Former education secretary speaks to Idaho leaders

Former U.S. Secretary of Education William Bennett discussed his priorities for education — and sprinkled in some humor — in a speech to most of Idaho’s top political leaders.

At one point, Bennett joked about the way his wife helped their two boys with science projects.

“She cheats a little.  “She was responsible for helping with science and I had math. She once asked me if it is the theory of the U.S. Secretary of Education that the louder you yell at a child the more likely it is that he learns?

“She was right in that yelling doesn’t help when teaching math. But it does work on the football field.”

His audience erupted in laughter.

Idaho Business for Education
Skip Oppenheimer, Bob Lokken and Gov. Butch Otter

Bennett spoke Wednesday morning to a full Lincoln Auditorium at the Statehouse, during a Legislative Academy sponsored by Idaho Business for Education.

The audience included Gov. Butch Otter, former state superintendent Tom Luna and several top lawmakers. Current state superintendent Sherri Ybarra came in late and missed most of the event, including an opening introduction.

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IBE Board Chair Skip Oppenheimer ensured lawmakers that the 115 IBE members (representing virtually every major corporation in Idaho) support the 20 education recommendations developed by the Governor’s Task Force for Improving Education.

“We support 100 percent the implementation of each of those and we are here to help in any way you think is useful or worthwhile,” he said.

Otter reaffirmed “education is extremely important” to him and a priority as he starts his third term. Otter is recommending a 7.4 percent increase in K-12 funding.

Bennett was U.S. Secretary of Education from 1985 to 1988. He also held the post of Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy under George H. W. Bush. Bennett is the author of 24 books and now a conservative political pundit who hosts a morning radio show.

On Wednesday, he told stories about attending the Idaho State Fair and winning a large stuffed animal he named “Idaho” and about biking through Stanley and attempting to climb Mount Borah.

While serving as secretary of education, Bennett visited 120 schools, including a middle school in North Idaho’s Osburn.

He told a story about speaking at a school assembly about equality, emphasizing to the kids that all people are equal in God’s eyes and the eyes of the law.

To make his point clear, he asked three students — Kyle Jack and Sarah — to join him on stage.

“Who is the biggest?” he asked them.

In unison they answered: “You are!”

“Who is the oldest?”

They repeated: “You are!”

“And who is the smartest?”

In unison they said: “Kyle!”

Bennett said he has told the story many times over the last 30 years and he recently heard from Kyle, who confirmed he’s still the smartest and a successful business and family man.

Bennett offered his views on a range of education topics:

  • Standards are an essential part of accountability.
  • Accountability is an essential part of improving education.
  • Common Core is not a curriculum but rather a set of standards.
  • Home schooling has its place in education.
  • Reading is the key to student success. A broad and rich vocabulary is the best predictor of success in college and career. “Get every child in the third grade to be competent in reading.”
  • The United States has far too many tests and not enough good ones.
  • Outcomes should be measured in a variety of ways, including multiple-choice tests, essays and portfolios.
  • Interest in math and science directly relates to success in math and science. “Get kids interested.”
  • The single most important thing in a child’s development outside the parent is the teacher.
  • Civics education and American history are our worst subjects. “Children don’t know about the country in which they live.”
  • Good teachers should be rewarded. Teachers who rise up and engage children should be compensated.

“Remember this,” he said. “If you take third-graders who are 50 percent proficient and give them a great teacher, those kids will excel to 80 percent in two years. If you give them a poor teacher, they will perform at 30 percent proficient. What more do we need to know?”