Remarks on Receiving the Final Report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education

April 26, 1983

I could have been introduced as the late President of the United States. [Laughter] And I won't look to certain individuals here on my left. I was in a meeting with some Members of the Congress, and somehow the schedule always breaks down after I have met with some Members of the Congress. [Laughter] But it's an honor to meet again with the National Commission members and guests.

When Secretary Bell and I first discussed a plan of action to deal with the declining quality of education in America, we agreed that it was imperative to assemble a panel of America's leading educators, an assembly of such eminence that the Nation would listen to its findings. Well, today you've issued your report. And I'm confident that America's students, parents, teachers, and government officials will join me in listening closely to your findings and recommendations.

Your Commission was asked to assess the quality of teaching and learning in America compared with our own educational tradition and the rising competition from other industrial nations. You've taken a long, hard look at America's educational system and found that quality is lacking, but not because today's students are any less capable than their predecessors. You've found that our educational system is in the grip of a crisis caused by low standards, lack of purpose, ineffective use of resources, and a failure to challenge students to push performance to the boundaries of individual ability -- and that is to strive for excellence.

When I first addressed this Commission at its inaugural meeting in October of 1981, I pointed out that there are few areas of American life as important to our society, to our people and our parents and families as our schools and colleges. And I also noted a parallel between a decline in our education and a decline -- or our economy, I should say, and a decline in education. In both cases, serious problems had grown worse because of neglect and because too many people viewed the world the way they wanted it to be rather than the way it really is.

Well, we described our economy in realistic terms; we passed overdue reforms; and now the economy's growing again, but without double-digit inflation and record interest rates like before. Today we're calling attention to the way things really are in education. And this year our country will spend $215 billion for education. We spent more on education at all levels than any other country in the world. But what have we bought with all that spending?

I was interested to see that you noted the almost uninterrupted decline in student achievement in the scores during the past two decades, decades in which the Federal presence in education grew and grew. Today's high school graduates score almost 40 points below their 1963 counterparts on standard mathematic tests and 50 points lower on verbal tests. Last year's gain on SAT scores will have to be repeated for more than a decade before we achieve the levels of the mid-sixties again.

Your Commission notes that our education policies have squandered the gains of the sputnik area. The statistics I just cited underscore the decline in student achievement. Other indicators are more alarming.

About 13 percent of our 17-year-olds are considered functionally illiterate, and for minority youth, the figure may be as high as 40 percent. In our public 4-year colleges, remedial math courses now compromise -- or comprise, I should say -- ``compromise'' is on my mind; that was a Freudian slip. [Laughter] They now comprise one-fourth of all the math courses that are taught in our colleges. We can no longer afford to pass students who fail to learn from one grade to the next simply because they've come to the end of the year. We can't afford to waste the valuable resources of higher education to remedy problems that were ignored in our elementary and high schools. Four-fifths of our 17-year-olds can't write a persuasive essay. Two-thirds can't solve mathematical problems involving more than one step. And nearly 40 percent can't draw inferences from reading.

Despite record levels of educational spending, America's students came in last in 7 of 19 academic tests compared to students of other industrialized nations. We never placed first or second. More than half of our country's gifted and talented students failed to match performance with their tested ability.

You know, for 8 years as Governor, every year I used to meet with the exchange students in California from other countries and some of their American counterparts. And every year for 8 years I asked the same question and got the same answer. After meeting all of them and talking a little bit, welcoming them to the United States, I would then say, ``Tell me, how do our high schools compare with your own schools in your own countries?'' And the answer would always be, they would look at each other and then they would start to giggle. And then they would break into laughter, and then I would find out. They were really having a vacation in our schools compared to what they were going through in their own schools. And it was that way for all the 8 years that I asked the question.

Thomas Jefferson warned us, ``If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be.'' It's not too much to say that what began as our unique vision -- human progress through individual opportunity -- will grind to a halt in America if we fail to meet our educational challenges in the eighties. I welcome your challenge to the parents of America to hold elected officials responsible for carrying out those reforms.

Your report emphasizes that the Federal role in education should be limited to specific areas, and any assistance should be provided with a minimum of administrative burdens on our schools, colleges, and teachers.

Your call for an end to Federal intrusion is consistent with our task of redefining the Federal role in education. I believe that parents, not government, have the primary responsibility for the education of their children. Parental authority is not a right conveyed by the state; rather, parents delegate to their elected school board representatives and State legislators the responsibility for their children's schooling.

In a 1982 Gallup poll, the majority of those surveyed thought Washington should exert less influence in determining the educational program of the public schools. So, we'll continue to work in the months ahead for passage of tuition tax credits, vouchers, educational savings accounts, voluntary school prayer, and abolishing the Department of Education. Our agenda is to restore quality to education by increasing competition and by strengthening parental choice and local control. I'd like to ask all of you, as well as every citizen who considers this report's recommendations, to work together to restore excellence in America's schools.

We're entering a new era, and education holds the key. As sunrise industries grow, they bring us technological advances, offering opportunities and challenges. Rather than fear our future, let us embrace it and make it work for us by improving instruction in science and math, retraining our workers, encouraging the continued education, retooling our factories, and stimulating investment in new areas of growth. We can do that. We can compete and meet the challenges of the marketplace. We're still the world's technological leader. But to be stronger, we have to get smarter.

America needs more education power. I would like to close today by commending Ted Bell for his leadership in creating the Commission and by thanking each of the members, especially Dr. David Gardner, the able Chairman, and Vice-Chairman, Yvonne Larsen, for their dedicated effort. You've rendered the Nation a valuable service. And on behalf of all concerned with excellence in education, I want to thank you for your work, your courage, and your vision.

And, you know, for me to be standing here saying this, the situation must be desperate, because some years after I graduated from Eureka College, I returned to that school. And they gave me an honorary degree, which only compounded a sense of guilt I'd nursed for 25 years, because I thought the first one they gave me was honorary. [Laughter]

Thank you all very much.

Note: The President spoke at 4:20 p.m. in the State Dining Room at the White House.

The report is entitled ``A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform -- A Report to the Nation and the Secretary of Education, United States Department of Education, by the National Commission on Excellence in Education, April 1983'' (Government Printing Office, 65 pages).

Earlier in the day, the President met with Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell, who presented him with a copy of the report.