The purpose of this book is to help you secure a good education for your child from early childhood through the eighth grade. As far as learning goes, these years are far and away the most important. They are the time when children acquire the bricks and mortar of a solid education -- the knowledge, skills, habits, and ideals that will serve as the foundation of learning and character throughout their lives. If that edifice is solid by the end of eighth grade, then a student's future is bright indeed. If poorly constructed, the outlook is much dimmer.
Our aim is three-fold. First, we hope to remind parents of their own responsibilities in educating their children. There are few secrets to raising good students. What needs to be done is mostly a matter of common sense. But there is much you can do, and a few things that you must do, to see that your child learns well.
Second, this book will help you determine whether your school is doing a good job. Many parents assume that their children's schools maintain high expectations and offer a quality education. They naturally want to believe that the academic program is strong. Our message to you is: "Trust but verify." The reality is that too many American schools are not doing right by their pupils. In the coming chapters, you'll find some tools you can use to figure out whether your child is truly getting a good education, and some suggestions about how to correct problems at school.
Third, this book paints a fairly detailed picture of what a well-educated child knows and can do. For much of American history, there existed the idea of a "good education." It meant possessing certain knowledge and skills, and behaving in a certain way. Today, regrettably, such a vision is missing from many schools. They are reluctant to specify the lessons that all children should learn. This is a shame, because some things are more important to know than others.
This book helps you know what to look for in a good education. It reminds you of what to stand for as a parent, and what you should not stand for. It draws on common sense, the experience of many teachers and parents, the wisdom of the ages, and much of the best available research. We can all use allies in our efforts to raise children. Think of this book as an ally to help you keep yourself, your child, and your school on track.
You Are Your Child's Most Important Teacher
There is an old saying that a parent's heart is the child's schoolroom. Your dreams, your efforts, your examples and loving exhortations -- these set the boundaries of your child's education. The seminal lessons taught in the home stay with children as they make their way through school and life, shaping their interests, ideals, and enthusiasm for learning. Parents are children's first and most important teachers. Raising your child is your number one job. Seeing that he gets a good education is, in many respects, the crux of that task.
The pressures of time, work, and competing interests tempt us to hand more and more of our educational responsibilities to others. Parents often get a subtle, alluring, but deeply damaging message from today's culture: your role is not quite so important after all. You can delegate. You can outsource. Children will suffer no harm -- in fact, they may reap some benefits -- when they get more of their care and guidance from others. Specialists and experts can fill in for you, pay attention for you, make decisions for you, give guidance where you cannot. Let others take charge of education: curriculum directors, counselors, child care professionals, even children themselves. It is a seductive siren song. It gives the green light for surrendering part of a sacred duty.
You must resist these temptations. For good or ill, you are always your child's most influential teacher. Even when he reaches school age, you are still the dean-at-home, the chief academic officer. The more involved you are, the better your child's chances of getting a good education. If you begin to remove yourself from the learning process, those chances start to plummet. If you turn over your most important responsibilities to others, you may doom his school career. That amounts to educational abandonment, a pernicious form of child neglect. You need to be in charge of your child's education. So take charge.
Several critical elements can come only from you. First among these is your love. The psychologist Urie Bronfenbrenner says that the one indispensable condition for a child's successful upbringing is that at least one adult must have a deep and irrational attachment to him. In other words, someone must be absolutely crazy about that child. Children are put on this earth to be loved. They need unconditional devotion (not unconditional approval). When they grow up knowing that an adult is always there as guardian angel and guide, they thrive. When they sense that such devotion is missing, things can begin to go terribly wrong with their educations and their lives.
Your attitude about education is another key predictor of academic success. Your child looks to you for cues about what is important in life. He is always watching for your approval or disapproval, for your interest or indifference. If you care, he cares. If he sees that you value learning, he will probably do the same. If he observes you putting education second or third, he may not take his schoolwork seriously. Consistent reinforcement means everything. The messages you send determine in no small way how well your child reads, writes, and thinks. Every morning, you must send him off to school with a good night's sleep, a decent breakfast, and a positive attitude toward learning.
Instilling the highest ideals is crucial: Belief in the value of hard work. A strong sense of responsibility. A willingness to keep trying until success finally comes. Respect for legitimate authority. Such traits are the engines that power learning at school, in college, and in life. Academic success depends on them. Transmission of these virtues is more than just part of the territory of parenthood. It is a fundamental obligation.
