In the Press
Secretary of Education William J. Bennett is the subject of more than one unflattering portrait in the April 27 issue of the The New Republic.
First, there is the caricature of the Secretary--all massive cheeks and beetle brows--that appears on the magazine's front cover. Inside, the writer John Judis castigates Mr. Bennett for his stands on such issues as the role of religion in public life, the teaching of "creation science,'' and the Reagan Administration's proposals to cut federal aid to education.
"Bennett has reduced his vaunted--and valuable--campaign for cultural and moral literacy to a narrow headline-grabbing crusade for prayer and against drugs and promiscuity,'' writes Mr. Judis, a senior editor of the journal In These Times.
In the article, "Mister Ed: Or, Dr. Bennett at the Bridge,'' Mr. Judis also contends that Mr. Bennett's political metamorphosis from a liberal opponent of the Vietnam War to a conservative defender of President Reagan has sapped his credibility, leaving the Secretary "sounding like a publicist rather than a philosopher.''
While praising Mr. Bennett's efforts to rally public support for educational improvement, Mr. Judis decries the Secretary's enthusiastic endorsement of the deep reductions in student aid and other education proposals advanced by the Administration.
Acknowledging Mr. Bennett's public criticism of the Rev. Pat Robertson and other fundamentalist Christian leaders, Mr. Judis nonetheless charges that the Secretary has "accepted many of the core assumptions of the religious right,'' on issues such as private-school tuition vouchers and school prayer.
For example, Mr. Judis says, the Secretary has declined to endorse the teaching of the theory of evolution over that of creationism, even though the scientific community is nearly unanimous in rejecting the latter.
As the Reagan Administration nears its end, Mr. Judis concludes, the Secretary has "transformed'' his department into the "last rampart of Reaganism'' at a time when the political climate is changing to one less favorable to conservative and neoconservative activists.
"Like many people who enter public office,'' Mr. Judis writes, "Bennett appears to have exhausted the intellectual capital that he brought with him and is now living off the wisdom of various assistants and staff members.''
If Benjamin Bloom had his way, no child would leave the American school system feeling like a failure.
Mr. Bloom, who is credited with developing "mastery learning,'' is profiled in the April edition of Psychology Today. The well-known scholar of education is concerned that American education is designed to weed out students and is not meeting the needs of the information age, writes the article's author, Paul Chance.
"We need large numbers of people with high-level skills who like to learn, and we're not going to get them with an educational system designed to ensure that most students fail,'' argues Mr. Bloom, a professor of education at Northwestern University and the Charles H. Swift Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Education at the University of Chicago.
Just as teachers can be trained to produce better learners and problem-solvers, Mr. Bloom contends that parents must also take an active role in the educational process. "The most rapid period of learning is the period that ends about the time the student begins the 1st grade,'' he says. "Some parents make good use of this time, but others don't. The result is that some students are far ahead of others before the school bell rings.''
According to James Fallows, the difference between the American and Japanese approaches to education can be summed up in one word: gambette.
Gambette, explains Mr. Fallows, the author of the article "Gradgrind's Heirs'' in the March issue of The Atlantic, is what friends and family normally tell a Japanese student as he studies for an important exam: Tough it out. And it is this emphasis on effort, he maintains, that has been the key to Japanese success in education and commerce since World War II.
Mr. Fallows focuses most of his discussion on perhaps the best-known feature of the Japanese education system, the university entrance examinations. The results of these exams can make or break a person for life, writes Mr. Fallows, for high scorers not only gain admission to the few top-ranked schools, but are also guaranteed life-long, high-status posts in the private or public sector after graduation.
"Compared with Japan,'' he writes, "America seems to offer a big, open lottery on life's prospects.''
"If all [American] law students ... took a standardized clerkship test, with top scorers going to the Supreme Court and the next group to appeals court, the U.S. system would begin to resemble the Japanese one.''
Despite the all-or-nothing nature of the Japanese exams, Mr. Fallows maintains that these tests, which are entirely factual in content, serve a postive function: They are a fair measure of a student's willingness to work hard.
"The tests aren't really about their stated subjects anyway--they're about your determination to try,'' he writes. "Americans boast about walking into tests unprepared and acing them on raw brains. Japanese students would not brag about it even if they could do it, because the years of build-up are the point.''
