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Bennett Says Outsiders Could Help Elementary Schools

September 2, 1986

WASHINGTON (AP) _ America’s elementary schools are ″in pretty good shape″ but still could stand major improvements, including more help from adults without children, U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett says.

Bennett made that assessment in a report on elementary schools, ″First Lessons,″ he was releasing today with an address at the National Press Club. He also marked the start of the school year with a visit to a local grammar school, Amidon Elementary, that his department has taken under its wing.

Presenting the first copy of ″First Lessons″ to Principal Pauline Hamlette at Amidon, Bennett told her, ″A lot of it was inspired by what you taught me about the public schools.″

Bennett visited three first-grade classrooms and was told by Joseph Peters, who turned 6 today, that he planned to learn to read and do math. Another child said, ″We’re going to take a nap. We might have a movie, too.″

But the teacher, Margie Slade, said there were no naps or movies on the schedule, only a story.

Another youngster said one of the lessons he planned to learn this year is ″don’t throw rocks at people.″

″I won’t and you won’t, either,″ said Bennett.

Bennett wrote the 83-page monograph with advice from a study group he set up last year to take the measure of the 80,000 schools that 31 million children attend from kindergarten to 8th grade.

Bennett said elementary schools were overlooked in the spate of recent studies that sounded alarms about U.S. education.

″I conclude that American elementary education is not menaced by a ‘rising tide of mediocrity.’ It is, overall, in pretty good shape. ... Yet (it) could be better still,″ Bennett said in the report, which his department billed as the first major study of elementary schools since 1953.

Bennett said the schools should devote more time to learning, perhaps by lengthening the school year, and loosen ″the chronological lockstep″ that marches children of different abilities through school at the same pace.

He called for ″deregulating the principalship″ so that schools could hire leaders from outside the ranks of teachers, and treating teachers more like professionals, including rewards for outstanding performance.

″The most serious problems facing our elementary schools do not derive from a lack of money; they derive from a surfeit of confusion, bureaucratic thinking and community apathy,″ he said.

″Excellence is not manufactured in Washington. It does not get mandated by state legislatures or appropriated by city councils. It begins with individuals schools and people,″ he said. ″Excellence can be achieved anywhere,″ including ″in the midst of oppressive poverty.″

He said parents ″belong at the center of a young child’s education,″ but need more support from other adults - from friends, neighbors, clergy, television writers, politicians, professors, coaches and the cop on the beat.

″We are allowing too many of our children to spend their days and nights slack-jawed before the tube,″ Bennett said. Children who rely on television for culture ″may know a great deal about rock stars and nothing about Lewis and Clark.″

Bennett said the schools must educate large numbers of children from broken homes, as well as latchkey children and the poor.

But Bennett, himself the product of a broken home, said, ″two neglectful parents are of less use to children than one who is attentive and caring.″

″Saying that poor parents cannot be expected to help because they are poor is snobbism of the worst sort, and it is wrong,″ he said.

He said employers should help their workers ″solve the dilemma of after- school care,″ but he cautioned against looking to government for solutions.

Sam Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Pincipals, praised Bennett for ″using his office as a bully pulpit to say elementary education is critical.″ But he took exception to Bennett’s call for hiring outsiders as principals.

Albert Shanker, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called it ″a mixed bag.″

″If our elementary schools are doing a good job, why all the problems in junior high schools and high schools?″ asked Shanker. ″Just where are we falling down and why?″

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