Remarks at a White House Reception for the National Association of Elementary School Principals and the National Association of Secondary School Principals

July 29, 1983

Well, thank you all, and let me welcome you all to the White House.

You know, I've been out of school for a little over 50 years now, but I still get nervous around so many principals. [Laughter] And I don't know why I should think of this story except that it has to do with school, and I know that -- and teachers, and I know also that it's very dangerous to ever try to tell stories to people of one profession about their profession. But I'll take a chance anyway.

It was the teacher that was trying to impress on her students, the children -- winter had come along and the cold season and all. And she was trying to tell them how to -- the need to avoid catching colds. And so, she told a very heart-rending tale which she said was about her one-time little brother. And she said that -- told her little brother that -- or the class that she had this little brother and that he was a fun-loving little boy, and he went out with his sled. And he stayed out too long, and he caught cold. And that was pneumonia, and three days later he was dead. And when she'd finished with the tale, the way she told it, there was just dead silence in the room. And she thought she had really gotten to them. And then a voice in the back said, ``Where's his sled?'' [Laughter]

Well, that isn't the attitude that I wanted our Committee on Excellence in Education to take, but I did want them to approach their task with some hard-eyed realism. And you're, by now, well acquainted with the Commission's findings.

Two of our Commission members are school principals, because we wanted the important perspective that you here represent. You know the problems that our educational system faces. So many things have changed in our society from the structure of family life to drug abuse among our young that, over time, it's begun affecting education. The principals and the teachers alone cannot correct these social ills any more than any single level of government can, by itself, improve the schools. But we can and we must build a new consensus among parents, teachers, and students, principals, and elected officials to bring about a renaissance in American education.

Most of the attention is focused on the need to reward excellence. Now, I can't imagine anything more discouraging for young teachers than to see a rigid salary scale laid out for the rest of their lives that ignores their efforts no matter how good they might be.

I saw something interesting in the Washington Post several weeks ago. It was a story on how the Soviet leadership is considering ways to get the Soviet economy moving again. Well, one proposal is to depart from the practice of paying Soviet citizens relatively equal wages irrespective of job performance. Now, if even Yuriy Andropov and the Soviet bureaucracy are beginning to realize the need for merit pay, why can't certain segments of our own educational establishment?

And there are many other things that we can do to improve our educational system that don't cost money. Secretary Bell tells me that research on what makes one school more effective than another has shown that challenging students through high standards and high expectations results in increased achievement. In other words, if we don't expect anything from our kids, why should they expect anything of themselves? And here, of course, I'm talking about adopting more rigorous academic standards. I'm talking about strengthening graduation requirements in terms of curriculum and reducing discipline problems by enforcing codes of student conduct.

Before I go on, I just have to tell -- I made a phone call just a couple of weeks ago to a young man out in the Midwest -- a great basketball star. He had suffered a knee injury, and that knee injury led to a lot of reassessment for him. And he'd gone to Marva Collins in Chicago. And he'd gone there to learn to read and write.

He had been a basketball star for a couple of years in one of our fine universities. He was six feet five when he was in junior high, and the coach suggested he start shooting some baskets. But he got all the way through high school, and there he was then in the university, and he couldn't read or write.

And when I spoke to him -- he wanted an education. He wasn't satisfied just being an athlete. And he thought that -- and was trying to get one. And so, he went to this school, and he sat there with fourth grade students, and he told me, he said, ``Yes, it was embarrassing.'' ``But,'' he said, ``I have to hand it to them,'' he said, ``the kids were wonderful.'' And he said, ``They helped me a great deal.'' And I asked him what he was going to do, and now he's going to try to get a college diploma, now that he can read and write.

But I'm also reading some interesting things about new textbooks that can do wonders with increasing math skills. I'm sure you've probably heard about that new math textbook. It's by a fellow named John Saxon, that has average I.Q. students scoring above high I.Q. students and has Algebra I students who use this textbook doing better on tests than Algebra II students who use the traditional text. I believe some principals in Oklahoma and some other States have been involved in this experiment. So, here's another area we could look into. All we'd have to do is simply replace the old books as they wear out with new books of this kind.

But we simply can't tell the taxpayer that more funds are needed to improve quality when, during the 20-year period between 1960 and 1980, spending on education was shooting up while the college board scores were going down. If a 600-percent increase, which is what we had in spending in those 20 years, couldn't make America smarter, how much more do we need? What we do need is a commitment to education and not just more money. Now that I have the Commission's findings in hand, I've been going around the country trying to keep the dialog alive, and I think we're making progress.

In its report, the Commission calls upon you, the principals, to play a crucial leadership role in developing school and community support for its reforms. You're deeply dedicated to our children's education, or you wouldn't be in the field that you are. And I have confidence that working together, we can make the U.S. educational system what you want it to be. I believe we can make it meet your standards. And I wanted to meet with you today to tell you personally how much I respect what you're doing for the Nation and to ask you to help me further in the debate.

And I just can't leave -- I told some of the type of students that you deal with, many of you, the Future Farmers of America from all over the United States are in Washington right now. And I was talking to them about their particular trade -- farming. But it also has to do with that previous story I told about the Soviet Union. And I think I'm going to repeat it here. Maybe there's a little meat in it.

The commissar went out to the farm, their state farm, and stopped one of the workers and asked him how things were, any complaints. And he said, ``Oh, no, sir. No, never heard anyone complain.'' ``Well,'' he said, ``how are the crops?'' ``Oh, the crops are wonderful.'' ``What about the potato harvest?'' ``Oh,'' he said, ``the potatoes.'' He says, ``Comrad,'' he said, ``if we piled the potatoes up in one pile, they would reach the foot of God.'' And the commissar said, ``This is the Soviet Union. There is no God.'' He said, ``That's all right. There are no potatoes.'' [Laughter]

Thank you. Thank you for coming, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 2:45 p.m. in the East Room at the White House.