Bennett Offers Revisions for Elementary Schools
Report Calls Performance Improved but Uneven
Secretary of Education William J. Bennett gave the nation's elementary schools a qualified vote of confidence last week, but said in a new report on the subject that curricular reform and greater involvement by parents were needed to strengthen this "deeply important" institution.
In releasing what he called "the first comprehensive examination of the nation's elementary schools in a third of a century," Mr. Bennett told an audience at the National Press Club here that "there is no 'rising tide of mediocrity' flooding our nation's elementary schools."
Studies indicate, the Secretary said, that "in the first few grades especially, things look good."
But he expressed concern that the progress made in transmitting the basic skills to very young children has not been accompanied by greater achievement in the more complex learning tasks of higher grades.
"Something seems to happen between the first few grades of elementary school and its conclusion," the Secretary said. ''In general, as our elementary students get older, their performance begins to decline."
In First Lessons: A Report on Elementary Education in America, he proposes as partial remedy for this uneven performance a remolded and revitalized curriculum emphasizing reading, the development of problem-solving skills, "hands-on" learning, and the knowledge base essential to "life in a democratic society."
'Ersatz Social Science'
In particular, Mr. Bennett writes, the teaching of social studies should be "transformed," replacing "ersatz social science" with a unified sequence stressing history, geography, and civics.
The Secretary's 83-page report also criticizes elementary curricula for their cursory treatment of such subjects as art and physical education, for stressing computational skills above problem solving in mathematics, and for presenting science as a "grab-bag of esoteric facts and stunts," rather than "an adventure in discovery."
But teaching students to read, he concludes, must be the elementary school's "sublime and most solemn responsibility. "
"Any school that does not accomplish this has failed," he states. "There is no excuse for the illiteracy and semi-literacy we are finding in our high schools and colleges."
The report makes a strong case for the teaching of reading through phonics, rather than the "look-say" method, and says that "the deadening quality of what children are given to read" may be one source of their reading problems.
"hire gifted writers who can create stories far superior to the standard fare" and urges parents to read to their children and, with the help of school officials and others, to see that "by 1987 every child in America has a library card and uses it."
Rhetoric and Controversy
Written as the culmination of Mr. Bennett's "Year of the Elementary School," First Lessons is a broad-ranging document spiced with personal asides, classroom examples, and rhetorical flourishes.
In it, Secretary Bennett makes a strong general appeal for the recognition of education as a community-wide responsibility. "We cannot afford to regard elementary education as the exclusive concern of parents and professional educators," he writes.
He asks that the nation view the nurture and training of the young as a "covenant with the family at its center; with the adult community supporting-not supplanting-the family; and with the elementary schools as a fundamental expression of the community's values and aspirations."
"The most serious problems facing our elementary schools do not derive from a lack of money," he asserts, "they derive from a surfeit of confusion, bureaucratic thinking, and community apathy."
He encourages businesses to provide resources and creative programs for the schools and asks that the "community of adults" recognize its responsibility to pass along the culture's common values.
But parental involvement, he says, is crucial. "The single best way to improve elementary education is to strengthen parents' role in it, both by reinforcing their relationship with the school and by helping and encouraging them in their own critical job of teaching the young."
"Not all teachers are parents, but all parents are teachers," he writes. Within this general framework, however, the Secretary endorses several controversial school-reform options, such as a longer school year, performance-based pay for teachers, and parental choice.
"I propose that we acknowledge parents' right to choose their children's schools as the norm," he writes, "and that we extend it to as many parents as possible-not just to those fortunate enough to live in particular communities or wealthy enough to change their place of residence."
He also urges alternative routes to teacher certification and improved training programs for elementary teachers that would give them the foundation for their role as "education's premier generalists," rather than a surfeit of methods courses.
And, in a recommendation that has drawn criticism from some educators, the Secretary suggests that the elementary principalship be deregulated to attract accomplished professionals from fields other than teaching.
"Today's methods of educating and licensing principals seem better designed to produce survivors than entrepreneurs," he writes.
Mr. Bennett characterized First Lessons as his own distillation of research and opinion-not a statement of federal policy. He said it was informed by interactions with groups and individuals across the country, visits to elementary schools, and, in particular, the work of a 21-member Elementary Education Task Force he appointed last October.
In general, educators praised Mr. Bennett for producing a well-written document that focuses attention on a long-neglected area of education.
But most of those interviewed last week expressed reservations about some of his recommendations, most notably his comment that schools would benefit if more of their principals were drawn from fields outside of education.
In addition, many faulted the Secretary for failing to adequately address the problems of "at-risk" children and for concluding that substantial improvements can be made with little additional spending.
"Mr. Bennett's comments on the need for parents to become more actively involved in the education of their children is right, but what he says runs against the grain of what is happening in the real world," said Daniel S. Cheever Jr., president of Boston's Wheelock College and a member of the Secretary's Elementary Education Task Force.