Your expectations are all important. Children strive to clear the bars that their parents set. So long as those standards are fair and reasonable, they help kids flourish. Parents' expectations determine whether children finish homework on time and study for tests. They separate good students from bad. They help set the course of life. It is said that Abraham Lincoln's mother told him over and over again what kind of good, hardworking man she hoped he would become. Many years later Lincoln observed, "All that I am, and all that I hope to be, I owe to my angel mother." Setting standards for children is not placing a burden on them. It is an expression of love and confidence.
Good students usually come from homes where moms and dads have tried to create a rich learning environment. They've stimulated their children's curiosity by showing them that the world is a fascinating place and helping them explore it. This does not require you to spend lots of money or have a degree in education. It mostly consists of seeing that your child grows up with interesting things to do. It means reading aloud to him, and listening to him read aloud. It means playing games, asking and answering questions, explaining things as best you can. It means exposing him to varied experiences and visiting places together -- taking walks in the woods, working in the garden, occasionally going to a museum or monument. Such activities turn children into curious students.
Education success comes from putting enough time into the right work. What one spends time on is what one ends up knowing. If your child spends endless hours playing video games, he will know all the ins and outs of video games. If he spends time on math and science, then that's what he will know. Academic achievement also hinges, to no small degree, on the time you devote to education. If you spend time helping your loved one learn to read, master those multiplication tables, and listen carefully when others are talking, his chances of doing well in school are much better.
Know what your child is doing -- where he is, who his friends are, what books he reads, what movies he sees. Keep track of schoolwork -- what he is learning, whether he's finishing his assignments, if he's prepared for that upcoming test. The parents of good students keep an eye on what the school teaches. They have a sense of the expectations it maintains, the discipline it requires. Your child's education demands your vigilance. You must stay alert. No one else will do it for you. When a parent's attention wanders, a child may quickly veer off the learning track. It may be harder than you think to get him back on.
You teach by example. Aesop tells a wonderful fable about a crab and his son scurrying over the sand. The father chastised his child: "Stop walking sideways! It's much more becoming to stroll straightforward." The young crab replied: "I will, father dear, just as soon as I see how. Show me the straight way, and I'll walk in it behind you." There is nothing like the quiet power of intellectual example and moral example. Parents teach in everything they do. More often than not, your child will walk it the way you walk it.
For most moms and dads, faith is a crucial part of education. Believing that children are moral and spiritual beings, they want their loved ones to be educated in a way that reflects those beliefs. Public schools, by law, cannot be of help in the inculcation of faith. But there are other institutions -- churches, synagogues, mosques, and of course religious schools -- that can be critical teachers. Bear in mind that religious training can help young people become better students, and there is ample evidence that faith safeguards children from threats that wreck educations at an early age, such as drugs, alcohol, and sexual experimentation.
The rules you maintain lie at the foundations of a good education -- rules such as "All schoolwork must be finished before you talk to your friends on the phone," and "Always speak politely to teachers." Without clear direction from parents, most students do not know how to conduct themselves.
Rules about television are especially critical to academic success. In this country, television has become an enemy of education. In many homes, it is a constant interference with learning. Television is not only a distraction and sometimes a cesspool, but watching it also means your child is losing the opportunity to do something more valuable. Almost anything else -- reading, exercising, playing a game, talking with parents, even sleeping -- is a better use of your child's time. The research is clear: excessive television hurts a youngster's school achievement. A TV set on all the time is a sign of parental indifference. Yes, there is some good TV, but if you care about education, your youngster cannot sit slack-jawed hour after hour in front of the tube.
These, then, are the fundamentals. Your love. Your attitude about education. Your efforts to stimulate your child's curiosity. Your ideals, rules, and expectations. The time and attention you pay, and the examples you set. These themes are at the core of this book. They are necessary ingredients on your end. They do not guarantee academic achievement, but they make it much more likely. They put your child's education in the hands best able to direct it: yours.
