Bennett Offers High School's 'Ideal' Content
Washington--Saying that Americans share a common vision of what high school should accomplish, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett unveiled on Dec. 29 a proposed core curriculum that would strengthen course requirements and stiffen content.
Contained in a document titled to honor James Madison, the fourth President and primary architect of the Constitution, the curriculum stresses the acquisition of language skills and "a shared body of knowledge," and is rigorous in its demands of schools and students. (Text, page 27; reactions, page 26.)
In Mr. Bennett's hypothetical "James Madison High School," students would spend up to three-fourths of their time in required academic coursework, including four years of English, three years each of mathematics, social studies, and science, two years of foreign languages, and one year of art and music.
"I believe that there remains a common ground that virtually all our schools can reach and inhabit," he says in the report, James Madison High School: A Curriculum for American Students. "And I believe that most Americans agree about what that common ground is--about what our students should learn."
"Our children should know about continental shift and quadratic equations," he said at a press conference here marking the report's release, "about Gothic architecture and the Gettysburg Address; about what a symphony is, and about who Shakespeare is and what he wrote."
Responding to Mr. Bennett's curricular outline, educators generally praised its academic toughness, but questioned whether such a program would be useful to the many students unwilling or unable to master it.
But the Secretary argues that all students--not just those with high ability or motivation--should be exposed to such a curriculum. Low-achieving students, he said, would respond if schools raised expectations for them.
"Critics may claim that too few of our students are currently equipped to handle the curricular material described here in the time and form suggested," he says in the text. "I believe otherwise. I think most American students could handle the classes in James Madison High School; again, I have seen students from all backgrounds do it."
The fact that many students lack the preparation for such coursework, he writes, indicates that elementary- and intermediate-school instruction needs to be improved, not that high-school standards should be lowered.
"If one student--for whatever reason--cannot learn algebra and geometry in two years, he should be given three, and the help he needs. But he should learn algebra and geometry."
James Madison High School is the second major report Mr. Bennett has issued on curricular reform. In 1986, he released First Lessons: A Report on Elementary Education in America, which urged that the elementary-school curriculum be remodeled.
Like the earlier report, Mr. Bennett said, James Madison High School offers guidelines for local districts, but is not "a statement of federal policy."
"I do not presume to instruct school boards, administrators, principals, teachers, or parents in the precise shape, sequence, or specialized content of their secondary-school curricula," he writes in the introduction to the report. "They know best their own requirements and problems."
"Instead," he adds, "James Madison High School is simply a statement of my considered judgment on an important subject, an attempt to deal with a question I am often asked: How would you do it? What would you teach?"
The new report follows broadly the recommendations contained in A Nation at Risk, the 1983 report by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, which helped set in motion the school-reform movement.The study, initiated by Mr. Bennett's predecessor, Terrel H. Bell, argued that "we have a cafeteria-style curriculum in which the appetizers and desserts can easily be mistaken for the main course."
But while nearly all states have strengthened graduation requirements in the wake of A Nation At Risk, Mr. Bennett said, students can still earn credits toward graduation by taking such courses as "Baja whale watching" and "rock poetry."
In contrast, James Madison's students would be required to complete a total of 36 semester units of required work. No state currently imposes the proposal's two-year foreign-language requirement, only the District of Columbia. And only 15 states mandate the year of fine-arts instruction contained in the proposal.
Other courses, such as vocational programs, could be taken as electives, Mr. Bennett said. Assuming that schools offer six classes per day, he noted, the James Madison program leaves room for 12 semester-units--a fourth of a student's four-year high-school career--for such additional coursework.
The Secretary estimated that 15 percent of American schools already have the kind of curriculum he proposes. And, in his report, he cites seven examples--ranging from affluent suburban schools, such as Shawnee Mission (Kan.) South High School and Wayland (Mass.) High School, to inner-city schools with low-income, minority student bodies, such as James A. Garfield High School in Los Angeles and Xavier Preparatory School in New Orleans. (See box on page 26.)
He added, however, that "the schools we cite in the report are not the only schools in the country that have something like the James Madison program."
"There are a lot of schools where students, if they are motivated, can get such a program," he said. "There are not enough of those students doing it."
Mr. Bennett's document makes clear, however, that simply adding required courses is not a solution.
"The time a student spends on any subject is no guarantee that he will master it," he writes. "What goes into high-school classes--their content and quality--is every bit as important as their number."
"It makes a difference whether you read Henry James or a Batman comic book," he said at the press conference.
The most extensive course requirements in the proposed curriculum are in English, which would be required for all students in every year.
"American parents want their schools to do one thing above all others: teach their children to read, write, and speak well," the report states.
To that end, the Secretary proposes instruction in writing and speaking each year, concluding with a required research paper and a substantial classroom presentation in 12th grade.
Reading lists would include "recognized masterworks of Western literature" in 9th grade, American literature in 10th grade, British literature in 11th grade, and literature from other nations in 12th grade.
He suggests that the latter could include, "depending on the instructor's knowledge and interest, a small number of works from Japan, China, the Near East, Africa, or Latin America."
In social studies, the curriculum proposes a general survey of Western civilization in 9th grade, a survey history of the United States in 10th grade, and a semester each of American government and "American Democracy and the World" in 11th grade.
"The James Madison High School history curriculum is designed to provide a solid grounding in the European and American past," he writes, adding: "Schools will want to offer a fourth year of history to students interested in advanced or supplementary topics (e.g., non-Western history and economics)."
The curriculum would also require students to take three years of math, beginning with elementary algebra and including accelerated calculus. The sequence is "relatively traditional," Mr. Bennett writes.
"It preserves the integrity of the distinct mathematical subdisciplines on the assumption that students should become knowledgeable about the rudiments of both geometric and algebraic analysis before they begin relating these two different styles of thought," according to the report.
Similarly, in science, students can choose three courses from among six options: Astronomy/Geology, Biology, Chemistry, and either Physics or "Principles of Technology."
The science courses would stress problem-solving and laboratory work, Mr. Bennett says in the report. "Science is not a blueprint for unthinking memorization."
Noting that foreign-language study improves students' knowledge about other cultures as well as their own language, Mr. Bennett proposes that all students be required to take at least two years of a second language. In addition, he recommends that, to enable all students to learn to appreciate "representative masterpieces" of Western art and music, they take a one-semester course in each discipline.
Mr. Bennett also proposes that all students take physical education and health in the 9th and 10th grades. Health classes should provide information about the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, he says, and should include sex education. The sex-education coursework would, in his words, "provide all relevant basic information about biology and physiology--the 'facts of life'--in an open, serious, and moral context, emphasizing restraint and the importance of the family."
Copies of James Madison High School: A Curriculum for American Students are available free of charge from the Office of Public Affairs, U.S. Department of Education, 400 Maryland Avenue S.W., Washington, D.C. 20202.