"The fact is that parents are spending less and less time with their children. This is one of those areas where a school-based program for parents could do a lot of good, but it's the kind of thing that would take a little money."
The report "ducks the whole question of who is going to pay," Mr. Cheever said.
"He makes recommendations that I agree with-a longer school day and school year, raising teacher salaries, giving teachers more aides to relieve them of houskeeping and clerical duties," Mr. Cheever noted. "But all of that is going to cost money, and there isn't any money in our poor urban communities to pay for such things."
Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called the report a "mixed bag."
"Bennett is right in insisting that disadvantaged groups-indeed all groups-take responsibility for turning things around," he said. "But he's wrong in omitting the importance of the federal government's lending a helping hand. When he does acknowledge that help is sometimes needed, his suggestions are long on individual effort and short on collective responsibility."
Added Mary Hatwood Futrell, president of the National Education Association: "It is ironic that some of the problems the report outlines are being addressed by federal programs. The Department of Education has sought to cut these programs."
Charles Glenn, a task-force member and director of Massachusetts' bureau of equal educational opportunity, said he was "disappointed" that Mr. Bennett "didn't place more emphasis on the fact that, while elementary schools are doing a moderately good job with children in general, the same can't be said for the work schools are doing with children from poor families."
In the same vein, Robert Slavin, director of the federally funded Center for Research on Elementary and Middle Schools at The Johns Hopkins University, characterized the report's "upbeat and encouraging" tone as somewhat misleading.
"It's the things that he left out that I'm most concerned about," Mr. Slavin said. "I think it's false to say that everything is peachy. Things may be fine for the average student, but for many students-those needing special education or compensatory education-things are not fine and never have been fine. The basic paradigm isn't working for these kids, and for him to leave that out of the report is surprising."
Added Mr. Cheever: "Nothing in the report speaks to the problems of the American underclass. His emphasis on greater parental choice is one of those things that sound good but are harder to do than the report acknowledges. Choice in education has to be handled carefully to avoid resegregation by race and economic class."
Mr. Cheever and others also expressed regret that the Secretary limited his examination to grades K-B. '1 wish he had placed greater emphasis on the value of good early childhood education programs and day care," said the Wheelock College president. "He defined elementary education as that which occurs between kindergarten and 8th grade. That disregards the fact that many American children begin school well before that."
Cecil Good, director of the office of instructional technology in the Detroit Public Schools and a member of Mr. Bennett's 21-member panel, said the report would "encourage elementary educators to keep on going." But he was one of many to question the wisdom of Mr. Bennett's proposed deregulation of the principalship.
"As a former teacher and principal, I know that the years I spent in the classroom were extremely valuable to me later on," he said.
Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, called the principalship recommendation the lone exception in his otherwise "strong endorsement" of the report.
"At the elementary-school level, the principal is the key," Mr. Sava said. "Above all else, the individual needs to provide instructional leadership. The kind of rapport that one needs to develop with teachers to make it happen requires classroom experience, a minimum of three years, we think. Classroom experience is crucial."
Opinion on what the report's ultimate impact on the field would be were mixed.
Allan Shedlin, executive director of the Elementary School Center in New York City and also a member of Mr. Bennett's task force, said that its greatest achievement is that "it dignifies the importance of elementary schools." But he expressed fears that the report would not stimulate the kind of discussion and attention the field needs.
"I worry that it comes at a time when we are nearing our collective saturation point in our ability to respond to yet another education report," he said. "Since this one is essentially free of the alarming language that provoked reactions to previous reports, will it stimulate sufficient interest?"
Mr. Cheever predicted that in many quarters the report would be "read, endorsed, and set aside." He suggested, however, that "every elementary school should put together a small group of teachers and parents to read the report and do an assessment of their school in light of it."
Others questioned whether Mr. Bennett would provide the kind of follow-up activities needed to ensure that the report would receive a proper hearing.
Mr. Glenn said he did not expect much from Mr. Bennett in this regard. "Bennett is not an implementer," he said. "Bringing about change in education is like sailing a boat; you don't sail in a straight line from point A to B, you have to tack one way and another. I don't think Bennett thinks this way. His background is not in implementing change."
But for many, the fact that a persuasive presentation of the field's mission and current status had been made was reason enough for celebration.
Said Massachusetts' Mr. Glenn: "Most educators spend 80 much time speaking to other educators that they can't articulate why education is important and what a good school should look like."
"It's a modest report. It doesn't pretend to be a revelation from on high, but what's wrong with that?"
Copies of the report can be obtained for $4.25 each by writing to the Superintendent of Documents; U.S. Government Printing Office, Washington, D.C. 20402. The G.P.O. stock number is 065-000-00259-1.
Tom Mirga, associate editor, also contributed to this report.
Vol. 06, Issue 01, Pages 1, 33