Bennett at his best

EDUCATION Secretary William Bennett's parting shot before leaving office was well aimed - his call for tougher academic standards in elementary schools. The early grades have been slighted in the recent reform fervor, even though they are the ones getting a demographic boost in numbers of students. So the secretary's ``model elementary curriculum,'' unveiled last week, has a strategic value. If this wave of new students can acquire a taste for learning, they'll be headed toward success in high school and beyond.

Recent reports have exposed young Americans' gross ignorance of geography. A social studies curriculum that includes ``early, continuous, and cumulative instruction in history, geography, and civics,'' as the secretary put it, is therefore crucial. So is his emphasis on acquainting children with the scientific method, as distinct from cold scientific facts and routine computations.

He also outlined ways to put oomph into the study of language and literature. Children's classics, ranging from ``Pippi Longstocking'' to Dr. Seuss to Laura Ingalls Wilder, should be the core of young reading, in his view - replacing what he sees as the pablum in many modern ``readers.'' Under Dr. Bennett's plan, foreign language study would be offered by the fourth grade - an idea long overdue for broader application.

The concept of shared knowledge underlies the secretary's program. Younger children exposed to fundamental ideas in art, science, and literature learn their place in a culture that constantly draws on those ideas. Bennett has done a service in spelling out what some of these ideas are. But his outline is not definitive; it only points the way. Teachers need the flexibility to address the particular needs of particular children. Disadvantaged youngsters are going to need extra help before they can walk the path of learning sketched by the secretary. Such help should be forthcoming, backed by increased government dollars as needed.

Equally important, teachers need the freedom to draw connections between the various disciplines. Kids should understand how science relates to art, and literature to geography. A great need of younger children, and a great talent, is a capacity to see the world as a whole.

In proposing his curriculum, Bennett recognized that many schools in the United States - perhaps a fourth of them - have already moved in this direction. The decision to move further resides with local and state officials. An education secretary can only suggest - and in Bennett's case sometimes harangue. He is forbidden by law to promulgate a national curriculum. But the secretary is right to argue that the traditional excuses - lack of money or bureacratic inertia - can't excuse failure to launch broad early-grade reforms.

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