The Heart and Soul of an Excellent Education: William Bennett

Published July 1, 2001

“The influence of geographic factors diminishes as technology grows.”
Will and Ariel Durant, The Lessons of History
(Simon and Schuster, New York, 1968)

It’s no exaggeration to say that the technological change that most affected American public education during the last century was the low-tech school bus, rather than advances in communication.

But just as the invention of the electric motor in the 1800s transformed life in the 1900s, the invention of the personal computer and the Internet in the twentieth century is poised to transform life in the twenty-first.

Nowhere is that change likely to be more dramatic than in the nation’s schools, where technology has little affected the basic instructional model since the nineteenth century.

This coming transformation received a huge boost late last year when former U.S. Education Secretary William J. Bennett announced the formation of K12, an Internet-based learning program that will offer an education “as good as that received in the best public and private schools in the country.”

The announcement was significant in two respects: First, K12 has an initial $10 million backing from Knowledge Universe Group; and, second, Bennett hitherto has been highly skeptical about the use of computers in education.

Another unusual aspect of K12 is that the company’s chief technology advisor is David J. Gelernter, a professor of computer science at Yale and self-avowed “anti-cheerleader of computers in education.” He and Bennett share the view that “the well-wrought educational computer should fade into the background” and function simply as a transparent vehicle to link students with educational content. Having said that, they also agree that the power of the Internet to transform the educational experience is “awe-inspiring.”

Bennett has devoted most of his professional life to studying what works in education and to improving America’s schools, most notably as President Ronald Reagan’s Secretary of Education. He has taught at several universities, including the University of Texas, Harvard University, and Boston University. His academic background includes a B.A. in philosophy from Williams College, a Ph.D. in philosophy from the University of Texas, and a law degree from Harvard University. Bennett has written and edited 14 books–including such national bestsellers as The Educated Child, The Book of Virtues, and The Children’s Book of Virtues. Bennett spoke recently with School Reform News Managing Editor George Clowes.

Clowes: What was it that triggered you to form the company?

Bennett: It wasn’t simply my idea. It was Ron Packard’s idea, from Knowledge Universe. He came to see me, and he was carrying a copy of The Educated Child. He said, “How would you like to do this, and make it a comprehensive education program–but you’ll have to provide daily lessons in all of the core subjects, not just year-end summaries?”

Now, I’d been reluctant to do this sort of thing. I’d never joined any boards relating to education after I left the U.S. Department of Education, even though people had wanted me to be on all sorts of things. But as Ron explained it me, I became interested. It was a powerful idea with an uplifting mission.

That said, I was still very worried about the technology piece, so the first person I hired was our chief of technology, David Gelernter–a critic of technology and best known as one of the first targets of the Unabomber. He’s a man whose educational philosophy is very much like mine. I asked him, “Can we do this, and do it right with the technology?” I was not impressed with the technology we’ve seen to date and, based on my review of the research, there was no evidence of a positive correlation between the proliferation of technology and real-world student achievement.

David said, “Yes, I think we can do this right. With the right people, a clear vision, and a focus on what works, we can create something extraordinarily powerful.” So David has been very closely involved in K12 and I think that’s one of the reasons we have such an attractive product.

Clowes: What services is K12 offering to the public?

Bennett: K12 is a comprehensive educational program. It can be used as a school, it can be used as a home tutorial, it can be used as an assessment, but–at its core–K12 will offer every lesson, every day for 13 years in the six major subjects: math, English, history, science, art, and music. We use technology, we use books, we use all sorts of things.

The point is, we’re going to take away the argument that there’s no good fourth-grade history course or eleventh-grade biology course . . . because we’re going to have good courses in every grade in every subject. And we think parents, grandparents, schools, teachers–everybody–can take advantage of this, and should.

A parent could put their child through the entire program, in all six subjects, if they wished. Or they could simply pick one or two subjects and spend just a few hours during the week with K12.

Clowes: So a school could use K12 if it didn’t have a particularly good course in, say, ninth-grade math?

Bennett: Sure they could. We’re hoping, actually, to be doing some remedial work in one of the major urban school districts next summer in early math and reading.

We expect homeschoolers will be a first and obvious audience for our product because they’re already used to doing this sort of thing. And we think our math program, frankly, will be a lot better than what a lot of homeschoolers get.

But when you put out a new educational resource, you don’t know exactly who’s going to use it, or when, or where. The interest so far has been tremendous.

Clowes: When will K12’s services be offered to the public, and how will they be priced?

Bennett: We open this September with kindergarten and first and second grade–though we just began enrolling students in early May. We’ll add grades three through five at the start of our second year, and grades six through eight a year later. Finally, we’ll add grades nine through twelve in September 2004.

If you signed up for all six courses for a year, the cost would be below a thousand dollars–about $895. If you did just one course in, say, art or music, it would be about $250. It’s obviously a lot cheaper than tuition, and it’s a lot cheaper than per-pupil expenditures in public or private schools.

