Excerpts From Bennett's 'First Lessons'

Article Tools
  • PrintPrinter-Friendly
  • EmailEmail Article
  • ReprintReprints
  • CommentsComments

Within the next decade almost 50 I million children will pass through the doors of America's elementary schools. This year alone, in 80,000 elementary schools across the United States, 31 million boys and girls ' will be taught by 1.45 million teachers. By the middle of the 1990's, enrollments will nearly equal those of the "baby boom" years following World Warn.

Elementary education is an enterprise of vast proportions in this nation; and for each child it is an experience of unsurpassed importance. After the family, elementary school is the most influential institution in children's lives; helping to shape first and lasting views of themselves, molding aspirations and skills, introducing them to their country, their culture, to the universe itself.

Yet since 1953, no major national report has examined the condition of elementary education. The "excellence movement" of recent years has looked closely at our high schools and, to a lesser extent, our colleges. But it has not yet paid sustained attention to the condition of elementary education. The time has come to do so-not because elementary schools are in deep trouble, but because they are so deeply important.

After studying elementary schools, visiting them, discussing them, and consulting with some of the country's leading educators, I conclude that American elementary education is not menaced by a "rising tide of mediocrity." It is, overall, in pretty good shape. By some measures, elementary schools are doing better now than they have in years. Yet elementary education in the United States could be better still. Indeed, it will need to be better in the years ahead because we depend so much on it, because not all schools are yet as good as they ought to 00- and because it is not in our nature as a society to settle for less than excellence for all.

In the remainder of this report I go into some detail about the condition and direction ~f elementary education in America. Let me set forth certain general observations and recommendations:

General Observations

1. The principal goals of elementary education are to build for every child a strong foundation for further education, for democratic citizenship, and for eventual entry into responsible adulthood.

2. Parents have the central role in children's education and must be empowered to play it successfully.

3. Children do not just "grow up." They must be raised by the community of adults-all adults. The community should accept as its solemn responsibility-as a covenant-the nurture, care, and education of the coming generation.

4. Teachers should be enabled to become professionals. Certification should depend on demonstrated knowledge and skills, not on paper credentials.

5. The principalship should be deregulated 60 that accomplished people from many fields may become elementary- school principals.

6. In order to provide for more teaching and more learning, elementary schools will need more learning time.

7. The chronological lockstep by which children ordinarily enter and progress through school should be loosened to provide for differences in children's abilities ....

What should a child know? ...

[W]e may plausibly expect that elementary school will give our children the basic facts and understandings of our civilization, and that it will equip them with the skills to apprehend more complex knowledge, thus awakening the appetite for further learning ....

Parents

Parents belong at the center of a young child's education. 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 ....

It is reasonable that parents be accountable for how well they fulfill these obligations. At the same time, however, parents need to be able to hold a school accountable for what it does with and for and to their children. This is commonplace within private education, where children attend schools chosen by their parents. What is less widely recognized is that within the framework of public education, many parents also choose the schools their children attend: by deciding to live in particular towns or neighborhoods, by lining up at dawn to enroll their youngster in a special school within the local system, by obtaining a variety of waivers and permissions to enable their child to attend a school other than the one to which he would ordinarily be assigned. It is also a fact that many public school systems now intentionally furnish parents with choices by diversifying educational offerings and organizing "magnet" schools providing various curricular enticements ....

I propose that we acknowledge parents' right to choose their children's schools as the norm, not the exception, 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 ....

Parents and the Popular Culture

The record of research is clear: Excessive television viewing can hurt youngsters' school achievement. We also know that nonstop viewing is particularly damaging to children of above-average intelligence. With too much TV, we may be doing disproportionate damage to the best minds of the younger generation ....

It is the responsibility of parents to set limits on their children's television viewing, to monitor and discuss the content of what they do watch, and to set a good example for their children by restraining their own TV viewing ....

