Today's homework assignment from William Bennett, the secretary of education, is to read his new booklet, "What Works," and write to him with "comments and criticisms." The booklet includes a card on the final page to be mailed to the department.
If only all homework were this easy. Minutes, not hours, will be needed to read the booklet, and seconds to write a one-sentence assessment: "What Works" is an example of how Bennett doesn't work.
The 65-page booklet is a lazy gathering of research on teaching and learning. Most of the information has either been available for years at any public library (or at least ones that have not closed due to Republican fund cuts) or is so howlingly obvious that it doesn't need repeating by the federal government. "What Works" is make-work for officials at a demoralized department headed by an ideologue. The printing costs were $120,000, which is a fraction of the salaries paid more than 60 federal employees who worked full-or part-time on the booklet.
Bennett wants the public to be "armed with good information." The fusillade includes:
"Children improve their reading ability by reading a lot."
"Parents are their children's most influential teachers."
"Children learn science best when they are able to do experiments so they can witness 'science in action.'
"The best way to learn a foreign language in school is to start early and to study it intensely over many years."
"Students read more fluently and with greater understanding if they have background knowledge."
"Parental involvement helps children learn more effectively."
Is it possible that parents and teachers don't know any of this and have been waiting for deliverance by the federal government? Has Bennett, in his quickie visits to classrooms, found teachers who believe that children improve their reading ability by not reading a lot?
It makes you wonder, what world is Bennett in? It isn't the one in which parents find their needs and rights cast aside by a 17 percent cut in federal aid to education in the past five years. Nor is it the one in which Bennett's department would be cut $3.9 billion next year from the 1985 funding level. This includes a reduction of $107 million in handicapped education.
"What Works" omits such unpleasantries. His booklet includes topical quotations from Horace, Plutarch, Plato, Confucius and other voices that high-minded parents should be citing to their children during the evening food fights. Presumably, as a child walks to a school, which no longer has school breakfasts or lunches, no funds for a gym or art teacher, ceilings that need to be stripped of asbestos and lacks money for teachers' aides, he is to get his mind off this daily bleakness by remembering William Bennett's favorite line from Comenius' "Great Didactic": "If we want to educate a person in virtue we must polish him at a tender age." There, kid, you're set for life.
With a short course in "The Great Quotations," plus the "good information," he is arming the public with, Bennett is convinced that the "American people can be trusted to fix their own schools." This is consistent with what he has written on other blackboards. To students in higher education -- the ones with too many cars, stereos and beach vacations -- Bennett has said: "The betterment of oneself in college is still largely a do-it-yourself kind of operation."
Something about college kids irks Bennett. After his "stereo-divestiture" campaign flopped, he announced that he had begun giving to the Selective Service Program the names of students who applied for college aid. This snitching was a first for the feds. The keepers of the draft registration lists could then check to determine if any students were trying to get government money while not registering for the draft, as required by law. Bennett could find nothing in Plato or Confucius on college kids and the draft, so he went with Theodore Roosevelt: "The first requisite of a good citizen in this republic of ours is that he shall be able and willing to pull his weight." That means, ask no questions when your government says jump.
Bennett is an educator who enjoys providing an example: He doesn't ask any questions either. He is a dealer in pat answers, which is what the subtitle for "What Works" ought to be.