Excerpts From Bennett’s Status Report on School Reform

May 04, 1988 27 min read
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Following are excerpts from “American Education: Making It Work,’' the report of Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.

Where We Stand Today

American education has made some undeniable progress in the last few years. The precipitous downward slide of previous decades has been arrested, and we have begun the long climb back to resonable standards. Our students have made modest gains in achievement. They are taking more classes in basic subjects. And the performance of our schools is slightly improved. This is the good and welcome news: we are doing better than we were in 1983.

But we are certainly not doing well enough, and we are not doing well enough fast enough. We are still at risk. The absolute level at which our improvements are taking place is unacceptably low. Too many students do not graduate from our high schools, and too many of those who do graduate have been poorly educated. Our students know too little, and their command of essential skills is too slight. Our schools still teach curricula of widely varying quality. Good schools for disadvantaged and minority children are much too rare, and the dropout rate among black and Hispanic youth in many of our inner cities is perilously high. An ethos of success is missing from too many American schools. Our teachers and principals are too often hired and promoted in ways that make excellence a matter of chance, not design. And the entire project of American education--at every level--remains insufficiently accountable for the result that matters most: student learning. ...

My judgment of the work that remains for American education is based on an appraisal of the progress and momentum of important reform measures already initiated. There are many such measures, and I will by no means deal with all of them in this report. But I identify what seem to me to be the five fundamental avenues of reform we need to pursue: strengthening content, ensuring equal intellectual opportunity, establishing an ethos of achievement, recruiting and rewarding good teachers and principals, and instituting accountability throughout our education system.

The Work Ahead

Widespread and fundamental reforms remain necessary, but their direction and content are not mysterious. Indeed, discovering what works--establishing the ideas and practices that make for effective schools--has been a signal achievement of the reform movement to date.

Scattered across the landscape of American education are hundreds--even thousands--of good examples: fine schools, outstanding teachers, courageous principals, committed governors and legislators, and eager and accomplished students of every color, class, and background. ... The success of many American schools is reason for hope and optimism. And their success should be a model and foundation for the future of education reform in America. Extending and applying the lessons of what works--to every school in every community and state in the nation--is the task that lies ahead.

Sound efforts to get the job done will enjoy wide public support. The American people endorse by overwhelming margins almost every significant school reform proposed in this report. ...

But needed reforms, however popular, will not take place overnight. Even those changes that are underway will take time to show results. And future reforms face serious obstacles. We have more than 100,000 elementary and secondary schools, and the sheer magnitude of the system creates a bureaucratic inertia that is difficult to overcome.

Above all, sound education reforms are threatened by the determined opposition they elicit. That opposition has taken various forms over the years. Early on it appeared as a form of denial--as a claim that things were not so bad as they seemed in our schools. A little later, the opposition to reform took a different tack, admitting that things might be bad, but insisting that they could not be fixed in the schools--that first “society’’ or “the system’’ must be altered. Today we tend to hear what might be called opposition by extortion, the false claim that to fix our schools will first require a fortune in new funding.

But more and more the opposition to school reform is now manifested in the narrow, self-interested exercise of political power in statehouse corridors and local school-board meetings. Almost without fail, wherever a worthwhile school proposal or legislative initiative is under consideration, those with a vested interest in the status quo will use political muscle to block reform. And too often the anti-reformers succeed.

The Louisiana Association of Business and Industry recently issued a gloomy assessment of the 10-year effort for education reform in its state: "[T]hose who tried to change the system have time and again seen reform measures watered down, ignored, not properly implemented, taken to court by teacher unions, repealed, mired down in turf battles and power struggles between public bodies, or not funded.’' Other states and districts have suffered similar obstruction and backsliding. Under teacher union pressure, the Texas legislature eliminated the subject-knowledge section of its teacher-competency exams. Alabama’s legislature, facing opposition by both administrators and the teachers’ union, abandoned that state’s teacher career ladder. The Missouri legislature is considering a bill that would bar release to the public of student achievement-test scores. A panel of superintendents and principals appointed by the governor of South Dakota recently urged that regulations governing school accreditation be weakened and that South Dakota’s new, tougher high-school graduation requirements be eliminated.

