Bennett Presents Model Plan For K-8 Curriculum
Washington--Educators had praise last week for a model elementary-school curriculum offered by Secretary of Education William J. Bennett as his last major report before leaving office.
But they said that implementing its rigorous, content-rich design might require more and better training for teachers, improved textbook-adoption policies, and a reordering of the way instructional time is apportioned.
The Secretary's report, James Madison Elementary School: A Curriculum for American Students, promotes the early exposure of children to good literature, intensive instruction in the basic subjects, and foreign-language study beginning no later than the 4th grade.
The document expands on themes Mr. Bennett outlined in his 1986 elementary-school report, First Lessons, and serves as a companion to the James Madison High School curriculum he proposed last year.
It suggests guidelines for K-through-8 instruction in English, social studies, science, mathematics, foreign language, fine arts, and physical and health education. But it is not, Mr. Bennett said, a step in the direction of a national curriculum. (See excerpts on page 39.)
At a news conference here last week, the Secretary said that his James Madison High School report had prompted "hundreds of letters" from educators and parents asking what kind of elementary-school preparation children should receive to succeed in high school.
Weak Content Instruction
Elementary schools generally face fewer problems than American high schools, Mr. Bennett said, concluding that the education they provide is "pretty good and getting better."
But he maintained that the "absolute level of American elementary-school achievement is too low." Too many children have an insufficient knowledge of basic subjects, he said, and "American elementary schools lag well behind their foreign counterparts."
The Secretary attributed this lag, in part, to an overreliance on bland textbooks and rote drills and an underemphasis on "content" instruction--the presentation of skills, facts, and ideas in a structured sequence.
"It sometimes seems that [elementary-school] curricula are constructed on the assumption that it doesn't really matter what young children study so long as it is frivolous, unchallenging, and easily accessible," he said.
Basic Features and Landscapes
The model curriculum offered by Mr. Bennett would prepare students to read, write, and speak clearly and would acquaint them with "the varieties and qualities of fiction and nonfiction literature."
It would also cover, Mr. Bennett said, "the essential features of American and world history, the major landscapes and nations of the Earth, and the rights and obligations that belong to citizens of the United States."
The curriculum should foster proficiency in mathematics and a familiarity with algebra, he said, as well as exploration in biology, chemistry, physics, a foreign language, and the arts.
He did not recommend compartmentalizing instruction into separate classes in the early grades, noting that "disciplinary specialization must wait for later years."
"Skillful elementary-school teaching should unify the curricu-lum," he said, by "using one subject to reinforce the next, and making the content of each one come alive by calling upon the other knowledge children are acquiring."
Extra help should be supplied for children with special needs through remedial, bilingual, or special-education programs, he added, emphasizing that "children need not enter and proceed through the elementary grades in absolute lockstep."
The Secretary stressed also that his proposals should not be construed as a federal mandate, but as merely an attempt to "articulate educational goals we can all agree on, and to begin a national conversation about ways we can achieve them."
The report criticizes the use of "bland" basal readers in language-arts programs and calls for a reading program structured around classic literature beginning in the early grades.
Selections in an extensive list of recommended readings included in the report range from Hans Christian Andersen's Fairy Tales and Tales from Shakespeare by Charles and Mary Lamb to Behind the Back of the Mountain: Black Folktales from Southern Africa, by Verna Aardema, and Journey Home, by Yoshiko Uchida.
Mr. Bennett sharply criticizes standard elementary-school social-studies programs in the report, which he says follow "no logical disciplinary or chronological progression" and slight the study of history, geography, and civics in the early grades.
His proposal would introduce customs, holidays, and mapmaking in the early grades to prepare for U.S. history in the 4th and 5th grades, world history in the 6th and 7th grades, and world geography and constitutional government in the 8th grade.
In mathematics and science, the report stresses experimentation, problem solving, and hands-on learning, rather than simple computation and the reliance on "faddish ideas."
Its fine-arts curriculum is one that progresses from "enjoyment and creation" in art and music to historical study and formal criticism of artistic media.