"Effort is what the country values, and it can select for it through the exams. The country is meant to be a pure meritocracy, based not on inherited mental abilities but on determination and will.''
"Effort is also what employers value,'' he adds, "which is why they hire so strictly according to entrance-exam scores.''
Mr. Fallows says there are many negative aspects to the Japanese education system. Teen-agers are overworked and highly stressed, and creativity has very little place in the secondary-school curriculum. One Japanese literary critic told him that the system was aimed at producing, "[a] high level of mediocrity. The best second-rate engineers. The best second-rate workers.''
But even Japanese mediocrity, writes Mr. Fallows, gives the country a higher level of equality than we know in the United States. This can even be seen in the country's I.Q. test scores, he maintains.
While the average I.Q. in Japan is 10 points higher than the U.S. average, this does not mean that Japan has a disproportionate number of geniuses, he writes. Rather, "Japan's average score is higher because its lowest scores are so much better than ours. Their bell curve has a different shape: fewer people at the extremes, many more in the middle.''
"But our lowest levels of just about everything are much lower than Japan's, and the difference is beginning to tell. One American reporter told me not long ago, 'Japan's secret is that it has the best bottom 50 percent in the world.'''
The Japanese postwar experience, and its emphasis on effort and equality, maintains Mr. Fallows, can be used as a model for Americans who want to improve the education system.
He writes that "if we're serious about reforming American education, we don't need to pour more money into the Harvards and Berkeleys, where we're already strong.''
"The battle should instead be fought where we're now weakest: in the big-city public high schools and the mediocre elementary schools. In the past 20 years the best bottom half in the world has been up against the best upper half, and the bottom half is winning.''
The Newspaper in Education program, sponsored by the American Newspaper Publishers Association, has been successful in fostering students' interest in current events and in teaching them the value of a free press, according to a series of articles in the March 7 issue of Editor & Publisher.
The 35-year-old program was started by C.K. Jefferson, then circulation manager of the Des Moines Register, and John Haefner, a social-studies professor at the University of Iowa who later became the education consultant to the A.N.P.A..
The program's goal has always been to promote "good newspaper-reading habits,'' according to Mark Fitzgerald, the author of the articles.
In one of the articles, Mr. Haefner is quoted as saying: "We are trying to prepare people who can govern themselves in a pluralistic society. And I don't see how we can do it without giving kids a feeling they have an obligation to read a daily newspaper.''
He said Mr. Jefferson "had a vision that was beyond circulation. He saw it as education.''
A survey of San Francisco high-school students conducted five years ago found that students who used newspapers in class "knew more about government and cared more about a free press'' than those who did not, writes Mr. Fitzgerald.
"In general, San Francisco teachers report that students continue to have a good understanding of the importance of press freedoms. But the reading levels of these students--mostly low-income--too often stymie their full appreciation of newspapers,'' he concludes.
Other articles in the series report on strategies newpapers are using to promote the educational program. The Detroit News,for example, recently started its program in the city's nursery schools, with an activity booklet produced by the Sesame Street creators and iron-on decals of the Cookie Monster.
"This was our first push into nurseries,'' the newspaper's N.I.E. coordinator, Jim McFarlane, says in the story.
A sidebar headlined "No Student Is Too Young for N.I.E.'' describes a kindergarten program sponsored by the Oklahoma's Lawton Morning Press and Lawton Constitution. When asked why she was carrying a newspaper, a student in the program is quoted as saying: "We read newspapers to learn things about the world. That's how we know about Premier Gorbachev.''
One of the most successful N.I.E. programs is run by the Ohio's Columbus Dispatch, according to Editor & Publisher. Two former teachers coordinate the program and produce materials on topics such as studying editorial cartoons, practical mathematics, and life skills through the newspaper.
The newspaper also sponsors free workshops for teachers (worth one hour of graduate credit) and produces a weekly seven-minute radio program that is aired on the Columbus Public Schools radio station.
While N.I.E. programs are educationally sound, according to Editor & Publisher, measuring their sucess by increases in circulations may tend to cause educators to tune out. Said Mr. Haefner: "I wish this had come from educators first and not from newspaper people--and particularly not from circulation people.''