In cases like these, the organized opposition to education reform shows its power. If our schools are to improve, that power must be overcome. We know what works in education reform and we can improve our schools, even dramatically. But to do so, governors, legislators, educators, and parents must have the knowledge and tenacity to get the job done. Our children’s future depends on making American education work.

Strengthen Content

Some argue that our nation’s cultural and ethnic diversity makes it impossible to construct a core curriculum approppriate for all students and schools. They may concede that curricular deterioration is a problem, but they resist the obvious solution, believing instead that our sprawling, heterogeneous culture defies any attempt to codify an American “canon’’ of essential learning.

This view is unduly pessimistic and it is at odds with a basic tradition of American education. Our pluralism has always posed formidable challenges to our schools. But our history demonstrates that for more than two centuries American education has welcomed, accommodated, and celebrated diversity while joining our students in a cooperative undertaking. Today, still, every American child has an equal claim to a common future under common laws, enjoying common rights and charged with common responsibilities. There follows the need for common education, now and in the future. In fact, a general American consensus does exist about the most compelling ideas and books and authors our students should know. ...

Student Differences

The advocacy of a rich and rigorous core curriculum need not ignore the fact that individual students present their schools with distinctive requirements, interests, and problems. Students possess a range of abilities. There are many students who speak English as a second language, and some who speak no English at all. There are students with learning disabilities and handicaps of varying kind and severity. For these students, most school districts provide a variety of particular classes--from advanced- placement math to remedial reading, bilingual programs, and special education. These will always be provided by the local authorities who are best able to respond to their individual situations.

Recognizing student diversity, many schools “track’’ students according to ability or future aspirations. Grouping by ability, especially for specific subjects, can be a useful instructional strategy. But tracking as it is actually practiced has been shown to deliver radically different and not always appropriate content to some students.

For example, in place of the basics, vocational education too often drills students in overly specialized and frequently obsolete “job skills.’' It is not surpising, then, that a recent study of vocational education in California high schools found that “on the whole, vocational classes as currently offered ... are not demonstrably effective in helping students find jobs after they graduate, or in retraining would-be dropouts.’' In too many cases, tracking of students has involved serious neglect of fundamental content. No employer wants employees who lack basic knowledge and real skills. The personnel director of a multinational corporation recently begged a group of educators: “Will you please teach these students how to learn and how to live? We will train them.’'

Whether we address ability differences by means of grouping, by adoption of new approaches to vocational education, or through some other school restructuring, one principle should remain paramount: All children should have access to a rich common curriculum. Most American students can handle it if properly prepared. There are, of course, some children--too many, in fact--whose present preparation for high school is inadequate to the task. That is an argument for further improvements in elementary and intermediate education. It is not, however, an argument for abandoning any high- school student in the present. If one student, for whatever reason, cannot learn algebra and geometry in two years, then he should be given the additional time and help he needs. But he should learn algebra and geometry. We may vary our pedagogy to achieve our educational goals, but we must jealously retain and guard those goals: mastery of a common core of worthwhile knowledge, important skills, and sound ideals. ...


Tests are another instructional tool that needs to be improved. The problem is not testing per se; we want and need accurate assessments of student progress. Rather, the problem is tests that allow for guesswork, provide no measure of ingenuity or thinking skills, and are so one-dimensional that their scores can be improved by coaching in test-taking skills.

Test results must provide honest measures of achievement. One new study by a group called Friends of Education finds what has been termed a “Lake Wobegon Effect.’' Just an in Garrison Keillor’s mythical town, where “all the children are above average,’' the Friends of Education survey of all 50 states found that “no state is below average at the elementary level on any of the six major nationally normed, commercially available tests.’' In other words, every state in America reports itself above the national average, an impossible situation that seriously calls into question the validity and scoring of our most commonly used tests.

