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Our Country and Our Children: Improving America's Schools and Affirming the Common Culture.

The Billy Pulpit

William Bennett is a Janus-faced educator. At times we see and hear the passionate reformer visiting classrooms, teaching students, taking an ax to the icons of the education bureaucracy, pleading for "standards, discipline, basics, strong leadership and high expectations." But then we are subjected to another William Bennett, organ grinder for the Reagan political agenda, cranking out grandiose proclamations on the decline of modern civilizations, pseudo-historical musings on the intent of the founding fathers, and schemes to save the soul of public education by bringing churches into the schools.

In a rough way, this collection of speeches(*) from his tenure as education secretary is assembled in a sequence that presorts the wheat from the chaff. The first half of this book shows us Bennett the Good; the last half should have been left on the pamphlet table at the Republican National Committee.

The easiest thing to admire about William Bennett is his clarity and directness. No bureaucrat, this secretary. He roams the country grading schools, handing out praise for effective principals and teachers while castigating the shoddy and ineffective. He's not afraid to name names or to tangle with the education establishment. When was the last time we had a secretary out in the classroom teaching the story of Cincinnatus to third graders, telling the story of Horatius at the Bridge, and pursuing the meaning of Federalist No. 10 with high school students?

Bennett's core message is that our schools have failed their obligation to teach values. It is a familiar argument, one that flares up again and again in American history. The traditional view, which held sway in the nineteenth century, is that moral precepts are not to be examined or questioned. The teacher's job, acting in loco parentis, is to drill virtue into students by word and example. But how far should they go--where is the line between teaching and indoctrination? Philosophy aside, most parents, including me, agree with Bennett that we have drifted a bit too far from the lodestar of values, confusing traditional social studies (like history, geography, and civics) with soft social science (like sociology and psychology) and cluttering the classroom with too much moral relativism.

He writes: "Many have turned to a whole range of values, education theories, and practice where the goal is to guide children in developing their own values by discussing, dialogue, simulation, and even games." With Robert Coles, he asks, "Are students really better off with the theories of psychologists than the hard thoughts of Jeremiah and Jesus?" A little less John Dewey and a little more original sin is certainly in order, and we can thank the secretary for using his bully pulpit to move us in that direction.

But then Bennett begins raking his finger nails accross the blackboard. His prescription for the moral anemia that afflicts our schools is not just civic virtue but a strong shot of religion in the classroom. He tells us why: "children who go to church are less likely to take drugs," and "religious belief reduces teenage pregnancy." Well, he's probably right, but there is still this nagging matter of the Constitution, specifically, the First Amendment. Bennett's rejoinder is to cut and paste phrases from the Founding Fathers that make it sound as if Thomas Jefferson, of all people, would have been ready to enter the classroom Bible in hand. One may be excused for wondering who will write the school prayers. Why can't Bennett distinguish the teaching of values from the teaching of religion? And why does he lack confidence in the staying power of civic virtue and natural law, available to guide Catholics, Jews, Protestants, and nonbelievers alike?

Linked to his crusade for moral values is Bennett's advocacy of the humanities. He argues for a curriculum straight from Alan Bloom and St. John's University: the classics are the core of education and western cultural roots, and history should be emphasized, especially American history.

Again, my sympathies are for more basics, with less social science and life-adjustment mumbo jumbo. But Bennett's argument for the humanities veers off towards the anti-intellectual when he argues that "our education is long on technique and short on tradition." He sounds like education should be a grabbag of facts, such as where the Amazon river rises. He gives only passing reference to science, and not once in the entire book does he even mention the word mathematics, much less the teaching of mathematics. If this is what he really means, I prefer the educational philosophy of Will Rogers, who once said "education is what's left over after you've forgotten the facts."

Crazy Joe and Alan Alda

The best speech in the book is Bennett's discussion of the school principal as the key to good morale and high achievement. It is a truism in athletics that it is the coach who produces winning seasons, and coaches who do not win lose their jobs. But for unfathomable reasons we have been reluctant to impose similar leadership expectations and accountability on school principals.

Bennett tells us what he learned about Marion Clisty, the no-nonsense principal at Artesia High in California who goes out into the neighborhoods to talk to parents, and who once set up her desk in the girl's restroom to restore order and decorum. And he has singlehandedly created a new folk hero, "Crazy Joe" Clark, who patrols the grounds of Patterson, New Jersey's East Side High with bull horn and baseball bat, cleaning out gangs and running off the dope dealers. Crazy Joe's fame is such that he will soon be in the movies, and a debate has heated up over whether he is really a reformer or just another Rambo. Whichever way it turns out, Bennett wins this one, for even Rambo is an improvement over some of what we have out there.

It's powerful stuff, and Bennett is right when he says, "If I were looking for a good principal, I'd cast my net as far and wide as I could. If I felt tied down by pointless state requirements for paper credentials, I'd complain, object, raise hell...I would be looking for...a role model, not a bureaucrat...." Compare that to a recent six-point plan from the National Association of Secondary School Principals to upgrade the quality of our principals by requiring, among other things, a master's degree in "educational leadership." No thanks. I'd rather have William Bennett in my neighborhood.

