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Bell Challenges U.S. To Put Learning First

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Washington--Until Americans value academic achievement more than athletic prowess, education reform cannot succeed, former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell warned at a Jan. 22 press conference here that included an appeal to the next President to lead the effort to create a "learning society."

"We need a change in attitude and in the priorities of our people," Mr. Bell said. "We need to become more education-conscious and learning-oriented, and that's where I think our leaders can help us."

Mr. Bell is touring to promote his new book, but in his appearance here discussed his reform agenda more than The Thirteenth Man, his memoir of life in the Reagan Cabinet. (See Education Week, Oct. 28, 1987.)

There is something wrong with a society that values muscle more than intellect, Mr. Bell said.

"We're so preoccupied with athletics and physical prowess in our country and that's rewarded," he said. "Why are our children willing to spend two to three hours a day [at athletic practice]? Because we've hyped it so much."

"That's not going to help our country," he continued. "I like sports and I don't denigrate athletics, but where are the rewards in other areas?"

Low Achievers Not Served

While the education-reform movement has improved overall educational quality, Mr. Bell said, it has not adequately addressed the problems of low achievers.

"We have made progress and shown significant improvements in American education for the 60 to 70 percent that stay in school and graduate," he said, but the "number one domestic-affairs problem in the country" is the plight of the other 30 to 40 percent.

This is not a new problem, he said, but "the consequences of failure are more dire than they have ever been because of the economic realities we face."

"The problem has to be attacked by all of us," he added, "but the leadership has to emanate from the Oval Office."

He urged that the next President give to educational improvement the kind of leadership Harry S. Tru8man gave to the rebuilding of Europe and John F. Kennedy gave to America's competitiveness in space.

President Reagan has not done enough to boost education, he charged, and none of the current Presidential candidates has gone beyond platitudes to voice a vigorous education agenda.

He added, however, that he knows from personal conversations with Vice President George Bush and past dealings with Senator Paul Simon, Democrat of Illinois, that they are at least "committed" to aiding education.

In addition to promoting a change in American attitudes, Mr. Bell suggested, the next President should also call a conference at which governors, state and federal legislators, college presidents, and precollegiate educators can discuss the problems facing education and formulate solutions.

He also advocated more funding for Head Start, the Chapter 1 compensatory-education program, and the Job Corps, and seconded calls by his successor as Secretary, William J. Bennett, for more accountability in such programs.--jm

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