Reforming Education in Four Easy Steps

WILLIAM J. BENNETT & CHESTER E. FINN JR.

Recast these four core terms-public school, teacher, curriculum and standards, and who's in charge locally-and America will get the education reforms it needs.

Can the G.O.P. do with education what it did with welfare: take an important step toward solving an acute domestic problem while also receiving political credit? Members of the Republican Governors Association think so. “What we want Congress to do with education,” declared South Carolina governor David Beasley, the incoming chairman of the RGA, “is exactly what it did with welfare three years ago. Give us the flexibility.” The G.O.P. has its work cut out. Though polls indicate that education tops voters' list of concerns, they also show that, when it comes to education, more people trust Democrats than Republicans.

That wasn't always so. A decade ago, Democrats were held largely responsible for the education mess. Republicans were (justifiably) seen as the reformers. But after five years of masterly politicking by President Clinton, and three years of bungling by Congress, education is back about where it was in the 1960's: the public perceives education as an issue that Democrats are for and Republicans are against. This is due in large measure to what has transpired at the federal level.

The states are a different story. Republican governors remain the country's premier education reformers. For example, Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson persuaded the Democratic legislature to provide every family either a tax deduction or tax credit if it is used for public, private or religious school expenses. This may turn out to be the nation's most important, far-reaching education reform. Many other governors have begun to bust the education monopoly, foster choice and competition, create new kinds of schools, set real standards and hold people—and schools—accountable for results. These efforts are starting to show results. And so, too, are the efforts of Democrats who are making similar policy changes. Test scores are improving. The three showing greatest gains in 8th grade math between 1990 and 1996 were John Engler's Michigan, George W. Bush's Texas—and Jim Hunt's North Carolina. It is worth noting that all three states have burgeoning charter-school programs.

A lot of school-reforming can happen without the federal government. Unlike welfare, the states bear clear constitutional responsibility for education. They make most of the important decisions—and, with their localities, provide some 94 cents of each school dollar. Which is just as well, since many federal programs are simply a mess—a mess, we might add, that just received huge budget increases from the Republican-controlled Congress. There are hundreds of federal programs, almost all of them with appealing names. Some, like “bilingual education,” are genuinely mischievous. Most, however, are simply ineffectual. This judgment is not mere speculation; it is grounded in rigorous empirical analysis. Countless evaluations have shown that they do not achieve their stated goals, such as reducing the learning gap between poor and rich kids. Yet they trundle on, with more money and regulations every year.

These federal regulations—and the narrow categories in which federal dollars arrive—threaten serious education reform. The governors are right to want to change that, to get their money from Washington in flexible “block grants,” and to allow that money to follow children to the schools their parents select. But that is just the tip of the education iceberg. The real problem Republicans face is redefining the terms of the debate. They have been passive, quiescent and timid as protectors of the status quo have seized the language in which education issues are discussed. The solution to this problem requires more than spin-doctor diagnosis. Political consultants urge G.O.P. congressmen to use “warmer” terms, such as “community” rather than “charter” schools and “family” instead of “voucher”. That may be well and good—but it is mostly irrelevant. It is akin to taking charge of paint and trim while others get to be architect and contractor. If Republicans are serious about education reform, they need to shape the design itself. The surest way to do that is to recast the core concepts around which all else revolves. Four in particular are crucial:

* What is a “public school”?

Preservers of the status quo say in deed (if not in word) that a public school should be run by a government bureaucracy in a more-or-less uniform fashion; insulated from competition; a place where success isn't rewarded and failure isn't penalized; and an institution to which your child is assigned regardless of its intellectual or moral failures. The key to true reform is to redefine a public school as “any school open to the public, paid for by the public and accountable to the public for its results”. This makes sense; after all, the burgeoning “charter school” movement demonstrates that such schools are indeed “public” even when run by committees of parents, teams of teachers, the local Boys & Girls Club, possibly a profit-seeking firm. And because students choose to attend them, they are accountable to their customers, too.

* What is a “teacher”?

Today, one can teach (in public schools) only if one has graduated from an “approved program of teacher preparation” and taken the requisite education courses. Here's the problem: it is a paper-credentialing system that preserves the hegemony of the ed schools; keeps a lot of able would-be teachers out of the classroom; and admits many who know little about the subjects they are supposed to impart. A teacher should be a person of sound character who knows a subject well and is eager to share it with children. Period.

* What — and how much — should children learn?

The main reason the standards tree has borne such tasteless fruit is that trendy educationists have been in charge of answering that question. It is like entrusting welfare reform to the very social workers who wrecked the system. Because the profession's regnant philosophy favors “higher order skills” and “self-esteem” over basic skills and knowledge and says children should “construct their own meaning” rather than acquiring time-honored techniques, it is no wonder we find ourselves with standards we do not like. (This problem, alas, is as acute at the state level as at the national.) Setting this issue right comes down to letting consumers, rather than producers, determine what product they want to buy.

* What exactly do we mean by “local control”?

This mantra is used a lot, especially by Republicans. But it is not particularly helpful. For example, if it means leaving crucial education decisions to school boards and superintendents, it will be an impediment to fundamental reform. The real deciders should be states, on the one hand, and teachers, principals and parents at individual schools, on the other. If middle management is needed—and it may not be—turn to the mayors. Many are doing a fine job in cities where they have gained control of the schools.

Recast these four core terms—public school, teacher, curriculum and standards, and who's in charge locally—and America will get the education reforms it needs. That is essentially what the governors want—and what the Congress to date has dismally failed to promote. Such changes would unquestionably be good for our children. It might also be good for Republicans. In any case, it is time to embrace them. After all, the way we currently practice education has left a lot of wreckage in its wake.

ACKNOWLEDGEMENT

William J. Bennett and Chester E. Finn, Jr. “Reforming Education in Four Easy Steps.” Washington Times (December 16, 1997).

Reprinted by permission of Empower America.

THE AUTHOR

William J. Bennett is one of America's most influential and respected voices on cultural, political, and education issues. A native of Brooklyn, New York, Bill Bennett studied philosophy at Williams College (B.A.) and the University of Texas (Ph.D.) and earned a law degree from Harvard. He is the Washington Fellow of the Claremont Institute, & a CNN Contributor. Dr. Bennett is the host of a nationally broadcast radio show from 6:00-9:00 a.m. (EST): Bill Bennett's Morning in America.

During the 1980s, Dr. Bennett served as President Reagan's chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities (1981-1985) and Secretary of Education (1985-1988), and President Bush's "drug czar" (1989-1990).

Dr. Bennett has recently completed a two-volume history of the United States, entitled: America: The Last Best Hope, Volumes 1 & 2 — both New York Times Best-sellers. He has written and edited a total of 16 books, including What Works: William J. Bennett's Research About Teaching and Learning, The Educated Child: A Parents Guide From Preschool Through Eighth Grade, The Book of Virtues, The Children's Book of Virtues, The Children's Book of Faith, The Children's Book of Home and Family, The Broken Hearth: Reversing the Moral Collapse of the American Family, and The Moral Compass: Stories for a Life's Journey. He, his wife Elayne, and their two sons live in Maryland.

Copyright © 1997 Empower America


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