Lessons That Good Schools Teach
Parents often attach the most importance to higher education, yet elementary school has a far greater impact. Except for family and church, no institution is so influential. We ask elementary schools to help shape our students' first and lasting ideas about themselves, their country, and the world. We expect them to teach basic knowledge and nourish the appetite for learning. In the K-8 years, children gain -- or fail to gain -- skills they will need throughout their educations and careers. They develop habits and values they will carry the rest of their days. Elementary school is an invitation and encouragement to a fulfilled life. In educational significance, its mission dwarfs all others.
The authors have visited hundreds of schools across the country. We have learned that good elementary schools share a certain character or ethos. They teach certain lessons and uphold certain ideals. It takes no expertise to recognize whether a school is doing right by its students. You can begin to get a good sense of it just by spending a little time in its classrooms and corridors.
Good schools attend to the basic subjects: English, history, geography, math, science, art, and music. They focus on these academic fundamentals. They don't clutter the curriculum with so many other topics that the basics get pushed aside. Students know that learning this core curriculum is serious business.
Good elementary schools concentrate on essential skills. Perhaps most of all, that means teaching students how to comprehend the written word. Reading is the heart and soul of elementary education. If a child goes on to high school unable to read fluently, his chances for academic success are in great peril. Other vital skills also need to be mastered before eighth grade. We expect elementary schools to teach children to speak and write well; to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and measure things; to think logically and clearly; to ask good questions, analyze problems, and search for correct answers.
Knowledge is just as important as skills. Good elementary schools recognize that there are some facts and ideas that all American students should know. For example, they teach students what a right triangle is, what happened in 1776, where the earth is in our solar system, what a Trojan horse is. Good schools spell out for parents the fundamental knowledge they intend to transmit. Teaching it is serious work, not a chance by-product of learning skills.
Elementary schools hold the responsibility of transmitting to each new generation what may be called our "common culture," the things that bind Americans together as one people. In its highest form, this common culture is the sum of our intellectual inheritance, our legacy from all the ages that have gone before us. It is the knowledge, ideas, and aspirations that shape our understanding of who we are as a people. Our common culture is found in documents such as the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence; in principles such as the belief that all men are created equal; and in events from our past, such as the landings of the Mayflower at Plymouth and the Eagle on the moon. It lies in great stories and poems, such as Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol and Emma Lazarus's "The New Colossus." Americans of all backgrounds want schools to acquaint children with our common legacy. As the journalist Walter Lippmann once observed, no culture can survive that is ignorant of its own traditions.
Teaching cultural literacy is part of the effort of raising good citizens. This task, too, belongs in considerable part to the elementary school: to help lay the groundwork for young people's eventual entry into the democratic community of responsible adults. Teachers acquaint pupils with their rights as well as their duties to their fellow citizens and their country. Teddy Roosevelt once said that "the first requisite of a good citizen in this republic of ours is that he shall be able and willing to pull his own weight." Good schools teach such civic virtues. They help children learn to live up to their obligations, not to shrink from toil, and to give others the respect they are due. They teach them to recognize America's faults, but also to offer this country the great honor it deserves. They help children become, in Madison's words, "loving critics."
In that vein, good elementary schools help parents develop character in children. They never lose sight of the fact that the formation of intellect and character go hand in hand. In training young hearts and minds toward the good, they make conscious efforts to inculcate virtues such as self-discipline, diligence, perseverance, and honesty. Teachers cultivate these traits largely through the formation of habits: getting to class on time, being thorough about assignments, saying "Yes, Ma'am" and "Yes, Sir" to teachers, cleaning up after oneself. They offer lessons that appeal to children's moral imaginations. They help students come to know virtue.
These are lessons that good elementary schools must teach. Our system of education is like a pyramid. Success at each level -- high school, college, and beyond -- depends on earlier preparation. Mediocrity at any stage will diminish possibilities for the next. A cracked foundation threatens the whole.
Will Your School Educate Your Child Well?
It is well documented that many U.S. schools are not meeting today's challenges. Surveys and test scores are disheartening. The National Assessment of Educational Progress reports that fewer than one third of fourth graders are "proficient" readers. Nearly 40 percent read below the "basic" level, which means they can barely read at all. In math, nearly 40 percent of eighth graders score below basic. Americans are now sadly accustomed to newspaper reports that fewer than one in five American children knows the purpose of the Declaration of Independence, or that one third of high school seniors can't identify the countries we fought during World War II.
