Remarks at the Annual Convention of the National Parent-Teacher Association in Albuquerque, New Mexico

June 15, 1983

Thank you all very much, and thank you, Maryann Leverage.

I am most honored to be with all of you for your 87th annual convention, and what a delight to be back in this land of enchantment, a city rich in Indian and Spanish heritage, a place where we're proud to come together with the greeting, ``Ya-ta-hey.''

Now, I know the king of the spellers could tell us that those words are spelled y-a-t-a-h-e-y. Blake Giddens, would you mind standing up so we could all say, ``Congratulations, champ''? [Applause]

This is a very special day for me. I don't believe a group exists which understands better, or does more, than yours to safeguard the value of education for us in our country. Thanks to you, education has been the key that opened the golden door of opportunity and, just as important, it's been the faithful servant of our democracy, preserving the values and the freedoms that we hold so dear.

``Train up a child in the way he should go,'' Solomon wrote, ``and when he is old, he will not depart from it.'' You in this room are the true guardians of that sacred trust. You know that good education does not begin in some faraway bureaucracy. It begins in your homes and neighborhood schools, where it's the responsibility of every parent and teacher and the right of every child.

I urge you, send a message to Washington, D.C., and make it loud and clear. Tell them you want the basics in your schools and the parents back in charge. Tell them that education must never become a political football, because your children come first and they must come first.

You know, I've spoken about our need to strengthen educational institutions in America so that America can become more competitive in world markets and so we can protect our national security. Now, all of us know that our schools must meet the demands of an ever more sophisticated technology. Our instruction in English, math, science, and computer programing must be the best. But I hope we never lose sight of the fact that true wealth and security are born in the spirit, conscience, and character of a nation. And here it is again that you, parents and teachers, who open the eyes and minds of our children to a proud and noble culture. You do it with literature, music, and poetry, and you do it another way that could never be duplicated by government -- you do it by giving of yourselves. Every day, in so many personal ways, you show what it means to live a good and worthy life.

I confess, I was not as attentive as I might have been during my classroom days. I seem to remember my parents being told, ``Young Ron is trying -- very trying.'' [Laughter] But I also remember the attitudes and actions of my parents and teachers. Sometimes stern, sometimes gentle; always they strived with quiet courage to teach us responsibility, discipline, honesty, tolerance, kindness, and love.

These priceless values cannot be taught from instruction manuals. We can't find them in computer printouts. We can't create them with more Federal spending. They must come from the heart, from your hearts. That's the true source of good citizenship, fine people, and a great country, and I just hope that you never let anyone in Washington forget it.

I couldn't have been happier when I received a letter from Mrs. Leverage in which she wrote, ``We think there are ways in which PTA groups around the country can work together with professional educators to upgrade curriculum and to provide assistance to parents to help their children.''

I also received a copy of your current contribution to help improve the quality of education, ``Looking In On Your School: A Workbook for Improving Public Education.'' Now, I hope you don't mind if I suggest that we make a little summer assignment. Let's ask parents in America to get that booklet, read it, and follow up on its suggestions. Working together, we can accomplish so much. And we know there is so much to do.

When I ran for President in 1980, I said that this country must recognize the problems in our educational system and start doing something about them. For one thing, many teachers were facing a virtual ``mission impossible.'' I noted at the time that they'd been forced to deal with negative, often destructive trends from outside their classrooms. We can only admire the dedication with which the great majority have tried to meet these problems, because let's face it: It wasn't teachers who created and condoned the drug culture, sexual license, and violence in our society. It wasn't teachers who encouraged the banality of TV over the beauty of the written word. And it wasn't teachers who asked for a ``Washington knows best'' attitude that often showered them with rules, regulations, and uniformity, while discouraging the rich variety and excellence of our heritage.

For too long, teachers have been fighting a lonely war, and it's about time they got some reinforcement from the rest of us. And that's one reason I moved early in our administration to do something never tried before.

We wanted a thorough, no-holds-barred study that would stimulate debate and action. So, we set up a bipartisan group called the National Commission on Excellence in Education. Well, as you know, the Commission has just come out with its report card, and it's pretty tough. And, incidentally, let me interject something here. I think the Commission will assure you they never heard a word from me after they were appointed. They were bipartisan, and they had no interference from any level of government.

About 13 percent of our 17-year-olds, they found, are functional illiterates. Among minority youth, the rate is closer to 40 percent. About four-fifths of our high-schoolers can't write a decent essay. Most of them do less than an hour of homework a night. In many schools, the hours spent learning how to cook and drive count as much toward a high school diploma as the time spent studying mathematics, English, chemistry, U.S. history, and biology. Maybe that helps explain why verbal and math college board scores fell 50 and 40 points, respectively, between 1963 and 1980.