The Explicit Curriculum

Without a well-defined set of curricular goals, all else is superfluous. Schools must have standards; this is as true for elementary schools as for colleges and high schools. It is imperative that elementary educators focus first on the acquisition of basic I skills and good habits through which , children will be able to extend the reach of their learning in later years. We know that children will be less likely to live n productive adult life if they cannot read, write, and compute. Especially in the early grades, the best elementary school curricula are "unified" --one subject reinforces the next. Disciplinary borders vanish. Small children do not make fine distinctions between fairy tales and stories from history, between geography and science, and a skilled teacher can make each subject come alive by calling upon other knowledge the children are acquiring ....

First and foremost, elementary schools must provide the fundamental skills with which to manage a lifetime of learning-abilities learned in what Study Group member Lauren Resnick calls the "enabling disciplines."

Reading

The elementary school must assume as its sublime and most solemn responsibility the task of teaching every child to read. Any school that does not accomplish this has failed. There I is no excuse for the illiteracy and semi-literacy we are finding in our high schools and colleges, though I there is a powerful explanation for this lamentable situation. The explanation, simply stated, is that some elementary schools---and responsible adults in other settings-have failed in their most basic responsibility: to send children forth into junior high, high school, and the adult world, reading fluently ....

Most children are ready to read by 1st grade and, when formal instruction begins, the teaching method is of great significance. From the 1920's until the early 1970's, a method called "look-say" prevailed in American elementary schools; it relies on memorizing the meaning and appearances of entire words. But research of the past two decades has confirmed what experience and common sense tell us: that children learn to read more effectively when they first learn the relationship between letters and sounds. This is known as phonics.

Phonics

Phonics helps most children, particularly those at high risk for learning to read ....

Some claim that a big source of reading problems is the deadening quality of what children are given to read. Children who go through the j considerable work of learning to ~ read can lose their appetite for it if all they get is drab monosyllabic vignettes in "readers." ...

There is nothing inherently wrong with reading collections; indeed, it makes great sense for early readers to provide sequential degrees of difficulty ...

But, sadly, some ... reading series are stultifying .... We do not feed pablum to children who are ready for meat and vegetables, and we should not feed verbal pablum to children able to digest literature.

Children learn to read by reading- and schools should provide plenty of opportunities for them to do 60. Yet one study shows that in the typical primary-school class, only 7 or 8 minutes per day are allotted to silent reading time. Children spend about 70 percent of the time allocated for reading instruction engaged in "seat-work," mostly on skills sheets and workbooks that may require only a perfunctory level of reading.

Properly integrated with other lessons, workbooks can be a useful adjunct to the learning process. But many of them do little to build reading or reasoning skills and, when handed out as busywork, they may even undermine children's respect for real thinking ....

While it is essential that young children learn to form their letters and make individual words, those rudimentary skills should give way to the organization and expression of ideas just as soon as the child is ready. Writing should be part of the teaching strategy in every subject, not just "language arts." By the time they reach the upper elementary grades, children should be asked to compose essays about science projects and write biographical sketches of historical figures. They should even be asked to write about how they solve mathematical problems, and to put the solution to work problems into full sentences. By the end of the 8th grade, children should be writing more extended compositions, including some that call upon them to draw information from several sources. They should write and write and write some more, until it becomes second nature to put pencil--or printer-- to paper and produce something coherent and expressive...

Mathematics

In the early grades, children learn mathematics best when they can manipulate physical objects in their lessons. Although very young children tend to think in concrete terms, a University of Chicago project shows that teachers can also introduce abstract math concepts into the early grades by using everyday phenomena ....

What is most lacking in elementary mathematics is a sense of relationship between the formal skills children learn and their application to real problems. Even as late as 8th grade, according to [the International Association for the Evaluation of Education Achievement], the teaching of math is "predominantly formal with an emphasis on rules, formulas, and computational skills as opposed to being informal, intuitive, and exploratory." ...