Models of sophisticated and accurate standardized tests do exist. A recent literacy survey by the National Assessment of Educational Progress is one example; by establishing differential levels of subject and skill competence and then fine-tuning its assessment instruments, NAEP has helped reshape the national debate on literacy by providing us far better information about our real levels of student achievement. The challenge now is to develop a new generation of tests for use at the national, state, and local levels, tests that will serve as diagnostic tools for teachers while giving parents and policymakers sound information about student achievement and school performance. ...

Ensure Equal Intellectual Opportunity

Too often we have not provided disadvantaged students with the first-class elementary and secondary education they deserve. I believe that quality education is now the central civil-rights challenge facing us today. To realize the goal of equal opportunity generally, we must provide our students with equal intellectual opportunity in school.

Access to Quality

Striking evidence exists that the higher educational expectations associated with school reform have especially benefited students from minority and disadvantaged backgrounds...

Still, wide ethnic and racial gaps remain on most measures of student achievement, and persistent differences in the academic programs that are offered to our students may help to explain why. Most American students study similar subjects in high school, but they do not yet study these subjects in the same depth. Consider the important case of high-school mathematics. Just about all students graduating in 1987 took some math, but not all of them pursued the subject past basic levels. Asian students were three times as likely as blacks and Hispanics to have taken a 3-year math program that included geometry and trigonometry. And black and Hispanic students were about twice as likely as whites to be in remedial classes.

Our schools cannot afford to provide an inferior academic program to those of our students who most need improved educational opportunity. And we needn’t accept this double standard when there are many American schools that are providing disadvantaged and minority children with first-rate instruction. ... We need more of them, and we need to face squarely and honestly the real obstacles preventing us from getting them.

False Obstacles

Demographic changes are often cited as excuses for instructional failure or as impediments to needed education reform. ...

In some quarters these statistics become grounds for a pessimism that says some children can’t learn because their color, class, or family background gets in the way. By these lights, efforts to restore high standards and high expectations look foolhardy, even mean-spirited. For example, one state school superintendent opposed curriculum improvements last year by saying: “We will have taken the high jump and raised it from five to six feet for a group of youngsters that couldn’t jump it at five feet without extra help.’'

Such defeatism ultimately harms those whose best interests it claims to serve. The statistical and demographic trends adduced as evidence are incomplete and, in the final analysis, unpersuasive. In most respects, in fact, available data describe a student population different only by degree and detail from that which our schools have long served. For example:

  • The increase in public-school enrollments expected in the coming decade pales before that produced by the post-war “baby boom’’ of the 1950’s and 1960’s. An all-time high of 46.1 million students was registered 17 years ago in 1971, and we will not surpass it at any time in the foreseeable future.
  • Minorities already comprise 28 percent of America’s school-age population. The slight increase in the figure expected by the year 2000 hardly constitutes a radical change in classroom composition.
  • The estimated impact of current and future immigration on our schools is dwarfed by historical precedent. In 1909, according to the U.S. Commission on Immigration, “57.8 percent of the pupils attending schools in thirty-seven of the big cities were either foreign-born or were children of immigrants.’' Yet our schools educated them.

Yes, we face large challenges. Children from troubled families, troubled neighborhoods, and impoverished circumstances have a longer and more arduous road to travel.

But in the past, our schools have served classrooms full of the poor, the rich, and the in-between; they have welcomed the children of slaves and immigrants; and they have taught well through war, depressions, and civil unrest. They can teach well today and in the years ahead despite the demographic changes we expect. Apocalyptic analyses and Chicken Little stories about an onrushing wave of “unteachable’’ students should be rejected. In fact, the analyses and stories themselves--and the attitudes they reveal--belong at the top of any short list of real problems now facing American education.

What’s To Be Done

Mastering a solid curriculum isn’t easy for any student, and for disadvantaged youngsters it may take more learning time and creative teaching strategies. The essential point is that all have a chance at rich and fulfilling learning. According to Patricia A. Graham, dean of Harvard’s Graduate School of Education: “Historically, when we felt obligated to teach children to whom academic learning did not come easily, we modified the curriculum to make it easier for them to learn. ... That tactic needs to be changed. ... The curriculum, filled with the subjects that do endure and do enlighten a child, needs to remain. The means of teaching it to all children will vary.’'

