Education Secretary William Bennett has been plumping for higher academic standards in the nation's high schools. Yesterday, he gave substance to his exhortations with the release of "James Madison High School, a Curriculum for American Students."
Students at the mythical school, named for a Bennett hero, would take four years of English and literature; three years of science, math and social studies; two years of a foreign language and physical education; and a year of fine arts.
"We think kids need this," he said.
A lot of parents would agree. Most of us, I suspect, would want our children to have a strong dose of Bennett's "leaner, meaner, better academic medicine." We would love for our children to know more than most high schools teach them of history and geography, of math and science, of literature and language and art. We want our kids to read, as one Bennett anecdote puts it, "what the smart kids read."
That's for our own children. It is when it comes to other people's children that our doubts take over. Our fear, as one superintendent told Bennett, is that "we will have taken the high jump and raised it from five to six feet for a group of youngsters that couldn't jump it at five feet without extra help."
In short, the suspicion is that a curriculum such as Bennett has proposed, while fine for the specially bright and the children of the middle class, would be an academic back breaker for poor and minority youngsters.
In addition, there is the question of where to find the teachers who have been exposed to, let alone who have the ability to teach, the courses Bennett has in mind.
Make no mistake -- he's talking serious stuff: math through advanced calculus; literature from British and American masterworks through Dante, Cervantes, Dostoevski and Ibsen and, "depending on the instructor's knowledge and interest, a small number of works from Japan, China, the Near East, Africa or Latin America."
That last concession notwithstanding, many critics are apt to see Bennett's curriculum as so Europe-oriented as to insult -- and flunk out -- black and Hispanic students. The secretary meets the objections head-on.
"History shows that our pluralism has always posed formidable challenges to our schools. But history also demonstrates that for more than two centuries, American education has welcomed diversity, served classrooms full of the poor and the rich and the in-between, and often successfully bound them together in a cooperative undertaking. . . .
"Today, however, there are some who view with disdain most efforts to restore and maintain high standards and high expectations, as if education reform were a mean-spirited trick to weed out weaker pupils before they get too far.
"That's a discouraging message -- and mostly a false one. In a previous department publication, Schools That Work: Educating Disadvantaged Children, we documented the remarkable academic success of poor, disadvantaged and minority children who, when given a chance at a solid education, take it -- and learn."
Most of us have heard about these remarkable schools -- from Marva Collins West Side Prep in Chicago to the Shawnee Mission South High School in Kansas. But most of these are, by design or function, magnet schools, chosen by parents (you and I?) who have higher academic hopes for their children than the local public schools can meet. Bennett seems to believe what a lot of us will doubt: that the imposition of high standards and "leaner, meaner" curricula can transform ordinary schools into academic oases.
Most of us, I suspect, both agree and disagree with Bennett. We would like to see serious academic reform, but we suspect that many of our big-city and rural schools are essentially beyond reform. We admire that handful of educators who have turned unlikely schools into hothouses of learning, but we don't believe that most educators are capable of such magic.
We shudder at the prospect of huge numbers of poor and minority youngsters being humiliated into dropping out of school, and yet we want these same youngsters, who will be facing unprecedentedly tough job requirements, to be able to compete. We want them to, and simultaneously doubt that they can, learn what the smart kids learn.