Science

We need a revolution in elementary- school science. There is probably no other subject whose teaching is so at odds with its true nature. We have come to think of science as a grab-bag of esoteric facts and stunts-the periodic table, the innards offrogs, the way to make little hot plates out of tin cans and wires. Worse, we have also given students the impression that science is a dry and arcane matter gleaned solely from the pages of a textbook. In three major studies, the National Science Foundation found that most science education follows the traditional practice: "At all grade levels, the predominant method of teaching was recitation (discussion) with the teacher in control, supplementing the lesson with new information (lecturing). The key to the information and basis for reading assignments was the textbook." If science is presented like this, is it any wonder that children's natural curiosity about their physical world turns into boredom by the time they leave grade school-and into dangerous ignorance later on? ...

Seen only as a laundry list of theorems in a workbook, science can be a bore. But as "hands-on" adventure guided by a knowledgeable teacher, it can sweep children up in the excitement of discovery. Taught by the regular classroom teacher, it can illustrate the point that science is for everyone--not just scientists ....

By the end of 8th grade, we should certainly expect that our children will know the basic saga of American history and the stories of its great men and women; the sources of our form of government in the Greek, Judeo-Christian, Roman, and Enlightenment traditions; the contours and locations of the physical world, and the major features of international landscapes; essential facts of the world's major nations; and their rights and obligations as American citizens.

I do not presume, desirable though it would be, that youngsters completing grade 8 will all possess sophisticated causal explanations of all these matters. But they should have absorbed the basic data, the main sequences and relationships that link the key facts, and some appreciation of the significance of it all.

Expanding Environments'

Many elementary schools are failing to deliver these lessons, and major reform is needed. Many of today's children pick up bits of these lessons from an odd, amorphous grab-bag called "social studies," derived from such disciplines as anthropology, sociology, law, psychology, history, science, economics, and geography. They are typically presented in the early grades through a sequence called "expanding environments," a matrix according to which most states and most major textbook publishers now arrange the presentation of social studies.

Expanding environments places the child at the center of the universe. Study of the world begins in kindergarten with "me"; in the 1st grade it expands to the study of the child's own family; in the 2nd grade to the child's neighborhood; and in the 3rd grade to the local community . . .

In fact, this narrow conception of children's interests has scant foundation in research studies of how children actually learn. Children can learn amazing things if presented in language they fathom and in ways that engage their lively minds and imagination ....

I propose that "social studies" as presently constituted be transformed. It should teach the knowledge and skills needed for life in a democratic society through the interrelated disciplines of history, geography, and civics ....

Civic literacy starts with the child as a citizen of the school, then develops an understanding of the rights and responsibilities of all citizens. It also teaches children the purpose and function of rules, and imparts a sense I of our national identity-that we are a nation of immigrants and live in a unique multicultural society.

Historical literacy grows from the study and discussion of myths, legends, fairy tales, Bible stories, and the biographies of outstanding men and women. It develops historical empathy through dramatization and other activities giving children an idea of "what it was like to be .... "

Geographic literacy can be developed by teaching an understanding of place, location, direction, distance, relative size and shape, earth sun relationships, and how to identify features in the environment.

An ordered sequence stressing these basic concepts in an atmosphere of creative play and imaginative adventure will prepare children for the more academically rigorous work they will begin in grade 4.

By the time they are 9 and 10 children are ready for more formal study of history, geography, and civics. Whether the content of these courses is presented chronologically (e.g., the ancient world, the medieval world, the modern world) or in the form of area studies (Asian civil- I ization, Western Europe, etc.), the important point is that social stud- I ies in the upper elementary grades should stress the continuity and correlations among these three disciplines. Teachers can do this by asking key questions: "What did the state expect of a citizen in those times, and how do we differ today?" "What rights did a citizen have?" "How did people from that area travel to our country?" ...

History

Though education critics are frequently faulted for imagining a "gold- : en age" that never really existed, in I the field of history it turns out that there truly was such a time. In the first quarter of the 20th century, most American schools offered a history course in every grade. The history curriculum in the elementary years was largely fashioned upon the recommendations of a 1909 report by the Committee of Eight of the American Historical Association ....

