At a speech in Washington last week to promote his new book about American history, former Secretary of Education William J. Bennett lamented that many students today know little about this country’s formation and early years.
One reason he wrote America: The Last Best Hope, published in May by Nelson Current, was to bring that history alive instead of relegating it to “boring” textbooks, he said. After a reading from the book at the Heritage Foundation on June 8, which included a description of the abolitionist John Brown’s raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, he was willing to talk more broadly about the state of education in response to questions.
Mr. Bennett—who was education secretary under President Reagan, has written 17 books, and has his own radio talk show—is known for his outspokenness, and he lived up to his reputation last week.
Referring to recent National Assessment of Educational Progress scores in science that showed student progress falling from 4th grade to 8th grade to 12th grade, he said, “It’s still true what I said, I guess, 20 years ago: The longer you stay in school in America, the dumber you get.”
But there are bright spots, Mr. Bennett said. “The fact that we do pretty well in 4th grade means it’s not genetic,” he said. “We start out pretty smart, and we get stupider as you go along.”
He said to sustain the gains made by 4th graders, the education system needs choice, more accountability, and better standards. While there appears to be a consensus about what 4th graders need to know, there’s no agreement as students get older about what they should be taught. That needs to change, he said.
When it comes to improving math and science performance, a current priority for President Bush, Mr. Bennett said it’s necessary to “front load” instruction in those subjects. He said it’s human nature that once students go to college and escape the scrutiny of their parents, they will choose an easier course of study.
Mr. Bennett also took aim at what he called the “feminization of the American educational system” and said it’s “one of the reasons girls are doing better than boys.” He said many schools are “very unsuitable places for males.”
“They’re not able,” he said, “to talk to boys the way they should be able to talk to boys: directly, strongly, firmly.”
A version of this article appeared in the June 14, 2006 edition of Education Week