Bennett Launches Major New Study Of Early Grades

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Washington--Secretary of Education William J. Bennett, proclaiming 1985-86 the "Year of the Elementary School," last week announced the appointment of a 21-member study group to assess the current state of primary education.

The group's findings will form the basis of a major report on the condition of elementary education that Mr. Bennett said he will issue next year.

The Secretary also announced that the Education Department will recognize exemplary elementary schools next year--as it has secondary schools during the past few years. In subsequent years, Mr. Bennett said, the department will alternate elementary- and secondary-school recognition projects.

"Let us do all that we can this year to remind this nation that the time our children spend in elementary school is crucial to almost everything they will do for the rest of their lives," Mr. Bennett said in a speech to the National Association of Elementary School Principals.

The Secretary's announcement comes at a time when educators are beginning to scrutinize more closely the importance of the early grades in children's development.

Two major studies have been launched recently to analyze the components of elementary and preschool education. One will be conducted by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching, the other by the Bank Street College of Education and the Wellesley College Center for Research on Women. (See Education Week, Oct. 2, 1985.)

In recent months, Mr. Bennett has begun to emphasize the importance of elementary-level schooling. "The only educational setting more important than yours is the home and family," he told elementary-school principals in a July speech.

At that time, he floated the idea of launching a major national study on the primary grades. But he said he was wary of producing a sequel to "A Nation at Risk"--the study on secondary schools initiated by former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell and credited by many with providing the stimulus for the national school-reform movement.

"I would hate to see us produce a 'Rocky II' that was not as good as "Rocky I,"' he said then.

Samuel G. Sava, executive director of naesp, said he is "extremely pleased" by the Secretary's initiative.

"Ever since 'A Nation at Risk' came out, the emphasis has been on secondary education," said Mr. Sava. "It perpetuated the myth that true education begins at the high-school level."

Focus Must Shift

Mr. Bennett, in his speech last week, said that "it was fitting and proper for the 'excellence movement' to concern itself initially with high school" because evidence indicated that students in those grades "more often encountered difficulty."

But two trends now favor a shift of focus toward the elementary schools, he explained.

One trend is demographic. By 1992, said the Secretary, there will be 4 million more elementary-school students than there are now. Schools will be hiring "hundreds of thousands of new teachers in the next few years," he said.

Moreover, said Mr. Sava, the increasing number of children from single-parent families and a widening "achievement gap" among students from differing socioeconomic, ethnic, and family backgrounds require a careful re-examination of how elementary schools function.

An additional trend requiring such an examination, Mr. Bennett said, is the decline in academic performance recorded in the recent results of the National Assessment of Educational Progress. "The performance of elementary-school children is not improving as it should," said the Secretary. "After almost a decade of significant gains in reading proficiency, the average scores of 9- and 13-year-olds have leveled off."

According to Mr. Sava, a further initiative by Mr. Bennett in this area is the department's effort to improve the dissemination of research on elementary schools. The office of educational research and improvement, said Mr. Sava, is working to develop a synthesis of existing elementary-school research, similar to the widely praised report on literacy, "Becoming a Nation of Readers."

Study Group

The 21-member group that will advise Mr. Bennett is scheduled to meet here for the first time this week. It will hold three additional meetings before the Secretary issues his "findings and recommendations" next summer.

The study group on elementary education includes, in addition to teachers and school administrators, representatives from business,higher-education, journalism, the clergy, pediatrics, and state government.

The 21 members are:

Jeane Chall, professor of education, Harvard University; Daniel Cheever Jr., president, Wheelock College, Boston; Lois Coit, journalist, Palo Alto, Calif.; John Curnutte, assistant professor of pediatrics, University of Michigan; Charles Glenn, director, equal employment opportunity, Massachusetts Department of Education; Cecil Good, executive director, office of instructional technology, Detroit Public Schools; Liller Green, principal, Ivy Leaf School, Philadelphia; Arthur Gunther, president and chief executive officer, Pizza Hut Restaurants, Wichita, Kan.; Jo Gusman, teacher, grades 2-3, Newcomer School, San Franciso; Michael Joyce, executive director, John M. Olin Foundation, New York City; Rita Kramer, author, New York City; Leanna Landsmann, publisher, Instructor magazine, New York City; Anne Lindeman, state senator, Phoenix, Ariz.; Jean Marzollo, president, school board, Cold Spring (N.Y.) Public Schools; Edgar Nease, senior minister, Dilworth Methodist Church, Charlotte, N.C.; Gov. Robert D. Orr of Indiana; Diane Ravitch, adjunct professor of history and education, Teachers College, Columbia University, New York City; Lauren Resnick, professor of psychology and education, University of Pittsburgh; Allan Shedlin Jr., executive director, Elementary School Center, New York City; Donald Thomas, deputy superintendent, South Carolina Department of Education; Elizabeth Wisley, principal, James L. Dennis Elementary School, Oklahoma City, Okla.

Vol. 05, Issue 06

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