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Pressure for school reform is building

By William J. Bennett, CNN Contributor
  • William Bennett: Even before Wisconsin clash, pressure has been building for school reform
  • He says the media, education secretary have highlighted need for change
  • Bennett says parents are opting for school choice, officials looking for reforms that work
  • He says far too many students can't even perform at a basic level

Editor's note: CNN contributor William J. Bennett is the Washington fellow of the Claremont Institute. He was U.S. secretary of education from 1985 to 1988 and was director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under President George H.W. Bush.

(CNN) -- Even before Gov. Scott Walker began headlining the national news and teachers walked off their jobs and joined protests en masse over Wisconsin's budgetary reform measures, the country had been engaging in a serious dialogue on meaningful education reform.

Indeed, both the meaningful education reform and the status quo camps would probably agree, the national mood for the former has never been more on their side.

Item: A liberal Hollywood documentarian makes a movie about the problems in our education system and sides with the movement led by reformers such as Michelle Rhee.

Item: Major media outlets from The New York Times to The Washington Post to the New Yorker highlight the problems in our education system that stem from teachers' unions deemed to be too strong.

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Emanuel takes aim at Wisconsin governor
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Item: A Democratic education secretary gives speeches that embrace much of the reform movement agenda.

Meanwhile, partly due to our information age, partly due to being fed up with a system that seems ossified against reform, more and more parents are becoming more and more familiar with the problems in our education system, asking for something else, electing political leaders who promise meaningful reform and -- often in great majorities -- exercising some form of school choice where they opt out of the traditional school that is geographically assigned to them.

Taking all this into account, and noting the flat line of our students' performance in math, science, reading and history over the past 30 years, more and more education officials are looking at the kinds of reforms (and successes) other states have taken up.

Florida, and the reform agenda former Gov. Jeb Bush instituted there, is one laboratory of experimentation getting a lot of attention these days. Some of his reforms with results include: ending social promotion, implementing performance pay for teachers, allowing alternative teacher certifications and creating a transparent system of grading schools and school districts.

Across the board, our nation's education performance is simply not where it should be. Just a few examples: One-third of our nation's fourth-graders score "below basic" in their reading abilities.

The same is true of more than 25 percent of our nation's 12th-graders. In math, high school seniors do even worse, with more than 35 percent of our nation's 12th-graders scoring below basic.

"Below basic" is a term of art. In reading, this means students scoring "below basic" cannot "locate relevant information," cannot "make simple inferences, and use their understanding of the text to identify details that support a given interpretation or conclusion," cannot "interpret the meaning of a word as it is used in the text." In math, it means students cannot show even a "partial mastery of prerequisite knowledge and skills that are fundamental for proficient work" at their grade level.

And scoring at the "basic" level is, by the way, still not where we want our students. The next level up is "proficient," so "basic" is just about the lowest bar revealing a modicum of ability. "Below basic" is a disaster.

In a system where we Americans spend nearly $600 billion on public elementary and secondary education, we can and need to start to do better.

Much better.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of William J. Bennett.