Setting Standards

If we are to restore the place of history in elementary curricula, specific standards will need to be set. But the experts have already helped us to understand what these should be. The Organization of American Historians says that by the end of 8th I grade, children should:

  • Know the basic chronology of the main events of U.S. history, and be able to place in order and roughly date the major periods of world history;
  • Be able to explain the significance of the most important events in U.s. and world history-including social and economic developments that evolve over time, such as industrialization, slavery, urbanization, women's suffrage, and civil rights;
  • Recognize and place in context some of the important men and women in U.S. history; and
  • Have read and understood the essential significance of at least parts of such documents as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, Lincoln's Second Inaugural Address, and Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech. As the historians point out, the words "significance," "context," and "understanding" are important; children should know the facts, yes, but should also know what ties them together ....
  • Geography

    Just as in the study of history, we recognize that children need to develop certain cognitive skills before they can handle ab tract geographic concepts like "north" and "south." But they can begin at an early age to learn illustrations of the five basic themes of geography education: location, place, relationships within places, movement, and regions ....

    Civics

    American civics, like American history, should be presented without sugarcoating but also without apology. This is not chauvinism. The proper first focus of study by American boys and girls, regardless of ancestry or ethnicity, is on the essential facts, the central institutions, and the fundamental principles of the United States and the western civilization whose traditions and culture are our shared inheritance ...

    Our elementary schools should nurture children's appreciation for these cornerstones of their democracy. Sound educational practice would ensure that children become well-grounded in the lore of their own land before embarking upon comparative studies of other histories, cultures, societies, and governments. Else they will have no basis from which to understand similarities and differences . ...

    It is especially important that history and civics be taught to children who are new to America. The threads of our civic tradition-our laws, our culture, our institutions-have bound together the American quilt for generations now; our liberties continue to beckon those who suffer. As our schools welcome the children of families who have fled Castro and Duvalier and Pol Pot, we must not abandon the teaching of our American traditions in the name of "globalism" or "multiculturalism." Instead, we must be ready to hand these newcomers the instruction manual for our pluralist democracy ....

    Cultural Literacy

    A principal function of elementary school must be to introduce children to the "common knowledge" of our shared culture . . ..

    An elementary school that treats the arts as the province of a few gifted children, or views them only as recreation and entertainment, is a school that needs an infusion of soul. Children's imaginations yearn for the chance to transcend the ordinary, to hear and see what they have not heard and seen before. The Task Force for the Fine Arts in Baltimore's school system says, "Every student should have the opportunity to explore the arts as systems of meaning--as a living history of people and as a record and revelation of the human spirit." ...

    Foreign Languages

    ... What is important is for students, early on, to "break the language barrier"-to grasp the fact that any language, including English, is a way of communicating, of conveying meaning. Young students can use any second language to break out of the monolingual habit. In fact, a number of school districts have begun offering Latin at the elementary level, in some cases using it to help disadvantaged students get a better grip on English. What matters is not so much that students master any specific tongue; what books. The school library is evolving these days, and the currently fashionable title is "library media center." fm a little wary of this term. While it is true that in this high-technology world, our children must discover earlyon how to get access to information, and should certainly learn how to conduct independent re;earch, it is of critical importance that girls and boys acquire the habit of reading. School libraries should find children reading biographies and histories and novels and science fiction-not simply looking for a fugitive fact or random quotation. The librarian should I be an integral part of the instructional staff. By leading children to good books, by sponsoring incentive programs and author visits, the librarian can play an essential role in enriching curricula . ...

    And children should belong to the public library. There is one within striking distance of practically everybody. Let's have a national campaign: By the end of the 1986-87 school year, every child should obtain library card-and use it.

    The Implicit Curriculum

    Since a primary goal of American elementary education is the development citizenship, an essential part of the implicit curriculum is each school's interpretation of its responsibility to provide civic education-not only in textbooks and lectures, but through saluting the flag, singing the national anthem, and other rituals of our national life. Parents might look for more subtle displays of burgeoning democracy as well: Does the school draw on the diversity of its students in celebrating our pluralistic heritage? Does it provide trips to the courts, the mayor's office, the town hall? Does it pause to honor the men and women who fought in foreign wars, and explain what they were fighting for? These are all ways in which schools can build citizenship on a daily basis ....