And since decisions about what coursework students take--and how hard they study--rest to a great extent with students themselves, we need to pay attention to factors that may encourage them to make unwise desisions. In her study of an inner-city high school, anthropologist Signithia Fordham made several troubling discoveries about why some black students avoided Advanced Placement and Gifted and Talented courses: "[The courses] were perceived to be beyond their career and job expectations; they were ‘protected’ by the school administrators and counselors from the detrimental effects of failure and consequently the rewards of success; and they lack the support of a peer group to buffer them from the accusations of ‘acting white.’''

These findings present parents and educators with a serious challenge. Nothing influences learning so much as attitudes and beliefs about what produces it. Educational achievement by students comes of clear purpose, high expectations, strong and persistent teaching, and hard work. But achievement can be torpedoed by the idea that it is mostly a matter of luck, wealth, or native ability--an idea altogether too prevalent in American education today. “We expect too little of our children, are too easily satisfied, and don’t really believe in the power of hard work,’' one leading research recently concluded.

The problem can begin at home. A forthcoming comparative study by Harold Stevenson and his colleagues at the University of Michigan makes some interesting points about cultural attitudes associated with learning. American mothers, they found, tend to believe more than Japanese and Chinese mothers that school success is the result of innate ability. They also tend to be relatively complacent about disappointing academic performance. It is no accident, then, that Japanese and Chinese students outperform their American counterparts on a wide range of skill and subject-matter assessments. “The importance of hard work is diminished to the degree that parents believe that native ability is a basis for accomplishment,’' Stevenson writes.

When such hands-in-the-air resignation about achievement is reinforced by school administrators--who ought to know better--our national effort to provide equal intellectual opportunity to all our students is undermined. “Holding this belief,’' Stevenson continues, “provides an excuse for offering some children less challenging curricula and making fewer demands for their mastery of the material.’' The instinctive reaction of too many school leaders to criticism of their students’ performance is to point at the students themselves--at their color or class or family background--on the unstated assumption that such factors by themselves explain educational failure.

It cannot be said too many times: Though there are now too many schools that fail to teach well, there is rarely anything “unteachable’’ about their students. As Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has argued: “If we adjust class content up or down to the differences students come to us with, we will perpetuate those differences. If we expect all students to master a rich common core curriuclum, there will still be differences, but they will be far narrower.’'

Recruit And Reward Good Teachers And Principals

The most important determinant of a school’s ethos is its staff. In any enterprise, whether manufacturing automoblies or teaching children, success depends upon competent personnel and able management. In education, as in business, the way to build a staff of outstanding professionals is to search broadly for talent, hire those who are best able to do the job, and then offer rewards and advancement to individuals who perform well. Those who fail to measure up should be given the opportunity to improve; those who don’t, should be shown the door. Teachers and principals should be given wide latitude and responsibility to do the best job they possibly can, and should then be held accountable for their students’ performance.

Though all this may seem like common sense, it is far from common practice in most school systems. We cannot expect our schools to improve, nor our children to achieve, so long as we adhere to a hiring and promotion system that rewards longevity over performance; that puts more stock in paper credentials than in knowledge, energy, and enthusiasm; and that pretends good teachers and good principals are found only among graduates of schools of education. ...

Opening the Profession. What are the attributes of a good teacher? First, a thorough knowledge of the subject he or she proposes to teach. Second, the ability and desire to communicate that knowledge to students. And third, sound character. These attributes are to be found in individuals from many walks of life--they include, but are by no means limited to, graduates of education schools. It makes mo sense to erect artificial barriers to the teaching profession when we need all the talented, energetic individuals we can find. ...

Demonstrated Competence. Parents must have confidence in the knowledge and abilities of their children’s teachers. We should test current teachers as well as new teachers for competency, and the tests must be demanding enough to screen out those who have no business in our classrooms. ...

