Four Former Secretaries Each Put Own Spin on What Ails Schools

By Julie A. Miller — November 20, 1991 7 min read
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The four former secretaries of education who met here for an unprecedented panel discussion earlier this month may have occupied the same office, but they took from it divergent views on what ails the U.S. education system.

While the four agreed that the nation must focus more of its attention on education, they could concur on little else.

The speakers, who spoke on Nov. 8 at a meeting organized by the College Board as part of a conference, are the only four to have held the secretary’s post, other than the current secretary Lamar Alexander, since the U.S. Education Department was created in May 1980.

Shirley M. Hufstedler, the first education secretary and the only one to hold the post in a Democratic administration, argued that the most significant problems facing the nations schools are poor districts’ lack of resources, disadvantaged children who arrive at school malnourished and unprepared, and low salaries and poor working conditions for teachers.

William J. Bennett, who served from 1985 to 1988 under President Reagan, argued in his familiar combative style that the U.S. education system needs higher standards, more accountability for results, and rewards for excellence, not more money.

Lauro F. Cavazos, who succeeded Mr. Bennett and who was then retained for two years by President Bush, said the most significant problem is that “the American people still don’t acknowledge that we have a massive problem in education.”

Terrel H. Bell, Mr. Reagan’s first education secretary, agreed at times with each of his colleagues, prescribing greater public awareness and parental responsibility, more spending in certain areas, and also greater accountability through assessment.

While the three Republican appointees supported parts of President Bush’s education strategy, they spent no time touting it, and no one disagreed when Mr. Bell said that Mr. Bush had not yet lived up to his promise to be the “education President.”

Charlayne Hunter-Gault, a correspondent for the MacNeil/Lehrer NewsHour, moderated the discussion, which is to be broadcast Dec. 5 on public-television stations.

Though each of the former secretaries was given a chance to respond to each of Ms. Hunter-Gault’s questions, the debate was dominated by Mr. Bennett, who is known for his acerbic style, and Ms. Hufstedler, who answered him in kind.

Barbed Exchanges

One such exchange began as Ms. Hufstedler asserted that “school finance is an unholy zoo,” and that “the main problem with poor school districts is that they don’t have any money.”

“The problem is not that enough money isn’t spent on the system as a whole,” she said, responding to Mr. Bennett’s point that overall spending had risen.

Ms. Hufstedler ended her remarks by noting that large sums of money had been spent bailing out the Chrysler Corporation and failed savings-and-loan institutions.

Mr. Bennett responded by pointing out that the scores of disadvantaged populations have been rising, and that poor students from some Asian immigrant groups have done particularly well.

He also argued that it would be impossible to equalize funding because wealthy communities could not be prevented from spending more, and that parochial schools have achieved better results with less money than is spent in some public schools.

Ms. Hufstedler said a comparison between parochial and public schools “isn’t a particularly helpful one,” ending her description of their differences by saying: “You can’t expect lay teachers to do it for the love of God.”

Mr. Bennett responded, ‘Many do, and we should thank God for that.”

“Thanking God isn’t enough when we have so much to do here on Earth,” Ms. Hufstedler said.

Mr. Bennett changed the subject, to the idea of merit pay for teachers.

“I think good teachers should make more, and bad teachers should make zero,” he said. “I don’t think there should be any bad teachers,” Ms. Hufstedler said.

No Enthusiasm for Bush

Ms. Hunter-Gault did not specifically ask the participants about the America 2000 education strategy drafted by Mr. Alexander, but Mr. Bell raised the subject.

“I have concerns about waiting until the year 2000 to get this done,” Mr. Bell said. “We ought to talk about what we’re going to do in 1992.”

“I don’t mean to denigrate” Mr. Alexander’s program, he said, “But we can’t wait for new American schools. We have thousands of kids hurting for quality education now.”

Mr. Bennett agreed: “As I told Secretary Alexander, we don’t have to wait for the year 2000. We know what works.”

Mr. Bennett listed what he views as the characteristics of an effective school, including a strong principal, high standards, discipline, and “a focus on the academic mission.”

Mr. Cavazos and Ms. Hufstedler did not comment.

As for Mr. Bush himself, nobody contradicted Mr. Bell when he said it is too early for him to claim the title of “education President.”

“He’s done more than any other President,” Mr. Bell said, “But he has to be obsessive, or [education] won’t stay up on the national agenda.”

There was, not surprisingly, considerable disagreement on one keystone of Mr. Bush’s program: support for choice programs that allow parents to use public funds to send children to private schools.

Mr. Bennett argued that choice would force bad schools to emulate good ones in order to remain open.

Mr. Cavazos added: “In every other phase of life in America we have choice. At least it’s a better chance. What we have now isn’t working.”

But Ms. Hufstedler, arguing that it is inappropriate to apply market forces to education, as “children are not commodities,” said, “I profoundly disagree with the concept [of choice] as it has been presented.”

Mr. Bell said a choice system including private schools would have to include rules that ensure a “level playing field.” That way, he said, public schools could compete fairly and prevent disadvantaged children from becoming isolated in poor schools.

“We’ve worked hard to desegregate America’s schools, and we need requirements to prevent us from slipping back to where we were,” Mr. Bell said. “Free and unfettered choice would be a disaster, in my opinion.”

Views on Testing

Opinion was also mixed on national testing, another important component of the Bush agenda.

“It’s just human nature that, when performance is measured, performance improves,” Mr. Bell said, noting proudly that he inaugurated “the now-infamous ‘wall chart,’” which compiled state education-performance statistics.

Mr. Cavazos said that he is opposed to “a national test that measures everyone like a big, flat blanket,” but that he supports greater use of assessment at the state and local levels.

Ms. Hufstedler said she fears a national test would be used as “an instrument of counting,” rather than “an instrument of learning.”

In Mr. Bennett’s view, “The reason there’s so much intellectual agonizing about testing is the results are so bad. If the results were good, people would say ‘good instrument.’”

“It’s not an assessment of someone’s soul; it’s an assessment of whether they can do basic academics,” he continued. “If the results aren’t good, don’t break the thermometer.”

“That’s not exactly my objection,” Ms. Hufstedler responded.

“Whoever’s objection it is ought to feel bad,” Mr. Bennett said.

“In that respect, I have no sense of shame,” Ms. Hufstedler said.

Mr. Bennett and Ms. Hufstedler engaged in their final sharp debate after Mr. Bennett asserted that colleges and universities should “evaluate whether what they’re involved in is ‘higher education.’”

“There need to be consequences,” he said. “Students know that whether they study or not, they are going to get into college anyway.”

“I wonder if you find the development of a system of community colleges to be unfortunate,” Ms. Hufstedler said.

“I may have to leave now, but l don’t think you should let in people who are at a 6th-grade level of literacy,” Mr. Bennett said. “That is not giving them opportunity, that is lying to them.”

The Secretarial Role

In response to Ms. Hunter-Gault’s final question, all four participants agreed that the secretary’s primary role is to keep education issues in the national spotlight.

Mr. Cavazos, who was asked to resign by White House officials, acknowledged that he had not been successful.

“I’m convinced about one thing now,” he said. “This nation didn’t hear me, what I had to say about those poor minority kids.”

“Ill had to do it over, I would do it the same way, but I would talk louder,” Mr. Cavazos said.

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A version of this article appeared in the November 20, 1991 edition of Education Week as Four Former Secretaries Each Put Own Spin on What Ails Schools


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