Remarks on Presenting Awards for Excellence in Education

September 28, 1983

I'm pleased to be here, and I hope you've been enjoying our Marine Band. Well, please be seated, and good morning.

I understand that there are some 150 principals with us here today. I'm delighted you're here, but I have to confess to some mixed emotions. I remember on a number of occasions when I was sent to see the principal, and now the principals are coming to see me. [Laughter] But I thank you, everyone, principals, superintendents, and school board presidents. Thanks for joining us on this day that has been set aside to honor outstanding American secondary schools.

America has always had a love affair with learning. From polished men of letters like Thomas Jefferson to humble, self-taught people like Abe Lincoln, Americans have put their faith in the profound power of education to enrich individual lives and to make our nation strong. But lately many of our schools haven't been doing their job. Yes, there are many fine schools, dedicated principals, teachers, present company included. But since 1963, we all know that scholastic aptitude tests have shown a virtually unbroken decline. As of the '82 - '83 school year, half of our States required only 1 year of math and 1 year of science for a student to graduate. And 14 States impose no requirements for graduation at all.

We've begun to realize that compared to students in other industrialized nations, many of ours perform badly. But let me make one thing clear: that is if we take the overall student body across the Nation, and on the average, we don't compare favorably. On the other hand, when you take our top students, then they compare very favorably with the top students, the best in those other countries.

But I can't help but tell you about an experience that I had for 8 years. Every year, as Governor of California, the exchange students from all over the world used to come for a visit with me at the capital in Sacramento. And every year for 8 years I asked the same question. I would ask these young people from these foreign lands how it compared, our education to theirs; was it harder or more difficult. And there would be silence. And then there would begin to be some smiles, and then they would look at each other, and pretty soon they would break into laughter. And that happened every time. And then they would begin volunteering the difference in what was required of them and what we're requiring of our students.

I think the fact, though, that our top students and those from the schools such as you represent do compare favorably should be an answer to those who wonder whether American education can ever again become first rate. The 152 secondary schools we're honoring today answers that loud and clear. The answer is, ``You bet!''

The panel of experts, people who know just what it takes to make a school good, carefully reviewed the records of hundreds of schools under consideration for national honors. After the progress of rigorous selection, the panel recommended that your schools were those that best demonstrate the excellence that our sons and daughters deserve. Your schools provide proof of what the National Commission on Excellence in Education concluded in its report last April: America can do it.

Now, although each of your schools is unique, they all share a number of traits that the rest of us can learn from. Let me cite five that stand out.

First, all of your schools know the meaning of team effort. You have school boards that skillfully translate community educational goals into sound policy. Superintendents, principals, and teachers carry the policy to the students and armies of parents are supportive of your efforts. This summer I visited one of the schools that's represented here today, Pioneer High School from Whittier, California. I met students, faculty, and community representatives. I was impressed with the way they all were pulling together.

Second, all of your schools share a few basic ideas about what goes into a good education. All of you happen to believe in leadership, from superintendents and principals, dedication from teachers, homework, testing, using time efficiently, and firm discipline.

Third, you are resourceful. Whether it's buying new test tubes for the chemistry lab, finding transportation to send the band on tour, all of you've shown ingenuity and skill in meeting your schools' needs. And you not only marshal resources; you share them. Secretary Bell has told me that a number of you have built good will in your communities by giving the public a chance to use the high school swimming pool, gymnasiums, classrooms, after hours.

Fourth, you've placed a strong emphasis on good teaching. You all recognize that good teachers are the heart and soul of any good school. And you promote good teaching. To do that, you've taken measures to reward it. Secretary Bell and I believe that schools across the country should learn this lesson and adopt policies and salary structures to reward outstanding teachers.

And last, your schools have rejected contemporary academic standards in favor of your own much higher standards. You get more from your teachers and students because instead of accepting mediocrity, you demand excellence.

And today we're giving you flags to honor your efforts. By teaching your students the meaning of good education, you're teaching America as well.

You know, I don't normally advocate busing, but right now I wish I could bus this group to every high school in the country that isn't represented here. And with that said, you've probably noticed that we have a problem we haven't been able to solve in Washington yet. It has to do with the local airport. [Laughter]

But God bless you all for being here, and thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 11:30 a.m. on the South Lawn of the White House. Following the President's remarks, Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell presented the awards to those representing the 152 secondary schools at the ceremony.