Employers complain that many job applicants lack the basic reading and math skills they need to perform the jobs they are seeking. They say that many students come out of school with poor work habits, including disorganization, irresponsibility, and an inability to get to work on time. College officials voice similar concerns. Nationwide, about three in ten first-time college freshmen now have to take remedial courses in reading, writing, or mathematics. As Steven Sample, president of the University of Southern California, has observed, "A country that has the best universities in the world has among the worst elementary and secondary schools."
There are some bright spots in the academic record, particularly in the lower grades. In international math and science tests, for example, American fourth graders fare well compared with students in other nations. By the eighth grade, however, their performance is middling. By twelfth grade, they occupy the international cellar. In math and science, American seniors are among the worst in the industrialized world.
Clearly something is going wrong, particularly in the middle and high school grades. Unlike students in other countries, our kids seem to do worse the longer they stay in school. By the end of eighth grade, many are ill-prepared for the kind of high school education we want them to have.
The U.S. has been "reforming" its schools for the better part of two decades. We've tried a hundred different programs and a thousand gimmicks. We've poured in countless billions of dollars. Yet it's clearer than ever that none of these nostrums has worked -- and some have made matters worse. It is deeply disturbing that in the most prosperous country in the world, our education system is failing so many of our children.
Low academic standards afflict many schools. Textbooks, tests, and assignments are watered down. "We're just demanding less and less, all the time," says a veteran North Carolina teacher. "I'm teaching lessons in the eighth grade that I used to teach in the sixth." Students learn to get by with less than their best. "No one corrects bad spelling or punctuation -- and we're talking about third grade," says one worried mom. "Everyone gets a gold star." Some schools seem to have forgotten that there is a difference between making a lesson interesting and making it easy. "My seventh grader spent the last two weeks of social studies class cutting pictures out of magazines," another parent reports. "What is he learning? He's getting real handy with the scissors."
Some schools do not focus enough on basic subjects. Judging by their students' assignments, learning to cherish the rain forests, recognize ethnic foods, and feel good about oneself have become more important than mastering the three Rs. It's not that matters like respecting the environment are not important. They are. But too often they are used as an excuse not to tackle the tough academic fundamentals. Remember, education is largely time on task. We learn what we do. If a child does not work many math problems, we ought not be surprised that he doesn't know much math.
In many places, educators no longer take responsibility for stating which facts and lessons are most important to know. They no longer say: "Here is what we will teach your child before he leaves us. This is what a good education looks like." Instead, they talk about teaching students to "learn how to learn," and remain vague about exactly what they should learn. Some schools look largely to children's preferences, instincts, and feelings as teaching guides. For example, in one school saluted for its progressive attitude, the principal proudly announced that he uses "the smile gauge" -- if students are smiling, they are doing their jobs. This is a questionable approach to teaching and learning, to say the least.
The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge once invited a friend with such notions of education to view his garden. "But it is covered with weeds," his friend said in surprise. Coleridge explained that he was letting the garden make up its own mind about what to produce. "The weeds, you see, have taken the liberty to grow," the poet explained, "and I thought it unfair of me to prejudice the soil towards roses and strawberries." If schools do not spell out what a student should learn, you can count on his education being choked with weeds.
In some schools you find an unruly atmosphere. Kids act up, use foul language, talk rudely to teachers -- and get away with it. The adults in charge are unwilling to tell them to sit down, be quiet, and get down to work. In some places, we've forgotten that self-discipline is not the enemy of learning -- or of happiness. It is, rather, a necessary condition. We act as if young people cannot develop the self-control to pay attention, do what the teacher says, and stick with assignments until they get them right. We've given up the notion of insisting on studious, respectful children.
Many schools no longer possess a moral center. Their teachers have been discouraged from taking up character training in a direct fashion. They are reluctant to "impose their values" on students. Their overriding concern is to demonstrate how tolerant they are of others' behavior and choices. Saying to children "What you are doing is bad and wrong" might trample their rights, inflict feelings of shame, or damage their self-esteem. Meanwhile, more and more young Americans graduate with a shaky sense of right and wrong.
