The school year is beginning with orations by educrats, but William Bennett, secretary of education in the Reagan administration and now a national radio talk show host, sees things differently. Bennett earned a Ph.D. in philosophy at The University of Texas at Austin and has written or edited 20 books, including The Book of Virtues and The Book of Man: Readings on the Path to Manhood (Thomas Nelson, 2011). Here are edited excerpts of his remarks on education before a noontime gathering at Patrick Henry College.
Do we need a Department of Education? We don't need a Department of Education. Our test scores are lower since the department has been established than before. I don't think it's primarily because of the Department of Education-watch out for post hoc ergo propter hoc-but it certainly hasn't helped.
What's the department's most popular program? When I was there we polled all the people who got our grants. The most popular program we ran was the block grant to the states. We take your money, take 10 percent out, and send it back to you. Why don't we not take it in the first place?
What about the Department of Education's grantmaking? The department has messed things up by requiring ridiculous amounts of paperwork from schools and colleges, and by creating disincentives through complicated programmatic decisions. Example: One school district has many students with learning disabilities who are way behind in math and reading, so it gets a lot more money. I say to that district's superintendent, "You've got a struggling district here, huh?" He says. "No, we're doing great. We just lie about how many students we have so we can get more money." Not the highest ethical standards, but the incentives are all in the wrong place.
No Child Left Behind is a decade old. It was essentially a deal between George W. Bush and Ted Kennedy: Bush wanted testing, Kennedy wanted money. They agreed that each could have what he wanted, but now that the tests have shown so many schools failing, we're throwing out the tests. Were Republicans and President Bush snookered? Yeah, they were snookered. I gave it mediocre support because at least it said there is no federal entitlement.
Did you like the testing component? No Child Left Behind said: If you are getting federal money we want to know how your students are doing. That's perfectly reasonable: We give you money so children can succeed and we want to know if the children are succeeding. The problem is that the standard of measurement was all wrong: We let the states pretty much pick their own devices. As a result you ended up with this Lake Wobegon business where every state has 85 percent of its students testing above the median.
A mathematical miracle. Everybody's good looking, everybody's smart, everybody's testing well until we go to the NAEP, the National Assessment of Educational Progress. Then we find out we haven't improved since 1963. We're 25th in the industrialized world.
How can American education improve? Education gets better locally. The single most important adult in a child's life is the parent. The single most important thing about the education of the child needs to be the parent, and the parent's attitude toward education: Not how much he or she knows, but attitude. The parent can be illiterate, not able to do any of the homework with the kid, but still saying, "This is important. You turn off the TV. You do your work. You listen to the teacher."
And does that teacher need to be good? The research on this is fascinating: There's a ton. It's not class size. It's certainly not facilities. It's not technology. It's the quality of the adult in front of the classroom. The research is clear: You are much better off in a bad school with a good teacher than a supposedly really good school with a bad teacher. If you take kids from the 50th percentile in the third grade, and you give them a teacher everyone regards as excellent, in two years they'll be at the 85 percentile. You give them a teacher everyone regards as not very good, in two years they'll be in the 35th percentile. What more do you need to know about evaluating teachers and rewarding excellence?
Much better to have an excellent teacher with a large class than mediocre teachers with small classes? Absolutely. Class size makes no difference. Parents like it. Kids sometimes don't like it because they can't get away with as much. Class size is loved by the teachers unions and loved by parents, but it makes no difference educationally.
If we reduce class size by hiring bad teachers, we make things worse. Eric Hanushek at Stanford has estimated that if you could remove the bottom 10 percent, in terms of quality, from the American elementary and secondary school teaching force, America would go from 25th to 10th in the world. That's the drag the bottom 10 percent puts on. Now the people in the 30th and 40th percentile aren't rocket scientists and maybe aren't even very bright, but they can get it done through the drills and the homework. We need to get rid of the people who get everything wrong in the classroom and demotivate the kids.
A decade ago we had two major conservative positions on fixing education. One emphasized mandatory testing. The second emphasized decentralizing mechanisms like tax credits and vouchers. The first didn't work. Is it time to take another shot at the second? Yes, decentralize as much as possible. Put the money or the voucher in the backpack of the student. Let the student go wherever the parent wants the child to go: private school, public school, religious school, homeschool. Full scale choice all the way.
Can we improve K-12 education funding by following the funding model for higher education? There are a lot of things wrong with American higher education, but choice isn't one of them. You can take a guaranteed student loan or Pell grant and study at a Baptist college your first year, a Catholic one your second, and Hindu and Jewish ones your third and fourth years. You'll be theologically confused, but you'll be entirely within the Constitution because, when it comes to federal student aid for higher education, we don't care where you take it.
That's not the case at the elementary and secondary levels. Where it's much more needed. As important as college is, kindergarten and grades 1-3 are more important, and much more formative.
Watch Marvin Olasky's complete interview with William Bennett: