Bennett: Public Schools Haven’t Earned an ‘A’

By Lynn Olson & Kirsten Goldberg — April 13, 1988 4 min read
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U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett has provided a preview of his forthcoming “status report’’ on American schools five years after the release ofA Nation at Risk.

His update of that landmark critique will conclude that the nation’s education system “is getting a little bit better, but it is nowhere near where it should be,’' Mr. Bennett said in a recent speech before the National School Boards Association.

Milton Goldberg, the key Education Department official coordinating the new study, offered a similar preview last week at the annual meeting of the National Catholic Educational Association in New York.
President Reagan asked Mr. Bennett to prepare the updated report. It is slated for release April 26--the date on which the National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its influential 1983 report warning that schools were threatened by a “rising tide of mediocrity.’'

In his address to the NSBA at its annual convention in New Orleans last month, the Secretary acknowledged that “a lot has changed’’ in education since then.

But he expressed disappointment that the reform efforts inspired in part by A Nation at Risk had not produced greater results. And he listed a number of topics--from providing more autonomy for school principals to stepping up the war against drugs--to which he said reformers should give more attention.

‘Unabashed Advocate’

Mr. Bennett told the school-board members that he was an “unabashed advocate’’ for public schools. But he added: “I have not been willing to cover over their deficiencies.’'

He said that “there is no point giving an A ... to American public education when too many of our children are being failed in our schools.’'

In particular, Mr. Bennett pointed to the low performance of American students on international comparisons of science and mathematics achievement.

He also said there was little evidence that the creation since 1965 of some 260 federal programs to serve “at risk’’ youngsters had left children “in terribly better shape.’'

“Good’’ schools, which have shown they can succeed with at-risk pupils, should be given greater opportunities to do so, the Secretary said. That includes providing more education at the preschool level if that is what parents wish, he added.


The Secretary said that, among other recommendations, his report would urge that:

  • Principals be given greater autonomy and authority to run schools, but be held to a higher standard of accountability for results.
  • Principals be allowed “greater latitude’’ in hiring and firing personnel. “We have got to give that instrument, that authority, to principals,’' Mr. Bennett said.
  • Parents be given a greater voice in choosing their children’s schools. “Choice within the public system has now become an idea that I think most people agree to,’' the Secretary said. “It’s an idea that’s working.’'
  • The drug problem in schools be addressed persistently and consistently. “There’s not much point in talking about serious educational reform if you have a serious drug problem in your schools,’' Mr. Bennett said, “and we do have a serious drug problem in our schools.’'
  • Educators continue their discussions about improving the quality of the teaching force.

“I believe that we have for the most part a competent teaching force,’' Mr. Bennett said, “but I believe it’s important to open up the teaching profession to qualified people whatever their educational background may be, provided they can demonstrate their competence in subject matter, their good character, and their ability to communicate with young people.’'

Further Details

In his appearance before the Catholic educators, Mr. Goldberg--who heads the department’s programs for the improvement of practice--echoed and added a number of details to the Secretary’s assessment.

He credited the school-reform movement with producing a shift in the perception of what constitutes “equity’’ in education.

“Equity in America has meant providing equal access to education,’' he said. “But now the issue is more one of equal access to a quality education.’'

He noted that the percentage of high-school students taking “core’’ academic courses had increased “considerably’’ over the past five years. Mr. Bennett’s report, he said, will contain data on this increase for both public and private schools.

But, he added, “while students appear to be taking more academic courses, the reflection in actual achievement is not clear.’'
Student achievement as measured by national tests has been “moving upward’’ since 1983, Mr. Goldberg said, “but not for all populations or in all subject areas.’'

And the effects of any reforms will be transient, he warned, “unless there is a clear relationship between school achievement and the school’s future.’' He cited New Jersey’s plan for state takeovers of “academically bankrupt’’ school districts as a move in that direction.

In general, Mr. Goldberg said, the prospects for reform are good.

“Unlike past reform efforts, this is truly a reform movement, involving business, the press, lay people, as well as educators,’' he said.

And he cited the “unusual role being played by politicians,’' noting that education now ranks at the top of the list of state concerns and has enjoyed “an enormous increase’’ in state funding in recent years.


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