it. So I really think the excellence movement is, first and foremost, and ought to be, for those who most need help.


QCouldn't holding people back just exacerbate the dropout problem?


AIt might. I don't know. It all depends on what is going on in school. I mean, if you have a sense that school is a futile enterprise, and in many places that might be the correct sense, there is not a whole lot of incentive to stay in school. But if we can adjust people's notions so they think school is not a futile enterprise--it might take a little longer to get through, but when you get through, you really have something. Maybe that fact would improve things.


QWhen would school be a futile enterprise?


ASuppose you are not learning anything, then it is a futile enterprise. Suppose there is haphazard instruction, no order, all the marks of an ineffective school, and the people who have graduated with degrees have phony degrees. Why should somebody stay in?


QWhat are the consequences for the reform movement of this shift in focus toward higher education?


AIt seems to me the American people need their attention on more than one object at a time. Let's not call it a shift, let's call it an extension. I don't think that this extension of the inquiry or interest in higher education should take the heat off or take the winds out of the sails of reform at the middle-school and secondary levels.


QHave you thought any more about the reorganization study since your confirmation hearing?


AIt is not so much a reorganization study, at least I don't call it that. The President asked for a study of the effectiveness and general role of the department and I have started on that already. I have half a dozen people working on it. ... I'm also asking people outside, people on the Hill.


QCan you tell us who?


ANope. I haven't finished yet. I want to try to turn this around, if I can, in about three or four months. So I am asking a finite number of people.


QWhat questions will you study?


AThe questions are: What are our programs? That is, the federal government's programs in education. How are they working? How could they be improved? What does this suggest about legislative initiatives? About departmental organizational structure and the like?


QWith regard to the Hatch Amendment and the rights of parents: What would you tell a school administrator in a case where a very vocal minority of parents objected to a certain school procedure?


AI would want to know what the procedure was. A school administrator who does not talk to parents is on his way to professional suicide. You have got to talk to parents; they are the people to whom you are accountable. If they are upset, and it seems to me there are enough things going on in some schools to justify parents being upset, you talk to them. ... Teachers and principals need parents behind them every bit as much as parents need teachers and principals and their support. If we are all engaged, all the adults in the community, parents and teachers and principals, in the education of the young, we have to act like allies.


ASenator Stafford seems very annoyed by your remarks about students having to divest themselves of stereos and three-week vacations. Do you think comments like that will undermine your relationship with the Congress?


AHe said something about me. I didn't say something about him. So don't ask me why I am trying to break down a working relationship. Why don't you ask him: 'Don't you want to work with the Secretary?'

I like Senator Stafford and I think we will be able to work together. I don't expect that he will bless with his imprimatur everything I say. It might even be the case that I won't give my imprimatur to everything he says. That's O.K. We're grownups. We don't have to talk to each other like we're plants or something. This is a candid disagreement--this is American government, after all, not an encounter group.


QWhat are your thoughts on vocational education?


AI don't have my thoughts quite together on that yet. I really am interested in this whole area. Some may think that because of my background this is not going to be an area of great interest to me. But it really is.

One of the things that I dislike about some parts of academe, where I spent my whole life, is that some people have a certain degree of contempt for people who know how to do things. I don't have that attitude. I think one of our most serious problems in education is the issue of competence. We complain all the time about things not working and jobs being half done. There ought to be a way to make that better.

I would never want to think of vocational education as second-class, because it isn't. I don't know quite how to get my arms around it yet, but I look forward to my continuing education in this area. I promise I am going to look very closely at that soon--as soon as I can stop talking about student financial aid. I want to look at two or three things in the department closely and that is one.

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