Let us be clear. The United States is blessed with a number of excellent elementary schools. Many, however, are mediocre, and there are some that we would not wish on any child. Here is the bottom line: you cannot automatically assume that your school is doing a good job teaching your child -- even if it assures you that it is. You must pay attention and look to see exactly what sort of education your child is getting.
Our Schools and Our Culture
It would be easy to point fingers at the schools and say, "There lie all our problems." There is no doubt that the school system is the source of many of its own shortcomings. But the truth is that U.S. schools are filled with dedicated teachers and principals who want more than anything else for American schoolchildren to succeed. These people are on the front lines. They see firsthand what's right and what's wrong in our classrooms. They are heartbroken that so many of their schools get mediocre results.
Talk to these women and men, and you begin to sense deeper problems at play, problems larger than the schools themselves. The disturbing news is that many teachers feel as though they are working with little help from parents. They express dissatisfaction, worry, even bitterness over their circumstances. They are convinced that many schools struggle partly because parents are not holding up their end of the bargain. These educators are right.
According to the research organization Public Agenda, more than four out of five public school teachers say many parents fail to set limits and create structure at home, fail to control how much time their kids spend with TV, computers, and video games, and refuse to hold their kids accountable for their behavior or academic performance. Too many moms and dads are failing to get their children interested in learning. They are not making sure that assignments get done. They are not teaching the self-discipline, perseverance, and respect that enable students to succeed.
This lack of supervision yields real classroom consequences. Nearly seven in ten teachers say they face a serious problem because so many students try to get by doing as little work as possible. More than half say they have serious problems with students failing to do homework. And more than four teachers in ten point to kids who are disruptive in class. "Very few students bring good habits to class," says an Indiana teacher. A Nebraska teacher agrees: "Parents are not sending them to school prepared. Simple things like basic manners, but lots of parents don't do this anymore -- 'please, thank you, close your mouth when you chew.' The parent hasn't taught the child: 'Get your things together the night before, leave them in front of the door.'...Today's kids need more than what they're getting."
To be sure, many youngsters still come from homes where the message from parents is: "We care about what you are doing, we want to be involved, and we're with you every step of the way." But in other homes the signal to the school is: "Here are our children. They're in your hands now. Let us know how it turns out." As Diane Ravitch of New York University observes, too many mothers and fathers have the attitude that school is like a car wash where you drop the child off at one end and pick him up at the other. They do not realize that, to get a good student, you have to be involved in the washing.
More and more, America has asked schools to fill in the gaps and pick up the slack where families leave off. We've tried to turn schools into the first line of defense against problems far beyond their competence to handle successfully. Teachers today tell us that much of their time is spent "raising children" -- teaching them the basics of hygiene, manners, and rudimentary respect for the rights and property of others. They counsel children of divorce, teach kids the facts of life, and train them in "conflict resolution." Meanwhile, we also expect them to make sure students learn to read, write, multiply, and divide. More than four out of five teachers say that many parents expect the school to do their job for them. Half of parents surveyed say schools should be able to do a good job with students whose moms and dads pay little attention to discipline and supervising behavior!1
Such expectations are unreasonable. We should not ask schools to take on basic socialization and basic academics. There simply is not enough time. Even with perfect school attendance, American children spend less than 10 percent of their time from birth to age eighteen in school. There is no way that 10 percent can overcome what is happening -- or not happening -- in the other 90 percent. When schools stray too far from teaching basics like English, science, and history, they take time away from what they can do best.
We can't expect teachers to produce good students if we don't send them the right sort of raw material -- youngsters who are well behaved and eager to learn. If parents don't spend enough time with their kids, don't try to get them interested in reading, don't pay attention to homework, and don't see that children are prepared for tests, the school's job is next to impossible. When students come to class with a cavalier attitude about education, poor work habits, little self-control, and no respect for authority, a good education is already out of reach.
If we've learned anything in the last three decades, it is this: schools cannot take the place of moms and dads. When parents are distracted from their most important responsibilities, it is exceedingly difficult for teachers to fill the breach.
