A Few Lessons Public Schools Need to Learn

As published in World Magazine, April 28, 2001

I have often maintained that the chief enemy of public education in this country is the public education system itself. Bureaucracies at the federal, state, and local levels have become a significant obstacle to an excellent education for millions of American children. Frequently, these bureaucracies are extraordinarily resistant to change, fiercely protective of their own interests, and incapable of allowing any aspect of teaching or learning to go unregulated.

But signs of impatience with these bureaucracies are emerging. I need not remind readers of this publication that homeschooling represents one of the most positive, courageous, and consequential developments in modern-day America. On another front, 32 states and the District of Columbia now support charter schools, which are independently operated public schools absolved of various state regulations in return for verifiable improvements in student achievement. More than 2,000 charter schools in the United States now serve more than 500,000 students.

The time is ripe for the creation of a new educational landscape that exists, above all, to serve the interests of individual children. A healthy K-12 environment will include more homeschools, numerous charter and private schools, and a dramatically improved public school system. As we consider an ideal public school, we can draw on some of the advantages of private schools and particularly of homeschools-and the greatest of these advantages are the adults who are devoted to nothing more than a child’s education.

The ideal public school requires:

A good infrastructure. The building sets the moral tone for the school and affects the attitudes of all inside. The school need not be new or fancy, but it must be clean and safe. Lessons about the importance of self-control or personal responsibility are easier to impart if the school does not have litter-strewn floors, broken windowpanes, and graffiti-covered walls.

In the same way, the good school must have an atmosphere that is safe and orderly. Discipline and academic success go hand in hand. Little learning can go on when fear or chaos reigns. Every child should know the rules of the school and of each classroom, and none should have any doubt that those rules will be enforced consistently and fairly. The school should also have a sensible dress code and a code of conduct that encourages good manners and punishes rudeness. A character honor roll should prominently display the names of students who best live up to the school’s code.

Strong leadership and excellent teachers. To create an atmosphere of safety and discipline, the school will need a strong and caring principal. The presence of metal detectors and security guards may ward off some trouble, but a principal who knows each child-knows that child’s name, knows how well she is doing academically and socially, knows her parents and will not hesitate to call them if problems arise-is a more powerful force for good. The principal would have authority over all aspects of the school, and would be fully accountable for all that happens within its walls.

Perhaps the single most important factor in how much a child learns at school is the presence or absence of a good teacher. The teachers in this school would be experts in their field, hired both for their knowledge and their skills in imparting it. They would be strong role models, people whom parents would want their children to be around and who by their own everyday actions show students how to live. The adults in this school would not be afraid to speak in terms of right and wrong, honest and dishonest, good and bad. They would be energetic, innovative, and passionate advocates of their students’ academic success, doing whatever it takes to help them learn, and infecting them with their own excitement about education.

The academic mission and core curriculum. The principal and teachers would share a common vision of the school’s academic mission. At the center of that mission would be a solid curriculum, a well-defined sequence of academic goals centered on core subjects like English, math, history and geography, fine arts, and science. Students would be required to possess knowledge and skills in order to pass from one grade to the next or to graduate. In science, for instance, first-graders would learn about the placement of the equator and the safety rules for electricity. In math, fourth-graders would be able to identify right, acute, and obtuse angles, and read, write, and compare decimals to the nearest thousandth.

As they move on to middle school, the sixth-graders would be able to memorize a poem like William Wordsworth’s “I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud,” spell words like conscious and separate, and understand the proper use of the semicolon and the comma in complex sentences. Seventh-graders would end their year able to distinguish between impressionism and expressionism in art, and between adagio and allegro in music. An eighth-grader would delve deep into the principles of the U.S. Constitution. He would understand the role of the judiciary in American democracy, the origins of the Cold War, and the geography of the Middle East.

Many schools construct an intelligent course of study, institute rigorous standards, and then let students slide when it comes to meeting actual requirements. Not in this school. Here, the solid curriculum would come with unwaveringly high expectations for every student. A student who does not accomplish the necessary skills or gain the required knowledge would not pass on to the next grade. Period. And while teachers would be allowed some flexibility in their teaching approach, certain common practices like grade inflation, accepting late homework without a good reason, or grading tests on a curve would be prohibited.