Now, some people are already wringing their hands at this bad news and casting about for scapegoats. Well, I believe the report is good news. It can mobilize, energize, and unify this country in a way that we haven't seen for years. Instead of worrying about whether we put together a Republican plan or a Democratic plan, can't we join together on a course of common sense for an American plan?

Let us stand together -- parents, teachers, concerned citizens -- and say ``no'' to all those who would divide, delay, and drag us down. And let us say ``yes'' to the challenge of a national agenda for excellence that will reach every child in our land.

America is no second-best nation. We came back from Pearl Harbor to win the greatest military victory in history. We came back from the shock of Sputnik to send our astronauts to the Moon and bring them safely home. I believe the nation that met these great challenges can surely meet another. Let us resolve today, the United States will not only reverse its decline in college board scores, we will raise verbal and math scores at least 50 points, and do it within the next decade.

Now, some insist the only way to meet this challenge is with one big, five-letter word: money. Well, we could travel down that road, but it won't be a new road to education's promised land. By now, it's an old road that leads to a dead end in learning.

During the 20-year period between 1960 and 1980, spending on education was shooting up and up. But by 1963 college board scores began going down and down. Total spending on education increased in that period almost 600 percent. At the Federal level, spending on education increased twice as fast as spending on defense. Those who argue about the exact level of spending are missing the key point. The question I urge every concerned citizen to ponder is this: If a 600-percent increase couldn't make America smarter, how much more do we need?

I believe common sense tells us we don't have an education problem because we're not spending enough, we have an education problem because we're not getting our money's worth for what we spend. Now, there are some areas such as teachers' salaries where new incentives are clearly needed for better pay. This can be best done at the State and local level. But there are many more areas where the agenda for excellence is not spelled ``more spending,'' but ``better learning.''

At the core of the Commission's report and our agenda are two themes that I've long advocated. First, true excellence in education will require much greater emphasis on the basics -- basic skills of learning and teaching with discipline, basic standards and rewards for excellence, and basic values of parental involvement and community control. Second, to meet the demands of this fast-changing world, we need also to broaden our vision of education. Education must become more than just the province and responsibility of our schools. It's also an integral part of our homes, churches, synagogues, communities, and workplaces. And we must recognize that.

To advance our agenda for excellence, I strongly endorse the Commission's fundamental recommendations. The Commission seeks to require 4 years of English in high school, 3 solid years each of math, science, and social studies, and one-half year of computer science. It wants more and longer school days, tighter discipline, higher goals, and tougher standards for matriculation and graduation. It calls for improved preparation for teachers and better rewards for teachers who excel. And I say, amen.

And it asks the citizens of America: Hold your educators and elected officials responsible for carrying out these reforms. And I hope you'll promise me today you'll make darn sure this will be done.

The Commission recognizes that school officials must take the lead in developing community support and that States and localities have the primary responsibility for school finance. We're already seeing strong evidence that the Commission's report touched a nerve. All over America, it's stimulating debate and sparking action. The Florida State House has passed the Commission's basics curriculum. The board in Ypsilanti, Michigan, has voted to extend their elementary school day and raise high school graduation requirements. In Illinois, high school graduation requirements are also being increased. Ditto for Washington State and, also, Virginia, where the school board of education plans to overhaul their public school curriculum this summer.

As President, I intend to do everything I can to promote and enhance these reforms and to broaden the scope of education throughout our society. For example, to help reform the education system, there are areas where the Federal Government can make a direct contribution. Being prepared for the new era of high technology will require improved teaching of math and science, so we have proposed legislation to stimulate training of more math and science teachers. We're beginning a new program -- one I'm participating in myself -- to honor some of America's best math and science teachers.

And our efforts go beyond math and science. Bill Bennett, our Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, is offering summer seminars so high school teachers can increase their teaching competence in history, literature, and the other humanities.

We want to provide more opportunities for parents, so we're proposing education savings accounts to help hard-working families save for college education. As parents, we want to enable you to save up to $1,000 per year, per child, with no tax on the interest.

Now, I happen to believe that just as more incentives are needed within our schools, greater competition is needed among our schools. Without a race, there can be no champion, no records broken, no excellence in education or any other walk of life.

As President, I intend to do everything I can to promote and enhance these reforms and to broaden the scope of education, to help the education system, and to make a direct contribution. Where the Federal Government is not making a direct contribution, we can provide leadership to highlight local programs that merit special attention. Yesterday, I had the great pleasure of meeting with the dynamic young Governor of Tennessee, Lamar Alexander. He is pushing a simple idea which I believe is long overdue for our country -- merit pay increases to attract and keep the very best people in the teaching profession.

