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“What Works!: Research About Teaching and Learning” will counter the “dopey” educational trends of the 1960’s and 1970’s and confirm for parents and teachers the wisdom of “commonsense” prescriptions for improving their schools, Secretary of Education William J. Bennett said last week.
After a 20-minute White House ceremony with President Reagan publicizing the 65-page booklet’s release, Mr. Bennett answered questions at a news briefing about the purpose of the document, which stresses the importance of parental involvement in a child’s education, states that “children improve their reading ability by reading a lot,” and includes 40 other plainly worded assertions about schooling.
“You cannot underestimate the degree of dopiness m educational theory and practice” in the 1960’s and 1970’s, Mr. Bennett said. Among those educational practices, according to the Secretary, were open classrooms, the de-emphasis of history in and the removal of American “heroes” from the curricula, and the focus on “values clarification.”
He called “What Works,” which cost $120,000 for 100,000 copies, “a counter-offensive on behalf of commonsense.”
“What Works,” prepared by the Education Department’s research office, synthesizes commonly accepted conclusions from education research, and is written in direct and simple language. It is divided into three sections: home, classroom, and school.
Two more versions of “What Works” are also planned by the department. One will concentrate on discipline, the other on drug education-both topics of interest at the White House. The President often emphasize’ the importance of discipline in schools, and Nancy Reagan has become a national spokesman I against youth drug abuse.
White House Ceremony
“This little booklet, small by Washington standards, contains more practical, useful information than a mountain of most government documents,” President Reagan said at the March 4 White House ceremony attended by 250 invited guests.
He quoted its recommendations on the value of discipline, the importance of students’ character, the benefits of high standards and rigorous curricula, and the importance of homework.
And in an exchange prepared shortly before the ceremony and performed at its end, Mr. Bennett prompted Mr. Reagan to recite the poem “The Cremation of Sam McGee” to illustrate the importance of memorization.
Mr. Bennett asked the President if he knew what followed the line, “There are strange things done in the midnight sun.”
“By the men who moil for gold,” the President replied haltingly.
“The Arctic trails have their secret tales,” continued the Secretary.
“That would make your blood run cold,” Mr. Reagan continued.
Mr. Bennett called the booklet “easily the most important educational report since ‘A Nation at Risk’” was released in 1983.
The report is directed at parents, teachers, and local decisionmakers, and not national policymakers and education “experts,” he said. At the briefing, Mr. Bennett commented, “We’re talking to the people we’re supposed to be talking to.”
“Given the abuse that common sense has taken in recent decades, particularly in the field of education,” said the Secretary, “it is no small contribution if research can play a role in restoring more common sense to American education. As George Orwell observed, there are times when the first duty of intelligent people is the restatement of the obvious.”
After the briefing, reporters asked why the booklet does not address at least two subjects that are increasingly being considered by state and local policymakers: the role of computers in schools and early-childhood education.
Lack of Consensus
They were omitted because there is no research consensus on these topics, according to Herbert J. Walberg, professor of education at the University of Illinois-Chicago Circle, who was the booklet’s principal outside reviewer.
Indeed, many researchers have expressed concern that states’ policymaking on early-childhood education has been based on slim research.
But in computer education, one firm consensus appears to be that teaching students to program computers will not improve problem-solving skills in other disciplines, according to the Washington-based Center for Research Into Practice.
Mr. Bennett added that “What Works” reinforces the federal government’s fundamental responsibility “to supply accurate and reliable information to the American people.”
The federal budget for research and statistics-gathering, however, has shrunk dramatically in recent years, rendering policymaking and program evaluation increasingly difficult, according to the General Accounting Office.
The G.A.O., a Congressional agency, recently reported that the constant-dollar budget for the National Institute of Education (now the office of research within the office of educational research and improvement) fell by 76 percent between 1973 and 1984, and by 50 percent under the Reagan Administration.Similarly, the constant-dollar budget for education statistics declined by 28 percent between 1980 and 1984, the G.A.O. found.
The reactions of educators to the new Education Department document were generally unenthusiastic last week.
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, “commended” the Administration for its “common-sense suggestions.
“They might be common sense but they’re not necessarily commonplace” in schools, commented Laurie Garduque, a spokesman for the American Educational Research Association.
But Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association, in a statement, chided the department for giving common sense notions such a high profile.
An N.E.A. spokesman, Howard Carroll, commented that the report “ignores” and “distorts” the educational problems of the 1980’s, such as a growing class of impoverished children.
Others noted that the report ignores the impact of federal initiatives such as Head Start and compensatory education.
But Mr. Bennett said officials had received 14,000 inquiries the day after the first story appeared about “What Works,” and the department plans to print another 100,000 copies.
A free copy of “What Works” is available from the Consumer Information Center, Pueblo, Colo. 81009. For further information, call toll-free: 1-800-424-1616.
A version of this article appeared in the March 12, 1986 edition of Education Week