When it comes to teachers, however, the best Bennett can do is to praise the good and damn the incompetent. Ask him about teacher salaries and he will respond, "there will never be enough to satisfy them." That response is simply an excuse to sit out the fight. In the last decade, no thanks to Bennett, we have managed to increase teacher salaries by a national average of 25 percent. It happened because many governors, like Dick Riley in South Carolina and Tom Kean in New Jersey, had the guts to persuade their citizens to ignore the antitax crusaders and make an investment in the future.

But the fact remains that there is a lot more to the teacher problem than salaries. Americans have never accorded teachers adequate respect and honor. Thirty years ago Richard Hofstadter showed us that throughout history we have harbored both high faith in public education and low esteem for teachers. In colonial times, teaching was held in such disregard that it was common for communities to hire indentured immigrants, fresh off the boat, to teach their children. And consider the lament of Franklin Phelps in 1870 that elementary schools "are in the hands of ignorant, unskilled teachers. The children are fed upon mere husks of knowledge." (Remarkably, after making that statement, Phelps went on to become president of the National Education Association.)

Salary checks aside, how do we attract better teachers? One possibility is to break down the guildlike isolation that characterizes the profession. Perhaps lateral entry would provide some fresh blood, infusing spirit into the classroom. But that means breaking down the credentialism that makes it so difficult to get into the classroom. We've all heard, for example, that Alan Alda was denied the opportunity to teach drama in a Connecticut school because he lacked the required hours of college English. An experiment started during my time as governor of Arizona recruited math and science graduates into a program where they could work one semester in the classroom and the balance of the year in a cooperating technology industry. In another direction, the Carnegie proposal to create a system of national teacher accreditation might break down state barriers to teacher mobility. Lamentably, this structural change, which is taking place routinely elsewhere in the American workplace, awaits the leadership of the next secretary.

All sizzle, no steak

In the end, this book speaks to me of welcome draughts of fresh air and no little lost opportunity. One must admire Bill Bennett for his use of the bully pulpit, his willingness to smash those icons, and his relentless crusades for values and quality, even as he drifts off into an occasional bout of religious crusading and anti-intellectualism.

But beyond this, there simply isn't any program, just a lot of sizzle and not much steak. Bennett's only specific suggestions for a federal leadership role are proposals for school prayer and tuition tax credits.

And so, as the Reagan administration ends, the issue remains: is there a federal role that extends beyond personal exhortation? Try as it may, the Congress has been unable to answer that question; its response is simply to churn out more demonstration grants for the latest fad from the last expert to testify within range of a television camera.

Federal leadership can come only from the president and his secretary. Since both presidential candidates have pledged to be education presidents, here are three suggestions to include in their acceptance speeches at the summer convention.

The singular opportunity for the reform of public education is already emerging in the 1988 presidential campaign, although not as an education issue. It is called day care, but is really early childhood education and, as such, presents the most interesting reform possibilities since Horace Mann. Day care in America is about where public education was in 1850, and we therefore have an opportunity to design a system virtually from scratch. If parental involvement is lacking in public schools, perhaps we can make a fresh start with parental involvement in day care that will be an example for the school system.

A voucher system would make sense for day care for the very reasons it would be destructive to the public schools. Public schools are the shared experience that brings us together in a pluralistic society, and vouchers should not be used to break up the system. Day care, in contrast, is a developmental bridge that leads from the nuclear family toward the formal educational experience. We should therefore let a hundred institutional flowers bloom, including family day care, proprietary programs, school day care, neighborhood cooperatives, and church programs. Vouchers, scaled to income, are the way to do just that.

Many of these concepts of early childhood were pioneered back in Head Start in the days of the War on Poverty. Twenty-five years later, the intensive longitudinal studies of Head Start children show that the benefits endure; this is one case where the roots of a new idea can be found in an old and neglected program. A child's first years are too precious to see wasted in some kind of 9-to-5 steerage. Day care should mean getting ahead.

Another big task for the national government is to provide all parents in the country with the facts upon which to judge their school and hold the teachers and administrators accountable. The way to do so is to implement a national system that uses testing to compare not individual students but individual schools. For years, state and local education administrators have been part of a tacit conspiracy to block the development of test-based standards by which your neighborhood school can be compared with every other school in the country.

Recently, the resistance has begun to crack, and a few states have started to develop honest comparative standards. At the national level, a program called the National Assessment of Education Progress has begun with the encouragement, if not leadership, of William Bennett and has done some promising comparative work. But only the president has the clout to empower parents by leading them in a campaign to get the job done.

Finally, there is the troublesome question of what to do about schools that are locked in a downward spiral of decline, seemingly beyond the reach of conventional reform methods. The National Governors Association has proposed the hostile takeover of such schools by state governments. Consequently, within the past few weeks, state officials in New Jersey have moved to take over the failing Jersey City school system. It is an important experiment because there comes a time when incremental change simply isn't enough. What about expanding the concept to encourage an occasional friendly takeover by the Department of Education or by universities interested in rehabilitating public schools? Perhaps we could bring Bennett back for a limited assignment to do a takeover of a dozen public schools, giving him a chance to test his management and motivation theories.

Meanwhile, is it too much to ask the presidential candidates to move beyond rhetoric to address these large national issues? There is still time to ask. (*) Our Country and Our Children: Improving America's Schools and Affirming the Common Culture. William J. Bennett. Simon & Schuster, $19.95.
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Author:Babbitt, Bruce
Publication:Washington Monthly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jul 1, 1988
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