Remarks at the Annual Convention of the American Federation of Teachers in Los Angeles, California

July 5, 1983

I can't think of a more appropriate place to be on July 5th, the morning after our 207th national birthday, than at a gathering of the men and women responsible for America's future.

Yours is a sacred mission. In the words of Henry Adams, ``A teacher affects eternity.'' Each of you, as tiring and routine as your daily duties may sometimes seem, is a keeper of the American dream, the American future. By informing and exercising young minds, by transmitting learning and values, you are the vital link between all that is most precious in our national heritage and our children and grandchildren, who will some day take up the burdens of guiding the greatest, freest society on Earth.

I'm also particularly happy to be addressing a gathering of the American Federation of Teachers. Oh, I know there's a pretty big education organization out there, but it's been my experience that dedication, open-mindedness, and initiative count for just as much as size. It seems to me that in all three categories the AFT, like Avis, tries a lot harder. For this, you have my sincere admiration and my pledge to work with you in building a creative, lasting dialog on a subject close to all our hearts: the renewal of excellence in American education.

Of course, we have our differences, and both this administration and the AFT believe in the benefits of vigorous debate. And that's what living in an open, free society is all about. We've both made our positions well known. And I'm not here today as a salesman trying to peddle a prepackaged, all-purpose, off-the-rack education program. I am fully aware that there are some major areas where we disagree -- matters like tuition tax credits and vouchers. But it's the very genius of our democratic, pluralistic system, our society, the key to its unequaled success over more than two centuries, that individuals who sincerely disagree on some matters can still work together in mutual respect and understanding to serve a higher goal. And I defy anyone to name a higher common goal of domestic policy than working for a renaissance in American education.

Not that long ago, American public education was one of the marvels of the world. Wave after wave of immigrants from the far corners of the Earth came to our shores with little more than the clothes on their backs and hope in their hearts. Many were illiterate, victims of grinding poverty here as well as in the old country. But the public school system, often within a single generation, provided a magic ladder to full participation in American life. And it taught their children more than just the skills they needed for a more abundant life; it taught them the solid values of good citizenship.

To a very large extent, America's schools provided the social bond that gave meaning to the word ``America'' -- that made us, in the midst of our ethnic diversity, ``one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.''

And, you know, speaking of that, I don't know whether -- I just came across this little item the other day about a teacher at a very, very beginning level of elementary education, who was having a little trouble at that tender age -- his students, in telling them about how you, where you put your hand when you recited the Pledge and all. They didn't really know the location of the internal organs, and putting their hand on their heart didn't mean too much to them. And finally he showed the ingenuity that is typical of good teaching. He told them to put their hands on the alligators. [Laughter]

But, yes, to a very great extent, it was our schools where most Americans heard and spoke the Pledge of Allegiance for the first time that transformed those heart-stirring words into a living ideal, an ideal each generation has come closer to attaining.

Our public schools have played a great historic role in shaping our democracy, and they have a crucial role to play today. You in the AFT can help lead the way, and that's why I'm less deterred by the differences between us than I am encouraged by the important areas of agreement that we share.

The AFT wants to upgrade standards -- including emphasis on testing both students and beginning teachers, changing curriculum to strengthen academic requirements, and increasing homework assignments. Well, so do I.

The AFT believes in stricter discipline codes in schools -- including provisions to remove students who have histories of repeated disruptive behavior. So do I.

The AFT supports many aspects of this administration's bilingual education legislation, which favors local autonomy in deciding what method will be most effective to teach children who are limited in their ability to speak English. We both agree that children who are truly in need and cannot function in English in a regular classroom environment deserve help. But we also recognize that bilingual programs should serve as a bridge to full participation in the American mainstream. They should never permanently segregate non-English-speaking students in a way that will make it harder, not easier, for them to succeed in life.

There are so many other values and beliefs that we share. The AFT understands the importance of a strong national defense, not just for our own sake but for the sake of our friends and allies in the Americas, Europe, Asia, and the Middle East. Only a strong, credible America can preserve our freedom at home, deter aggression, pursue the cause of meaningful arms reductions, and stand by our friends in time of need.

I also want to commend the AFT for its recognition of the need to upgrade math and science education and for its ringing condemnation of those organizations, one of which I referred to earlier, who would exploit teaching positions and manipulate curriculum for propaganda purposes. On this last issue, you stand in bright contrast to those who have promoted curriculum guides that seem to be more aimed at frightening and brainwashing American schoolchildren, than at fostering learning and stimulating balanced, intelligent debate.

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 you'd been forced to deal with negative, often destructive trends from outside your classrooms. We can only admire the dedication with which the great majority of teachers has tried to meet these problems, because, let's face it, it wasn't you, the teachers, who created and condoned the drug culture, sexual license, and violence in our society. It wasn't you, the 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 too often showered you with rules, regulations, and uniformity, while discouraging the rich variety and excellence of our heritage. For too long you've been fighting a lonely war, and it's about time you got some reinforcement from the rest of us.

And that was one of the main reasons I moved early in this 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, the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

As you know, the Commission recently came out with its report card, and it was pretty tough. The Commission found that about 13 percent of our 17-year-olds are functional illiterates, and the rate was much higher than that for minority youth. About four-fifths of our highschoolers can't write a decent essay. And 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 those spent studying mathematics, English, chemistry, U.S. history, or biology. Maybe that helps explain why verbal and math college board scores fell 50 and 40 points, respectively, between 1963 and 1980.

Well, predictably, some people are already wringing their hands at this bad news and casting about for scapegoats. But I deeply believe that this cloud has a silver lining. I believe 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 let us say yes to the challenge of a national agenda for excellence that will uplift every child in our land.

America's not a defeatist 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 those 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.

At the heart of the Commission's report and our agenda are two themes 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 of math, science, and social studies, and one-half year of computer science. It calls for more and longer school days, tighter discipline, higher goals and tougher standards for matriculation and graduation, also, for improved preparation for teachers and better rewards for teachers who excel . . . And I say, ``Amen.''

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 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 in high technology will require improved teaching of math and science. So, we've proposed legislation to stimulate training of more math and science teachers. We're also 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 recognize, as most of you, as most teachers always have, that good teaching also means a life-long commitment to learning.

Now, many, if not all of these concepts are supported by the AFT, and we welcome your support. It's going to take the best efforts of all of us to achieve our goal of making American education great again.

I also want to commend the AFT for its fair, openminded approach to other potential means of encouraging good teaching and good teachers. I'm thinking of things like new approaches to differential pay, such as the proposal of Governor Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, which would include peer review. By engaging in free and open discussion and by demonstrating a willingness to examine new ideas even when they may require thinking, or rethinking long-held views, the AFT is once again providing an example of positive leadership and winning respect for the teaching community. Working with you, with State and local leaders, and with parents and concerned citizens across the country, we can and we will climb the 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.

I appreciate this opportunity to meet with you today. I hope it'll prove to be the first chapter in a long and productive relationship. We won't always agree. Life would be pretty dull if we did. But with a spirit of positive, candid cooperation, we can do much for the country we love and for the young people we serve.

Thank you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 10:25 a.m. in the California Room at the Bonaventure Hotel.

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