Governor Alexander understands why Tennessee needs these incentives so badly. He says, ``Not one State system pays one public school teacher one penny more for doing a good job teaching.'' He says, ``The most important part of the system, the people in it, are encouraged toward mediocrity by low wages, lifetime contracts, little real evaluation, and not one penny of pay for performance.''

Teachers should be paid and promoted on the basis of their merit and competence with real rewards for excellence. Rewarding personal initiative and productivity has always been our secret for success. Unfortunately, the idea of merit pay may enjoy wide support in Tennessee and across the country, but it is adamantly opposed by the leadership of the NEA [National Education Association]. They cling to a payscale based on seniority and the number of college credits earned.

When I spoke out for merit pay, a representative of the NEA called my statement ``a disgraceful assault'' on the teaching profession. Well, frankly, that surprised me, because the national Commission directly addressed this issue when it said, ``Persons preparing to teach should be required to meet high educational standards . . . and to demonstrate competence in an academic discipline.''

The report said, ``Salaries for the teaching profession should be increased and should be professionally competitive, market-sensitive, and performance-based. Salary, promotion, tenure, and retention decisions should be tied to an effective evaluation system that includes peer review, so that superior teachers can be rewarded, average ones encouraged, and poor ones either improved or terminated.''

I sincerely believe the leadership of the NEA is mistaken. In all due respect, I must ask them, if we test other professionals, why shouldn't we test the people who will be responsible for teaching our children? And if we can evaluate people in other professions and reward them for superior results, why should our schools be different?

We want to work with NEA's leadership, but until it relaxes its opposition to the badly needed reforms the country wants in hiring, salary, promotion, and tenure, the improvements that we so desperately need could be delayed.

We're trying to broaden community support for education so it, in turn, can more effectively serve society and strengthen democracy. We're urging corporations, community organizations, and neighborhood groups across the country to adopt schools and help them meet their educational and vocational needs with funds, equipment, and personnel. There's a wealth of talent, training, and wisdom among the members of our communities, whether it be in business, labor, the professions, or the military. Learning from the achievers of America can greatly enrich the educational experience of our children. And I'm happy to say that this is spreading already, just with the announcement of the Commission's report across the country. People are lining up and volunteering, wanting to be of help to their local school systems.

There's no barrier that can stop our climb toward excellence if good and decent people like you will it to be. But make no mistake, there remains a dark and dangerous enemy who could perilize our progress unless we mobilize to defeat him. Together, we must eliminate the spectre of drug and alcohol abuse that poisons the minds and bodies of America's next generation. I deeply appreciate all that you are doing to help combat this threat. And, if you'll forgive me for doing a little bragging, I think you and Nancy make a mighty fine team.

I have one final request. I know this may often be laughed and sneered at in some sophisticated circles, but ours is a Judeo-Christian heritage, and ours is a loving and living God, the fountain of truth and knowledge. I can't help but believe that He, who has so blessed this land and made us a good and caring people, should never have been expelled from our classrooms. [Applause] Thank you. Thank you very much. Thank you.

The first amendment was never written to exclude religion from our schools. It says, ``Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.'' Those words could not be more plain. George Washington warned us that, ``Of all the dispositions and habits which lead to political prosperity, religion and morality are indispensable supports.'' He added, ``Reason and experience both forbid us to expect that national morality can prevail in exclusion of religious principle.''

I urge the Congress to stand absolutely firm for the right of religious freedom. Let our children begin their days as those before them did -- and as many of you still do -- with prayer.

Working with you, our parents and teachers, trusting in your sound judgment and hard work, in your fairness and your faith, we can and we will climb that lofty peak to excellence in education. Clark Mollenhoff, a tough-minded journalist who also understands the crucial importance of parents and teachers, said it very well in a poem he wrote called ``Teacher'':

You are the moulders of their dreams --

Heroes who build or crush their young beliefs in right or wrong.

You are the spark that sets afire a poet's hand,

Or lights the flame in some great singer's song.

You are the idols of the young -- the very young.

You are their models, by profession set apart.

You are the guardians of a million dreams.

Your every smile or frown can heal or pierce a heart.

Yours are one hundred lives -- one thousand lives.

Yours is the pride of loving them, the sorrow, too.

Your patient work, your touch, make you the source of hope

That fills their souls with dreams, and make those dreams come true.

Thank you very much, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 10:07 a.m. in the Kiva Auditorium at the Albuquerque Convention Center following remarks and an introduction by Maryann Leverage, president of the National PTA. In his remarks, the President referred to 14-year-old Blake Giddens, winner of the 56th annual Scripps-Howard National Spelling Bee.

Following his remarks at the convention, the President returned to Washington, D.C.