Education chief tries to draw consensus out of controversy

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From his first day in office, Education Secretary William J. Bennett made a point of asserting his independence from the education lobby in Washington. Big, bluff, and outspoken, he had no intention of ``speaking softly and carrying a big checkbook.'' The new secretary was intent on having a ``conversation'' with the American people at large, conducting what he hoped would be a meaningful debate about improving the quality of education in the nation's schools, both public and private. Bipartisan support accompanied his appointment, and it was generally agreed he would have a key impact.

But rather than a dialogue, controversy dogged his every public statement -- from positions in support of private-school vouchers, prayer in the schools, and cuts in college financial aid to his choice of ideologically conservative senior staff aides. By his own admission, Mr. Bennett underestimated how deeply Americans felt and how much they had to say about education.

Reflecting on his first three months in office as well as some of his goals for elementary and secondary schools over the next six months, the secretary met with Monitor editors here recently. Despite the controversy that has surrounded some of his statements, he believes the American people do not mind if ``I make a slip-up or two, nor will they turn me off over a single issue.'' They realize that what is at stake for the nation's children is far too important for business as usual, he says.

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From casual chats with fellow passengers at airports to Senate subcommittee hearings, he discovered that ``People don't want to know why you're for something, they want to know where you stand.'' Ernest Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and a former US commissioner of education, notes that Bennett also learned that you have to be much more careful how you say something, as well as what you say.

One thing Bennett is certain about is that there exists a fundamental consensus on what people expect from schools and that this consensus is not very difficult ``to be explicit about.''

He points to the 16th annual Gallup Poll on schools. Parents overwhelmingly said that first, schools should teach children how to speak and write competently. Second, they should help children develop a reliable standard of right and wrong. Both dovetail with two of three major themes Bennett plans to raise, what he has called the three ``C's'': content (or curriculum), character (the primary purpose of schools being to give students a principled understanding of right and wrong), and choice (or tuition vouchers).

On the matter of tuition vouchers, Bennett sees the movement by some parents to send their children to private schools having a very positive effect on public schools. The soul searching it is causing public school teachers and administrators can only spell better education down the road, he says.

``The wealthy have a voucher system already,'' he says. ``They are able to buy the neighborhood of their choice and the good public schools that come along with it.'' But nothing could be further from the fact for the urban poor and minorities.

``School is a necessity for the urban poor,'' he says. Children from the middle- and upper-middle class can recover from a poor education. But ``if poor students, minority students, lose the opportunity for a good education, . . . if the schools are bad, they lose everything,'' says Bennett.

It is obvious that the problems facing city schools call for ``radical'' solutions, he says. He finds completely unacceptable the high dropout rates (40 to 50 percent), poor reading scores, and legions of demoralized teachers and parents associated with these schools. Bennett plans to focus on two strategies: the recruitment, selection, and training of excellent principals; an emphasis on early childhood education.

``All of the evidence shows that you can't have excellent schools in cities without excellent principals,'' Bennett says. It is clear that principals ``should be paid much more than they are.'' But at this point, he is not ready to make any commitment for increased federal spending to pay for the needed higher salaries.

Playing down an increased federal financial role, he is upbeat on the American people's willingness to pay more, some $100 to $200 a year more to support education. Surveys show that people ``will pay it,'' he says, provided they can be shown that competent teachers are in place and positive results will follow. ``The American people do not have a record of stinginess,'' he says.

He is uncertain at what age early childhood education should begin, but three and four years old is not early, by any means. All the ``research'' shows you have to get the parent involved ``at an early age . . . , the best student-teacher ratio is a concerned parent and child,'' he says.

In the ``thinking stage'' is a plan to establish a national commission to help states and school districts attract good teachers. Bennett hopes to reach a decision on whether or not to establish such a commission in the next few weeks. One condition he has already set, should he go ahead with the plan, is that it issue a report in three to six months. He doesn't want a two-year lead time.

The reason for the urgency is obvious, he says. California alone must find 114,000 new teachers by 1992, at which time it will be educating 15 percent of the nation's pupils. Bennett is in favor of alternative certification procedures for teachers, especially if they result in a better mix of competent, liberal-arts majors rather than relying so heavily on education majors.

He is supportive of a national teachers' exam, as called for by Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers and endorsed by Mary Futrell, president of the National Education Association. He applauds Mr. Shanker's recent call for public schools to offer the ``widest possible choice'' to parents and students.

Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor.

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