In the end, it is hard to escape the conclusion that what we see in our classrooms is a reflection of the larger culture, and that the mediocrity of our schools is part of a general lowering of standards. We have teachers who shy away from teaching right and wrong because they've been made to feel that the greatest sin is to be "judgmental." We have administrators who fear strict discipline because they don't want to get sued by parents. We have kids coming to class who've spent thousands of hours in the company of TV shows, movies, video games, and music which celebrate trash: profanity, violence, promiscuity, foul language, and rebellious attitudes. We have parents who rarely complain when their kids get lots of As in "fun" courses but turn plaintive when teachers try to give more homework or raise standards. If this is the world in which our schools have to operate, no wonder the education system has problems.
We repeat: many schools do a fine job. Likewise, millions of devoted parents want to do everything in their power to see that their children get good educations. Still, when we look at the cultural and educational landscape that our children are growing up in, like many Americans we find that things are not as they should be. This country is able to offer most of its young people a great deal materially, but is not necessarily giving them some of the things they need most. We are tolerating mediocrity on the hard, important lessons and trying to compensate with a kind of material lavishness that cannot plug the gap. We are doing well in many ways, but not nearly as well as we might in others. For all of this nation's greatness, it is not giving many students an education worthy of our ideals.
The good news is that it does not have to be this way. You can make a difference -- all the difference -- if you take certain steps and keep your eyes on certain goals. Education is not an enigmatic enterprise. There is no mystery about what makes good students and good schools. We spell out the basics in this book, together with steps you can take at home with your child, ways to see if your school is doing a good job, and strategies to adopt when things go wrong. James Madison said that "a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives." If you arm yourself with a little knowledge about what works in education, and take some of the actions described in these pages, the power is yours to help your loved one learn to his potential.
Please remember that, so long as you remain at the center of the education process, good things are likely to happen. Countless American parents prove it every school year, including those newly arrived on our shores. There will be bumps in the road, but your child is growing up in an amazing country and in an astonishing time. Despite our problems, the opportunities for education are more than plentiful. We hope this book is both informing and encouraging. We hope it bolsters your determination. We hope it helps you raise an educated child.
Ten Principles For Parents Of Educated Children
These are ten critical propositions will help you raise an educated child. Please take them to heart.
Parents are the first and most important teachers. The more involved you are, the better your child's chances of getting a good education. You can make the difference.
Your teaching must not stop when schooling starts. Some parents withdraw from involvement in education once their children reach school age. This is a mistake. Teachers cannot do a good job without your aid, support, and interest.
The early years build the foundation for all later learning. Make it sturdy. The first few years of life and then the first few years of school are critical. A solid education by eighth grade is a necessity or there will be trouble in high school and beyond.
American schools are underperforming. Many schools don't pay enough attention to academic basics, and standards are often too low. Trust but verify. Do not just assume that your school is doing a good job.
Learning requires discipline; discipline requires values. Too many classrooms are disrupted by disrespectful, unruly children. Too many kids have not been taught the virtues necessary to succeed in school.
Follow your common sense. Some people act as though it takes a special degree to know if a school is doing a good job. Wrong. You are the expert on your own child. Pay attention, talk to teachers and other parents, and trust your instincts.
Content matters: what children study determines how well they learn. Many schools are unwilling to say exactly which facts and ideas their students should know. This is a fundamental problem in American education. Some things are more important to learn in elementary school than others.
Television is an enemy of good education. In many homes, TV is the greatest obstacle to learning. We urge you to shut it off from Sunday evening until Friday evening during the school year.
Education reform is possible. You can change the system. If you are interested and engaged, there is much you can do to ensure that your child receives an excellent education. There are ways to improve your child's school, especially if you join forces with other parents.
Aim high, expect much and children will prosper. No parent, school, or child is perfect, but we all rise toward the level of expectations. The surest way to learn more is to raise standards.
Copyright © 1999 by William J. Bennett
A Parents Guide From Preschool Through Eighth Grade
The Educated Child
A Parents Guide From Preschool Through Eighth Grade
- What children should be studying and the kind of work they should be doing
- Important facts to learn and essential reading lists
- When children should master specific math skills, spelling and grammar basics, and scientific facts
- Test preparation, homework, and other areas that require parental involvement
The Educated Child also examines timely issues such as school choice, sex education, character education, and the phonics/whole language debate. Perhaps most important, it encourages parents to become advocates for their children by learning what to look for in a good school, how to talk to educators, and how, when necessary, to push for needed changes. For parents concerned about their children's current education and future lives, it is the ultimate handbook.
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