Washington — Secretary of Education William J. Bennett said yesterday that many American elementary schools suffer from defective curricula and need a strong dose of the classics, rigorous math and science, and foreign language study in the fourth grade. Secretary Bennett held a conference to unveil his proposed model, called ``James Madison Elementary School: A Curriculum for American Students.'' He said it is a sequel to the ``James Madison High School'' model he issued last December.
Bennett said elementary schools are in generally better shape than high schools, but at most ``maybe a third of our schools'' offer a curriculum as strong as the one he favors.
``If there's a crucial point here, it's the fourth grade,'' he said. ``We see a fourth-grade slump in reading, ... math, and science.''
The report outlines what Bennett calls ``a sound elementary school core curriculum'' from kindergarten through eighth grade in seven subjects: English, social studies, mathematics, science, foreign language, fine arts, and physical and health education.
Its suggested reading list ranges from the tales of Pippi Longstocking and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle for the early grades to ``The Red Badge of Courage'' and ``Alice's Adventures in Wonderland'' for older pupils. Bennett said he emphasized classics ``because they are so often missing from elementary school instruction.''
He said American grade schools probably devote more time to math than do Japanese schools, but too much of it is spent on dull workbooks. And too often parents, teachers, and students accept the notion that some students just cannot handle math.
``We need a little more persistence,'' he said. ``We have put together a curriculum for all children,'' not just the affluent or college-bound, he said.
Bennett, who is leaving his post Sept. 20, called it his ``final report to the American people as secretary.''
Bennett has no authority to force American schools to follow his suggestions. Public school curricula are determined by state and local school agencies, and private schools are free to set their own courses. The 1979 law that created the United States Department of Education forbade the agency from prescribing curricula.
Bennett's report profiles seven schools as models of strong elementary curricula: Meridith Magnet Elementary School in Temple, Texas; Miller Junior High School in West San Jose, Calif.; Blaine Elementary School in Blaine, Wash.; School No. 59, Science Magnet, in Buffalo, N.Y.; LaSalle Language Academy in Chicago; St. Patrick School in Miami Beach; and Maryette Elementary School in Stilwell, Okla.