    As Aristotle and Williams James both reminded us, character is acquired through habit. If children see teachers and principals as models of democratic sensibilities, they will tend to build the right kind of habits...

    Will It All Fit?"

    No school can transform itself overnight-but any school can begin to adopt strategies for getting where it needs to go. The total instructional program can be enlarged in a number of ways:

    1. Eke out more instructional time from the present schedule ....

    2. Use homework and other time-extenders ....

    3. Employ creative curricular strategies ....

    4. Free teachers to teach ....

    5. Set school priories and give parents choices among them ....

    6. Consider lengthening the school year .. . .

    The Principal

    Among a number of good ideas in the recent Carnegie report on teaching, I believe there was one flawed notion: the idea that schools should be I run by committees of "lead teachers," with principals more or less officiating. On the contrary: As Study Group member Sandy Wisley observes, "You won't find an excellent school without a strong principal." ...

    We know that many effective principals are people who find ways to make end-runs around downtown I (or upcounty) education bureaucracies, women and men who invent ingenious ways to get what their teachers and children need despite silly rules, rigid procedures, and empty coffers. But today's methods of educating and licensing principals seem better designed to produce survivors than entrepreneurs. Professors Bruce Cooper and William Boyd, who have studied the training and certification of school principals, say the process is "state-controlled, closed to non-teachers, mandatory for all those entering the profession, university-based, credit driven, and certification-bound." While this process prevents "untrained charlatans from preying on the unsuspecting," it also, they say, "promotes mediocrity more than brilliance." The elementary school of the future will demand a level of executive skill and imagination that may not be found often enough inside the corridors of education bureaucracies.

    Fbr this reason, we should deregulate the principalship. Of the 52,000 public elementary-school principals in the United States today, more than half will be replaced by 1994. I suggest that we look not only at exceptionally able educators, but also at men and women who have demonstrated leadership in other realms. A businessperson who has spent 20 years running a successful firm; a retired Army officer; the head of a government bureau; the publisher of a journal; the director of an art school all these should be able to join the pool of prospective elementary-school principals, provided they possess the requisite personal qualities. Not having taught should not be an insuperable barrier ...

    Teachers

    With a lot of experienced teachers retiring and with elementary-school enrollments rising, close to a million new elementary-level teachers will be needed by 1993. But we are not, in fact, facing a crisis of number .... We might wish for greater stability in the ranks of teaching, and there will surely be "spot shortages" in particular specialties and communities. But that suggests the nature of the real challenge: not so much quantitative as qualitative ....

    Empowerment

    The essential point is to start paying teachers on the basis of quality rather than seniority, performance rather than tenure, merit rather than uniformity. It should be possible for a district's ablest teachers to earn salaries that rival those of lawyers and full professors. Such performance- linked gradations will have the effect of increasing the average, but through a completely different mechanism than an across-the- board raise. . . .

    Most teachers enjoy little control over the terms of their work, and have few opportunities to take initiatives to improve their own effectiveness.

    As Study Group member Dan Cheever points out: "Teaching has many of the same characteristics as other professions, including mastery of a body of knowledge. Yet it is denied important rights and responsibilities, such as setting its own standards for judging performance. We tell teachers what they should do, rather than listening to them define what needs to be done."

    Preparation

    The elementary-school teacher should be education's premier generalist, the one educator who is conversant with all the central disciplines and major subjects that ~ form the core of the school enterprise ....

    [T]he current method of training r elementary-school teachers should be jettisoned. I believe it soon will be ....

    Vol. 06, Issue 01, Page 34

    Notice: We recently upgraded our comments. (Learn more here.) If you are logged in as a subscriber or registered user and already have a Display Name on edweek.org, you can post comments. If you do not already have a Display Name, please create one here.
    Ground Rules for Posting
    We encourage lively debate, but please be respectful of others. Profanity and personal attacks are prohibited. By commenting, you are agreeing to abide by our user agreement.
    All comments are public.

    Back to Top Back to Top

Most Popular Stories

Viewed

Emailed

Recommended

Commented