WASHINGTON — Education Secretary William J. Bennett, kicking off the school year, said today that a longer academic year, improved teacher training and more emphasis on the basics would make elementary schools "better still."
"After studying elementary schools, visiting them, discussing them, and consulting with some of the country's leading educators, I conclude that American elementary education is not menaced by a 'rising tide of mediocrity,' " Bennett said in a 65-page treatise, "First Lessons: A Report on Elementary Education in America."
"It is, overall, in pretty good shape," he said. "Yet, elementary education in the United States could be better still."
Bennett's report was markedly more upbeat than a report on the U.S. educational system by a national commission in 1983 that warned: "The educational foundations of our society are presently being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people."
That report, commissioned by Bennett's predecessor, Terrel H. Bell, has been credited with sparking a national drive to improve the nation's schools.
Sees New Baby Boom
Bennett presented the report, which included suggestions from a 21-member study group, at the National Press Club.
Bennett, whose main reference to money was a call for more corporate donations, said 50 million children will attend elementary school in the next decade, with enrollments in the mid-1990s approaching those of the baby boom years after World War II.
To meet the challenge, he said, elementary teacher education programs should be revamped to put more emphasis on basic knowledge and less on classroom skills.
"The current method of training elementary school teachers should be jettisoned," Bennett said. "I believe it soon will be."
Bennett also said schools should consider longer school days or a 12-month school year, citing "considerable evidence that a four-quarter system leads to increased achievement."
He said students should be promoted only when they master course work, not in "chronological lock step."
New Role for Principals
Reading, writing, mathematics, science and social studies must be taught more effectively and principals will need to think more like entrepreneurs to spread limited resources over expanded programs, he said.
"We should deregulate the principalship. Not having taught should not be an insuperable barrier" to the job, he said, and school systems should look beyond their own ranks to business, the military and government for administrators.
Starting teacher salaries should be raised, but overall, teachers should be paid "on the basis of quality rather than seniority," he said, and more teacher aides should be used to free teachers up for teaching.
Lyle Hamilton, spokesman for the 1.8-million-member National Education Assn., said the report is "perplexing" because it praises the status quo, "then lays out significant problems in reading and writing."