Uncle Sam's 41 ways to help children learn

A report Education Secretary William Bennett is to hand President Reagan in a White House ceremony today is unlike any previous federal study on education. Most recent reports on American education have detailed the woes of the nation's school systems. The new study, however, offers some specific solutions -- 41 fundamentals that scholarly research shows will work in helping kids to learn and schools to function better. It is the first time such a set of back-to-basic bedrocks as homework, memorization, discipline, teaching reading by phonics, academic rigor, and the importance of reading to children in the home have been been collected and backed by research.

Critics say the 41 educational truisms are too simplistic. But in an interview, Secretary Bennett called the report -- titled ``What Works'' -- a valid attempt to ``connect scholarship with practice.''

What is more, in keeping with the populist, conservative ideals of the department, the 65-page, easy-to-read booklet is designed to provide parents, teachers, and other concerned citizens with the expertise to challenge their local school systems.

Previously, one Education Department official said, parents wanting to assert the view that a school should assign more homework had only anecdotal evidence to prove the value of such a request.

Education Undersecretary Gary Bauer says the report's findings are nothing more than ``social science validating common sense.''

Department officials hope these ``common sense'' findings will help offset confusion about how to teach children -- confusion they say has resulted from 20 years of liberal education experiments.

``James Madison said, `Knowledge should govern ignorance,' '' Mr. Bennett asserted. ``But that hasn't been true of our recent practices in education. We're hoping this report may change some of that.''

California Superintendent of Schools William Honig said of the 41 findings: ``If we could make them happen, our schools would certainly improve.''

What works in a child's education, according to the report, is most influenced by the home. ``Curriculum of the Home,'' the first finding listed, uses a recent department study showing ``traditional values'' to be twice as important as socioeconomic factors in a child's education. The finding reads:

``Parents are their children's first and most influential teachers. What parents do to help their children learn is more important to academic success than how well off the family is.''

Lois Coit, an outside reviewer for the department, says the report is a reminder to parents that ``15 minutes of reading time matters.''

Though couched in a traditional approach, not all the report's findings are merely ``apple pie.'' The fact that foreign languages are best learned through intensive study begun at an early age, for example, or that gifted students perform better when allowed to ``accelerate'' through school -- are more modern concepts.

One ``state of the art'' finding, says Department of Education official James Bencivenga, an author of the report, centers on teacher collegiality.

``Research shows that if a faculty has an intellectual life of its own, students will learn more, and perform better,'' he says.

Other findings show that children who are encouraged to scribble at an early age are more inclined to write later on; and that they learn science better when allowed to do hands-on experiments.

Initial reaction to the study has been mixed. Michael Kirst, a specialist on education politics, says the trouble with the report is that it doesn't show how to apply these ``absolute findings'' to different school settings.

He adds, however, that ``What Works'' is another example of the ``skillful way the Reagan administration is able to set the dialogue.''

Mr. Kirst, an adviser to Presidents Johnson and Carter, says that in those years ``we used to have to get people's attention by offering huge, expensive grants -- everything was money and contracts.'' In constrast, Bennett is able to get a debate going with just a single report. ``That's good,'' he adds. ``The education community needs that.''

A former National Institute of Education official was more critical, saying the report's research was ``not even close to representative'' of the research available, and instead, ``propagates an ideology of schooling in the garb of research findings. It stops short where the really tough questions start.''

The report ``is the kind of thing that will provoke a good horse-laugh in the education research community. It will be debunked but fast,'' he adds.

Chester Finn, head of the Office of Educational Research and Improvement -- responsible for ``What Works'' -- says the report is not aimed at education researchers.

He adds that it would be fine to wait until we have ``solid knowledge'' in every area of learning, but that we ``sometimes wait too long, particularly in the field of education, where millions of children are affected every day by our actions.''

The report exemplifies the role that Secretary Bennett feels the department should play in education. ``This is just the type of report we should be doing,'' he says. Rather than taking a more-active role in education policy, Bennett would like to see education research simplified for public consumption.

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