Homework and testing. Homework is necessary because an excellent education requires “time on task.” And despite the perennial claims of psychologists and deans of education schools, tests do not hurt children, they help them. Those who worry that a poor grade on a test may crush a student’s self-esteem should consider that cheaply purchased self-esteem does little to help, and much to harm children. The better goal is self-respect earned through hard work.

Not all academic skills come naturally to children, and so they need practice both in and out of school to master them. We can scarcely expect children to solve a math equation on a test or in real life if they have not already worked through many on their own. Knowledge, if it is to be acquired for life (or at least for after the next test), is a matter of familiarity. There is a reason that 99 percent of our college seniors can identify the cartoon characters Beavis and Butthead, but less than 25 percent can identify James Madison as the “father of the Constitution.”

Computers. Over 95 percent of public schools are now wired to the Internet, but educators and parents are increasingly concerned that this simple act has not created the sort of miracle in education promised by so many proponents of technology. Computers offer a wealth of activities, many of them interesting and even educational, and they will no doubt continue to bring significant changes to U.S. education, just as they have changed the way we do our jobs. But in the end, a computer is like a book, a ruler, or any other learning tool. It is only as good as the use to which it is put.

Computers should be used to expand the educational experience beyond what a traditional classroom alone can offer. A distance-learning center, for instance, would allow an expert not on the school’s staff to instruct the class on a specialized subject like steam engines or traditional American folk songs. Virtual science projects might allow students to “dissect” on-screen frogs. The better education software can provide additional drill and practice in certain subjects. And e-mail may be one of the most efficient means for teachers to make contact with parents and students and answer questions outside of class. All of this would help facilitate, not replace a rigorous education.

Tending to the body and the soul. The school we’re imagining would tend not only to minds but also to bodies and souls, as well. Children need physical activity as a complement to their mental activity. I like my own kids, who currently attend religious schools, to be tired when they come home. They should have studied hard, prayed hard, and they should have played hard, too. This school, then, would have a well-organized physical education program and ample time for play and for sports, at recess for the younger children, and in a vigorous team sports program as they grow older.

A critical function of any public school should be to develop the character of each child. Public schools should act as though religion is something good, not something that needs to be warded off. For the true goal of education, as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said, is “intelligence plus character.” Although the family is the first and most important incubator of morality, schools must be an ally of parents in the moral upbringing of the young. By now, we should have learned that schools that insist on being “value neutral” can and often do produce morally indifferent students, and that our society is none the better for it.

The character education provided by the school we envision involves neither a complex series of debates on controversial issues like gun control, nor an add-on, a single day’s lesson in social studies, or a jumble of games and activities. Instead, it would involve training in moral fundamentals in every classroom and in every subject. Teachers of English and history would draw out the moral dimension of historical and literary tales; science teachers would emphasize the importance of diligence and intellectual honesty in collecting and presenting data; math teachers would explain the importance of perseverance in solving tough problems; and art and music teachers would instruct their students in the gentle art of constructive criticism.

Parental involvement. A school is but one part of a child’s education. At most, an American child will spend less than 10 percent of his time from birth to age 18 in school. Obviously, this is not enough time to counter the influences that shape children outside of the school environment. Parental involvement is therefore the one true key to the academic success of a child.

The school I have sketched would not only welcome parental involvement, it would require it. Parents, along with teachers and students, might sign a declaration of mutual responsibility, acknowledging their role in making sure their children arrive at school on time, with the proper attitude toward education and the school and with their homework completed. The teachers and administrators would welcome contact with and regular visits by parents. Parents would be involved with decision-making committees on finances, curriculum, and even the hiring and firing of teachers.

Parents would also be expected to maintain an active role in their children’s education by getting them to bed on time, checking their homework, continuing the lessons of academic discipline, keeping their expectations high and their encouragement strong. In this way, the school would, in effect, operate 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

This is an ideal public school, but it is one that is not out of reach. Models for academic excellence are all around us-again, simply consider the two million homeschooled children who are already receiving an extraordinary education. If we keep our eyes on the goal of giving all kids the best education possible, if we reinvigorate the bonds between students and adults, we can see schools like this grow everywhere. If we base our decisions on the needs of children, and not the convenience of bureaucracies, we will see the abilities, knowledge, and character of our young people soar.

William J. Bennett, former U.S. secretary of education, is co-director of Empower America, co-author of The Educated Child, and the chairman of K12, an Internet-based elementary and secondary school.