High marks for secretary's role

AS school begins this September, William J. Bennett's tenure as United States secretary of education ends. The departure of the big, blunt, outspoken populist-cum-philosophical canon is a graduation both for the man, and for American education. For this reporter, his diploma reads magna cum laude.

Every issue of import he championed is now underlined in the lesson books of America's classrooms: greater choice in the school one's child attends; stronger emphasis on teaching values; high academic standards for all students; more rigorous and regular testing; allowance for alternative methods of bilingual instruction; greater accountability for the high cost and sometimes suspect quality of higher education.

Dr. Bennett spoke directly to the American people. He conducted a conversation that was forthright, that addressed real concerns, and that pulled no punches. He was not a lap dog for the education establishment, nor a proponent for the status quo.

And though he was no slouch in addressing pressing social issues - drugs, AIDS, dropouts - Bennett repeatedly honed his polemic to stress that the business of education was - first, middle, and last - academics. Nowhere was he more emphatic on this than on the fifth anniversary of the watershed report ``A Nation at Risk.''

For five years, teacher salaries increased faster than the rate of inflation. In state after state, governor after governor made heroic efforts to improve schools. Yet Bennett stood before the nation and graded the results no better than a gentleman's C, lamenting that except for a few encouraging signs such as better performance on national tests by minority students, ``the news is not what it should be.'' Reading scores, math scores, writing skills, were at levels where only 1 out of 5 students could be said to be doing well. Improvement was in a ``dead stall.''

Yet one would be hard pressed to challenge Bennett's role as champion of teachers and principals. No previous US commissioner or secretary of education visited more shools (102) and spent more time in classrooms than he. He sought and then extolled what is noble, what is important, and what works in teaching. ``My successor better like visiting schools - not sitting down to lunch with education associations and establishment types'' in Washington is one piece of advice he offers.

Whether or not one agrees with his vision of education, he has spelled it out clearly, without jargon, for all to critique. Two books in particular outline what he thinks should be taught: ``First Lessons'' and ``James Madison High School.'' The two set out an optimum curriculum for students in elementary and secondary schools. Bennett reminds his critics, ``I have no authority to impose a curriculum other than the powers of persuasion.''

Amid a swirling national debate, Bennett's writings - including his statements about higher education in the report ``To Reclaim a Legacy,'' which he wrote when president of the National Endowment for the Humanities in the first Reagan term - leave the American people clear, direct guidelines by which to compare and contrast what is being taught their children.

Bill Bennett will be a tough act to follow.

Jim Bencivenga is the Monitor's education editor. He held a 22-month appointment to the research and statistical arm of the Department of Education while William J. Bennett was the secretary.

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