Remarks at a White House Luncheon Honoring the State Teachers of the Year

July 13, 1983

Ladies and gentlemen, you go right ahead, and everyone can serve dessert and so forth. I just want to make a few remarks here, but I precede with a special bulletin.

I understand there's been some conversation about whether you would have an opportunity to see more of the White House than just this room. And so I've been told that that Diplomatic Reception Room downstairs that you came in, that oval room downstairs, when we depart here, if you will gather there, the guides will be there and conduct you on a tour of the White House, for those of you who -- [applause] -- --

And now, just, welcome to the White House. And I think that Ted Bell [Secretary of Education] will agree when I say there isn't a group who belongs here more than you, America's finest educators. I'm very proud and happy to have you here.

Seeing you here today I'm filled with confidence about the preparation of our children and the future of our nation. If I may improvise on a line from one of my predecessors, he said, in this room, ``There has not been so much brain power, commitment, and dedication concentrated in this one room since Thomas Jefferson dined here alone.'' [Laughter] But, you know, I've given toasts to Kings and Queens in this room, as well as to Prime Ministers and Presidents, but you're the only group for whom I've ever felt obliged to diagram my sentences. [Laughter]

I'd like to congratulate all of you for being recognized as Teachers of the Year in your own States, and I know you'll join me in a special salute to the 1983 National Teacher of the Year, Dr. LeRoy E. Hay. [Applause] I was a little disturbed; I had two names for him. One was Lee Hay, but then he told me that this one was the correct one, that his mother really would like it if I used the whole name. [Laughter]

Behind each of your awards, of course, are countless individual children whose lives you've touched, whose minds you've broadened, and whose character you've helped shape. The knowledge, the judgment, and the love that you've shared will follow them through their lives, and that will enrich all of us. On behalf of a grateful nation, I thank you.

I also want to thank the Council of Chief State School Officers, the Encyclopaedia Britannica Companies, and Good Housekeeping magazine. Together they've sponsored the National Teacher of the Year competition for more than three decades, promoting and rewarding excellence in our classrooms. And that's just the kind of cooperation and initiative that we need more of if we're to get our education system and our country back on track.

Someone once said that a school is a building that has four walls and tomorrow inside. Our history has been a testament of the fact that our education system, the key that unlocked the golden door of opportunity for our people, has been in those buildings. When our forebears were throwing up makeshift towns across our wilderness continent, among the first structures that they built were the churches, and then came the schoolhouses.

And as a matter of fact, the tradition of the little church-related college -- where I went to college in Illinois, Eureka College, the tradition there has -- it was reversed when Ben Major, in command of the wagon train, and they stopped in a walnut grove of trees and decided that this was where they would settle, he sank an ax in a tree and said, ``Here we will build our school.'' And they built their school before they built anything, or their own homes.

The recent report of our Commission on Excellence in Education exposed what it labeled as a ``rising tide of mediocrity'' in education. According to that report, about 13 percent of our 17-year-olds are functional illiterates. More than two-thirds of our high-schoolers can't write a decent essay. The study indicates the quality of learning in our classrooms has been declining for the last quarter of a century -- a fact that I'm sure won't surprise many of you.

There's nothing the matter with our children, and I'd like to make it plain once and for all: There's nothing the matter with America's teachers. You are people who savor the sound of a well-turned phrase and delight in introducing youth to Shakespeare, knowing that it was youth that Shakespeare loved. You best understand how a mastery of math can help master life, how science can open endless worlds of the imagination, and how history teaches judgment and perspective.

Many of you have been waving a red warning flag for years now, calling for more stress on basics and pointing out how society has discouraged some of our most capable people from choosing teaching careers. It's time America listened to you again, respected you again, and rewarded your effort and excellence with salaries that will encourage our best young people to follow in your footsteps.

That's why Secretary Bell and I have been pushing hard for a national agenda for excellence in education. And one of the first items on it is the concept of merit pay for teachers. If we want to achieve excellence, we must reward it. It's a simple American philosophy that dominates many other professions, so why not this one? There are plenty of outstanding teachers outside of this room. They're teaching in classrooms all across America. What we must do is find them, promote them, and hold them up as role models not just for other teachers but for our children.

There are many important jobs in American life, but I can't think of any that are more important than teaching. As I told a group of journalists recently, I remember the high school teacher who changed my life: B. J. Fraser -- Dixon, Illinois. He taught English and drama. But most important, he channeled my imagination in ways that set it free. I owe him a great deal.

William Ellery Channing, an early American clergyman, once said that ``it is a greater work to educate a child than to rule a state.'' What he said was right then, as America set her first minorities -- or priorities, I should say. And it is still true today as we return to them.

America's parents, administrators, and officeholders must join with you in a new campaign for educational excellence. With your continued help and dedication and our renewed commitment, we can and will restore America's ability to educate all our children to the highest standards we know.

So, thank you very much -- not only for coming here today but for dedicating your lives to our children and to our future. And just let me know how I can be of help to you. Good luck, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 12:40 p.m. in the State Dining Room at the White House.