In addition, Mr. Bennett proposes that students begin foreign-language instruction in the 4th grade and that health and fitness programs, including drug-prevention education, begin in kindergarten.
Profiled in the report are seven schools in varied locales nationwide that employ some of the approaches described in the report. (See box on this page.)
Obstacles Not Insurmountable
Mr. Bennett estimated that 25 percent to 30 percent of elementary schools already have in place a curriculum similar to his model. But he conceded that, for many schools, his plan would require more teaching time than now exists in the daily and annual calendar.
He also noted that teachers "trained as generalists at teachers' colleges that too often overlook the importance of in-depth subject-matter knowledge" may need supplemental training.
The James Madison Elementary School model also would entail the production of better school textbooks and "the imaginative use of a wider variety of alternative materials," he said.
Schools could make better use of their time, he suggested, by assigning homework, cutting down on public-address announcements and staff meetings, and easing teachers' clerical duties. He urged educators to press for the reforms needed to promote innovation.
"If new laws or textbooks seem ad8visable, we should get them. If more and better teachers or principals are called for, we should find them," he said.
Kudos and Caveats
Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, praised Secretary Bennett for focusing attention on the importance of elementary schooling. She called his curricular model a "very strong, challenging one."
Ms. Futrell noted, however, that the curriculum would demand smaller classes than most elementary schools now offer.
Gordon Cawelti, executive director of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development, also applauded the Bennett proposals for early foreign-lanugage study, fine arts, and social studies.
But he cautioned that curriculum leaders would have to make "hard choices" about what material to exclude, in view of limited instructional time. He also said many teachers lack the background to deliver strong subject-matter instruction and would need assistance, especially in teaching students who are "hard to reach intellectually."
Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, maintained that textbook-adoption policies that promote a "dumbing down" of content material must become more responsive to the choices of principals and teachers.
He added that Mr. Bennett's call for more subject-matter specialization for teachers "must not be allowed to further depreciate 'methods' courses in teaching." Teachers need strong methods classes, he said, in order to be able to reach students of varying achievement levels.
Joe H. Griffith, director of the science and technology for children project of the National Academy of Sciences, backed Mr. Bennett's ideas on science, but said that stronger teaching materials and support from school leadership would be needed to implement them.
Richard M. Long, Washington representative for the International Reading Association, praised Mr. Bennett for stressing good literature at early ages. He argued, however, that the report could have gone further to integrate writing and reading instruction and stimulate creativity and teamwork.
One pitfall of the James Madison High School curriculum Mr. Bennett proposed last year, according to Ms. Futrell, was that it focused too heavily on Western classics.
Mr. Bennett addressed that concern in the elementary-school model, she said, by including works written by minorities, by women, and by authors from different parts of the world.
Ruth Whitman, assistant director of public relations for the American Federation of Teachers, said the report complements the a.f.t.'s efforts to improve history instruction and "help youngsters grapple with issues that underlie their study of democracy."
More Inservice Training
Diane Ravitch, adjunct professor of history and education at Columbia University's Teachers College, noted that the program would require a greater commitment to inservice training in school districts and modifications in teacher-education programs.
"Generally speaking, people have not expected that they will have this much content to deal with," she said. "I think a lot of schools will find it daunting."
But the biggest obstacle schools will face in implementing such a curriculum, she predicted, will be overcoming resistance to change.
Ms. Ravitch applauded Mr. Bennett for highlighting a neglect of history in the early grades and for promoting classic literature over dry textbooks and basal readers.
She contended, however, that it would be a "disservice to associate this idea with this Administration or Mr. Bennett."
She noted, for example, that Superintendent of Public Instruction Bill Honig of California recently endorsed English textbooks that stress "real" over so-called "lo-cal" literature.
"I don't think this is a Bennett product," said Ms. Ravitch. "I think it is an idea whose time has come."
James Madison Elementary School: A Curriculum for American Students is available for $2.50 from the U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402. The stock no. is 065-000-00350-3.