Clowes: What do you want consumers to associate with the K12 name?

Bennett: I think people who know my work would associate what we’re doing with The Book of Virtues, The Educated Child, and other work that I’ve done–that’s the association I want them to have. It’s basics, it’s excellence, it’s the education of character as well as the education of mind. I sometimes say that we are offering the heart and soul of an excellent education.

We also take some direction from E.D. Hirsch’s work on the Core Knowledge program. John Holdren, who developed the sequence and the resource books for the Core Knowledge Foundation, is essentially our dean of curriculum. John oversees a staff of curriculum experts with about 500 years of real-world teaching experience. They work alongside our designers, artists, editors, writers, and technology experts. It’s an extraordinary group of intelligent and hard-working people.

Clowes: What do you see as the major benefits K12 provides for the education consumer?

Bennett: They can trust it. It’s not politically correct, it’s just sound. It’s solid, it’s thorough. The technology gives it advantages, but here, as elsewhere, people can move at their own pace because it’s individualized instruction. Above all, the one thing I always come back to, is the first-rate curriculum. I’m biased, obviously, but I think that this will be the best, most thorough, most engaging curriculum available anywhere in the world.

On a related front: It may comfort some people to know that the first people we hired were teachers, some very successful teachers and principals. We hired people from schools, and we also work closely with hundreds of parents, and they’re the people who are really putting this program together under our direction.

Clowes: Will teachers have any interaction with the students?

Bennett: It depends on whether a family wants to interact with a teacher. There’s interaction with the program, obviously. But there could be interaction with a teacher if that is something a parent wants. It is up to them. This goes back to the flexibility point. K12 can provide complete teacher support to those students who need it and for those families who want it.

In a charter school, there would be regular contact with teachers. For example, if you live in Pennsylvania and enroll your kindergartner, first, or second grader in the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School next year, the state will pay for the whole thing and you’ll not only get the program, you’ll get a computer system, an Internet connection, and a whole lot more, including full teacher support.

Clowes: What resources will K12 provide to support homeschoolers?

Bennett: We’ll have phone lines where students can call up or email with questions. We’ll help as much as we can, but we won’t have anything like you’d have in the Virtual Charter School situation–unless a homeschooling family really wants that and is willing to pay the money for it. In the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, you’d have one teacher for every 40-50 children, which would assume interaction with a teacher at least once a week. That’s not included in our standard K12 program.

We think the prompts, the responses, and the program will be such that people are going to be able to figure it out for themselves. We’re trying to make it so that people are not going to have that much need of consulting with others.

I should add, however, that K12 regards the interaction between parent and child as essential to our purpose. Our program, quite simply, will not work without the devotion of a committed adult. And besides, children don’t enjoy learning as much when they don’t have the support and interest of their parents, and so we offer materials that help parents participate in their child’s learning. And since the program allows the child to work at his or her own pace, parent and child can move through the curriculum at their own speed.

As one of my colleagues, Bror Saxberg–a senior vice president of K12–said the other day: “Kids aren’t hard wired to sit in front of computers all day, they’re wired to chase their mom around.” K12’s technology is not meant to replace a rigorous education. It’s meant to facilitate one.

Clowes: How is the use of computers in K12 different from the use of computers in schools now?

Bennett: I should say up front that some schools are using computers in a smart, productive way. What they understand, and what we remind ourselves at K12 every day, is that computers and the Internet are means, not ends in themselves. I think the logic is reversed in many of today’s schools.

David Gelernter, K12’s chief technology advisor and professor of computer science at Yale, is best on this subject. He understands the power and capacity of computers as well as anyone. But he believes that books and paintings and poems are usually more powerful than microchips, especially when it comes to educating children.

The way we have built our program at K12 allows parent and child to decide together how fast to move along–when to speed forward, when to go back and repeat, and when to dive even deeper.

Clowes: Four out of five new businesses fail. What is it about K12 that’s going to make it successful?

Bennett: Well, every act of investment is a hope, and every act of education is a hope, too.

What we believe is that this is a philosophy, this is a curriculum with a point of view. We think it’s what most parents want, and we think the way we’ve delivered it is very smart, engaging, and effective. More than that, we can’t say.

I can’t promise you we’ll sell a million units or a million families will log on, but I think if people will take a look at what we offer, I don’t think there’s anything quite like the quality and comprehensiveness of K12. It’s all here, not only in terms of all you need but also in terms of comparing what your child is getting to what we think is a first-rate standard. We’re making it the best we can.

Clowes: What do you see as driving the demand for your product?

Bennett: Millions of parents care deeply about their child’s education. If they have access to a program that will help them secure a world-class education for their child, for an affordable price, then I think there will be plenty of demand.

It’s already clear to me that a lot of folks are dissatisfied with the status quo. But we are now getting a glimpse of the next chapter in American education. It’s an exciting time for us.

For more information . .

visit K12’s Web site at For more information about the Pennsylvania Virtual Charter School, visit