Paper-and-pencil tests for teachers are necessary, but they are not sufficient guarantors of instructional competence. Regular evaluations of actual teaching performance, carried out in the classroom by peers and administrators, need to become part of the management routine of every school. Done well, they not only identify teachers in need of improvement, but also provide part of the basis for well-functioning career ladders, for merit pay, and other rewards for teaching well.

Pay for Performance. It has been true for too long that the best and brightest of America’s college graduates look askance at teaching as a possible career. In surveys of college freshmen, most of those declaring an intention to teach have been students with below-average test scores. Our schoolchildren deserve better.

If we want to attract the best people to teaching, and keep the good teachers we already have, we must begin paying not simply for seniority or paper credentials, but for actual performance--for how well our teachers teach and for how much their students learn. Until good teachers are paid more than bad ones, our efforts to improve teaching and learning will be frustrated. ...

Getting Good Principals

... Good schools have good principals--leaders who articulate clear goals, leaders who show the ability and authority necessary to get teachers and students working toward those goals.

At present, good principals are far too rare. Too many of our principals are ill-trained as leaders; too few are given the full administrative authority they need; and too many avoid initiative and risk-taking. Many also seem estranged from the concerns of the parents they are supposed to serve. ...

We need more good principals, and to get them we must look beyond customary sources of recruitment. We must provide our principals with better training, we must give them far greater school authority--and then we must hold them accountable for our children’s success.

Recruiting Talent. Nearly 40 percent of current public-school principals say they will leave their jobs over the next five years--a golden opportunity for American education to open the profession to all those who have the necessary interest and ability. First Lessons, the Department’s 1986 report on elementary education, suggested such a “deregulation’’ of the principalship, and proposed that we consider for top school jobs not only exceptionally able working educators but also men and women who have demonstrated leadership in other fields. Not unexpectedly, that suggestion was scorned by principals’ organizations. Yet some months later, New York City’s Commission on the Year 2000 essentially reiterated the proposal, saying “the pool from which principals are chosen should be opened up to managers from other fields, including business, higher education, and government.’' ...

Better Training. Whether they come from teaching or other professions, principals need better training then most now get. The California Commission on the Teaching Profession properly criticized the manner in which teachers amass credits toward a principal’s job: “Current training for an administrative credential is hopelessly inadequate, depending on a collection of courses spread over several years on the margin of the teacher’s work day.’' According to the National Governors’ Association, principals themselves have testified to the shortcomings of their training, and a recent survey has documented the problem further: while 25 percent of public school principals rate their own training as “excellent,’' fully 74 percent believe it to have been only “pretty good’’ or “fair.’'

More Authority. Today, the principalship of an ordinary school in a sizable school system is not so much a leadership position as a middle-management job attained through increments of seniority and credentialism. Most principals have little power to hire and fire teachers, to manage their own budgets, or to solicit school grants from foundations or other government agencies. ...

Yet despite their lack of authority, principals are not, as a group, demanding more of it. Fifty-five percent think that insufficient authority to manage their school is “not a problem or obstacle.’' Asked if they would want greater decision-making autonomy combined with accountablility for results, more than one-third said no.

Those aren’t right answers. Someone needs to be responsible for the performance of our schools, and principals--as their chief executive officers--are the logical choice. Real educational responsibility demands the authority to make decisions about school budgets and personnel. Good principals want that authority. Principals who don’t may be in the wrong line of work. ...

Institute Accountability: Spending Wisely

... In truth, we are spending enough on education to do the job well. The trouble is not our level of investment; rather, it is the low rate of return we get for it.

Numerous studies confirm the commonsense proposition that money alone cannot buy quality education. Overall education spending correlates only weakly with student achievement. But spending, if on items only tangentially related to the instructional mission of our schools, can and does affect educational quality--negatively.

