Secretary of Education William J. Bennett said Tuesday many U.S. elementary schools suffer from defective curricula and need a strong dose of the classics, rigorous math and science and foreign language study in the fourth grade.
Bennett held a news conference to unveil his proposed model, called "James Madison Elementary School: A Curriculum for American Students."He said it is a sequel to the "James Madison High School" model he issued last December, and he joked that this one could be called "Jimmy Madison Elementary School."
He said elementary schools generally are in better shape than high schools, but at most "maybe a third of our schools" are offering a curriculum as strong as the one he favors.
"If there's a crucial point here, it's the fourth grade," he said. "We see a fourth-grade slump in reading, math and science."
He said American grade schools probably devote more time to math than Japanese schools do, but too much of it is spent on dull workbooks and too often parents, teachers and students alike accept the notion that some students just cannot handle math.
"We need a little more persistence," he said.
"We have put together a curriculum for all children," not just for the affluent or college-bound, he said.
Bennett, who is leaving his post Sept. 20, called it "my final report to the American people as secretary."
The report outlines what Bennett calls "a sound elementary school core curriculum" from kindergarten through eighth grade in seven subjects: English, social studies, mathematics, science, foreign language, fine arts and physical and health education.
Its suggested reading list ranges from the tales of Pippi Longstocking and Mrs. Piggle-Wiggle for the early grades to "The Red Badge of Courage" and "Alice's Adventures in Wonderland" for older pupils. Bennett said he emphasized classics "because they are so often missing from elementary school instruction."
Bennett has no authority to force a single school in America to follow any of his suggestions. Public school curricula are determined by state and local school agencies, and private schools are free to set their own courses. The 1979 law that created the U.S. Department of Education specifically forbade the agency from prescribing curricula.
Bennett said he was just offering some free advice.
"I do not presume to instruct teachers - or parents, principals, administrators and school boards - in the details of their daily jobs or in the exact shape, sequence and specialized content of their elementary school curricula," he said.
The document "is not a monolithic program to be uniformly imposed or slavishly followed," he said. Instead, "it is intended more broadly as a statement of goals."
Bennett's suggestions for social studies include: American history in each of the first five grades, world history and geography in sixth and seventh grades, and both world geography and American government in eighth grade.
He would have all youngsters take either algebra or pre-algebra by eighth grade. His science curriculum would be capped with biology in seventh grade and some chemistry and physics in eighth grade. He said foreign language instruction should start "no later than fourth grade."
"We want our students - by the end of eighth grade - to read, write and speak clear and grammatical English, and to be acquainted with the varieties and qualities of fiction and nonfiction literature. We want them to know the essential features of American and world history, the major landscapes and nations of the Earth, and the rights and obligations that belong to citizens of the United States," he wrote.