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Educating America.


Scores are down, frustration's up. Is the system too sick to cure?

Bill Bennett has a great topic. Everyone seems to have an opinion about education, and the former Secretary of Education's audience at ASAE's recent annual meeting would have kept him for hours with questions. He gave them an hour and 10 minutes of crisp answers, real stories, and strong opinions, and a small crowd pursued him out of the room.

William J. Bennett, currently a senior fellow in the Washington, D.C., office of the Hudson Institute, Indianapolis, punctuates nearly every point with personal experience. He tells a story about the Chicago public school system. Asked what he thought of it, Bennett replied that it was the worst in the country. "Well, Chicago was irate about that," Bennett says. "They said back to me, |We're better than Detroit.' I said, |Okay, show me.'"

Challenged to show him an elementary school really teaching kids, Chicago found one, Bennett relates. "I was encouraged by my visit to the good school but all the more frustrated to see what all schools could be. It makes me angry."

Bennett's passion for education is equaled by his commitment to make it accessible. He's a proponent of choice programs that would bring the rules of the market to bear on our troubled system. The market--of parents and students--should determine the product, he thinks. How to accomplish that is still, of course, a question of politics.

"When I came to Washington, I didn't know what to expect. I left pretty encouraged--not by Congress, which does not act in a deliberate way, but by two things. I found honest, good people on both sides of the aisle, men and women. Americans are right to put their trust not in most, but in many. Cynicism is not warranted.

"Second, I am encouraged by the American people. The big mistake in Washington is underestimating their intelligence. Don't be afraid to say what you think; people will appreciate it. Talk to them like they're smart, because they are."

And for another 20 minutes, Bennett talks to us like we're smart.

AM: If you could accomplish one significant change in America, what would it be? BENNETT: To do in all schools what we do in some. I'm still a romantic or an idealist, and I believe in the power of education. We have shown that it's not impossible; we have good schools and good teachers--some 10-20 percent of our schools are good. We don't have to invent a whole new way.

AM: What contact have you had with associations? What experiences stand out for you? BENNETT: You can't get the job done without working with associations. You can't move around America without coming into contact with them. Some 30 percent of my meetings [at the Department of Education and the Office of National Drug Control Policy] must have been with associations. It's a creative way of doing business.

My meetings varied. The National Education Association and I collided; many others were cooperative. It's a very efficient way to get the message out: Meet with the Washington representative, and the word filters back to the members.

AM: Do you think a lack of recognition and higher salaries for teachers keeps good people from going into education? BENNETT: That's complicated by this rhetoric about "professionals." Teachers don't go to school as long as doctors and lawyers, so it's not fair to compare their salaries. It's more appropriate to compare journalists or accountants. I'd like to see teachers paid on merit, but the teachers' unions are against it.

Recognition is important. We should establish chairs at the high school and elementary level the way we do at universities. It would motivate people to go into education--you'd have the same opportunity as anywhere else: to go as far and as high as your abilities can take you. A ceiling is discouraging.

We can have teachers select people who deserve honor. Association members know who the good people are.

AM: What's your opinion of private sector involvement in elementary education? BENNETT: We should try a number of things. I would let a thousand flowers bloom and see what happens--as long as we have access to what the input and output is. A corporate-run school like in Chicago, or one run by the community, or by the teachers, are all possibilities. I do insist on public disclosure of the results.

We badly need innovation, and education is a monolithic structure. We should take the model of higher education. For example, why not have one great teacher lecture to a large class 12 times in a year and have smaller discussion groups?

AM: Associations are also taking initiative, for example by developing a physical science curriculum and offering engineers to help teach it. Would you encourage more associations to get involved? BENNETT: That's great. Education is the common business of everyone. The problem is not a shortage of volunteers. The problem is schools are not willing to take them. I had a group of military retirees who wanted to teach, for example. Many school districts welcomed them as good role models with experience as leaders, but some did not.

And associations? You should take risks, ask questions. What are the scores, what are students reading, what can we do? Keep asking the hard questions. Go to the principal--that's the key. The right principal will find a way to coordinate it. Bureaucracy is a great excuse to keep someone out.

AM: A Hudson Institute survey found that associations spend more on higher education than every state except California. Do you see an increasing role for associations in continuing education? BENNETT: Yes, although I hate to think their role will be to do what is the responsibility of other institutions to do. When a college has to teach kids to read and write, it makes me angry because that's the job of a high school. When I looked closely at education programs in corporations, I saw a lot of basic skills being covered. If associations have to teach people how to organize their day, they're doing what someone else should have done.

[Providing post-secondary education, however, fills a] great, positive, unique role. Associations can bring members an understanding of the state of their art and skill, of the nature of the universe in which they work.

AM: Associations are grappling with the issues of a culturally diverse work force and membership. Would you comment? BENNETT: The issue isn't whether we should be culturally diverse but how we should address it. We should recognize and celebrate diversity and also the unity that defines America. E pluribus unum, that's our motto. There's no reason you can't have both, but when diversity is premised on a need to restructure society, it's inappropriate.

AM: What are your suggestions for addressing racist and sexist attitudes in the workplace? BENNETT: There is no substitute for good management and candor, in schools or the workplace. Sunlight is the key: Let people know what you're doing and why. I'm opposed to affirmative action, but when I worked in public service all my records were open. It seemed ironic that so many of my hires were black women, but I hired people with experience in inner-city schools. Many of the qualified people happened to be black women. Employers have to be able to defend their decisions, but they should not be forced to hire someone.

Kristin Staroba is senior editor of Association Management.
COPYRIGHT 1991 American Society of Association Executives
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Title Annotation:includes related article; interview with William J. Bennett on American education
Author:Staroba, Kristin
Publication:Association Management
Article Type:interview
Date:Oct 1, 1991
Previous Article:Fact and fiction.
Next Article:The dialogue process.

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