Learning happens primarily in the classroom, so it stands to reason that money spent for improvements in learning should be directed first to teachers, books, and necessary technology. Ironically, however, as the United States has in recent years raised and spent unprecedented revenues for education, the proportion of school spending actually devoted to classroom instruction has declined. While total instructional expenditures per pupil went up 64 percent between 1960 and 1980, spending on administration and other non-instructional matters rose 107 percent. The number of non-classroom instructional personnel in our school systems grew by 400 percent between 1960 and 1984. And during those years, money spent on teachers’ salaries dropped from over 56 percent to under 41 percent of total elementary- and secondary-school spending. Too much money has been diverted from the classroom; a smaller share of the school dollar is now being spent on student classroom instruction than at any time in recent history.

It should be a basic goal of the education-reform movement to reverse this trend toward administrative bloat and to reduce the scale of the bureaucratic “blob’’ draining our school resources. Future educationl reform will require better spending of our education dollars. ...

But problems with inefficient educational allocations are not limited to any one city or just a few states. The federal government also has a responsibility to ensure that the billions it spends on education include reasonable guarantees of accountability. For example, under programs funded by Chapter 1, the nation’s $4 billion compensatory-education program, the Department of Education has proposed rewarding effective efforts and requiring ineffective ones to improve. In drug education, the department has proposed legislation whereby schools would not receive money year after year if their programs did not succeed in reducing student drug use. Similarly, Americans should not be expected to pay for vocational-education programs whose students fail to learn basic skills or are left unprepared to work in fields for which they have been trained.

Today, budget increases urged in the name of education reform are commonplace. In some cases they may be necessary. But we must not allow the easy satisfaction of spending money for a good cause to divert us from our equally important obligation to ensure that it is spent well. At all levels of American education, we must target and channel our generosity to make schools more accountable for results.

Providing Choice

In a free-market economy, those who produce goods and services are ultimately answerable to the consumer; if quality is shoddy, the consumer will buy someone else’s product. It doesn’t work that way in public education, however. Even when armed with adequate information about school quality, parents in most places around the country cannot choose to shift their child from a bad to a good one.

Still, the idea of choice--allowing parents greater flexibility to determine which schools their children will attend--has lately been gaining public favor, despite opposition from much of the organized education establishment. ...

Monitoring Productivity

There can be no accountability without accurate information for evaluation. Principals have to know whether a teacher is teaching well. Superintendents need reliable information on district attendance, dropout rates, and student achievement. Governors and state legislators need to know where and how well their education budgets are being spent. Parents need ready access to student-performance data when trying to determine which school has the best program for their children.

For a system of accountability to work well, we need to monitor the productivity of our schools. But a recent survey shows that in many states, it is virtually impossible for ordinary citizens to get good information on how well their schools are performing. Of the 44 states that have provisions for student achievement testing, only 14 report school-level results to parents and the general public. ...

Rewarding Success

Rewarding excellence is a commonsense management principle too often ignored in our schools and communities. Recognizing and rewarding extraordinary school employees is one of the most important and direct ways of instituting increased accountability. American schools are blessed with many dedicated men and women who share their great talent and affection with our children. For these people, fair salaries, merit pay, or some form of career ladder are not special rewards, but simply what is reasonable and what is due.

American education should make special efforts to recognize success--to celebrate exemplary schools and educators. ...

But while we are rewarding success, we must at the same time hold incompetent teachers and unsuccessful administrators fully accountable. They should be given opportunities to improve, but if they do not improve they should be dismissed. Until schools are free to hire the best and fire the worst, other important reforms will be stymied.


We have all heard the arguments of those who believe education reform will fail--that it will take much more steadfastness that the American people possess; much more money than we are willing to pay; or a more fundamental transformation of society than we are willing to bring about.

I reject these arguments. American education can be made to work better, and it can be made to work better now. Every reform measure recommended in this report is already in palce and working today in various schools, communities, and states. They ca be replicated in most, quite possibly all, of our 50 states, 16,000 [sic] school districts, and more than 100,000 schools. And this work can be done soon. ...

A version of this article appeared in the May 04, 1988 edition of Education Week as Excerpts From Bennett’s Status Report on School Reform


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