Radio Address to the Nation on Education

May 12, 1984

My fellow Americans:

I want to talk to you today about a wonderful thing that's happening in our country. It began a year ago, so it's only just begun. But already it's changing our country, and I think it may change it forever. I'm talking about the recent progress in America's schools.

You may remember the day a year ago when the National Commission on Excellence in Education came out with its report on what was wrong with the Nation's schools. The Commission documented 20 solid years of decline -- decline in academic standards and discipline, decline in authority and in scholastic results. The Commission said a rising tide of mediocrity was wiping out America's reputation for the best education system in the world. That report was electrifying, and its current swept the country.

Parents and teachers got together, marshaled their resources, and began to turn the situation around. So now, 1 year later, we can report that together we have met the rising tide of mediocrity with a tidal wave of school reforms.

Those reforms reflect the Commission's advice: Get back to basics, tighten standards, heighten academic requirements, and remember discipline in the classroom is vital. In short, make sure that Johnny and Mary can read and write, and make sure their school is allowed the peace without which no student can learn and no teacher can instruct.

I want you to listen to some of the things that have happened since the Commission made its recommendations. Thirty-five States have raised high school graduation requirements. Twenty-one States are reviewing steps to make textbooks more challenging. Eight States have lengthened the school day; seven have lengthened the school year. And every State in the Union has put together a task force to improve its educational system. School districts across the country are moving toward requiring 4 years of English in high school and 3 solid years each of math and science. Many legislatures are currently developing workable and fair merit pay plans. Many States have increased teachers' salaries.

The private sector, too, is playing a big part in the reforms. Local businesses are adopting local schools, sending in their executives and employees to work with students and teachers to make education more exciting and more pertinent to the 1980's.

We're seeing a willingness to reconsider what our schools should be teaching. In the State of Maryland, a commission concluded students aren't being taught enough about American traditions of freedom and liberty. A bipartisan panel came up with a plan to teach students that most basic of democratic arts, the art of citizenship. In New Jersey Governor Tom Kean had another creative idea -- give scientists and mathematicians in private industry a form of teaching accreditation so they can go into the schools and teach what they know.

Last year, as part of our program to encourage academic excellence, we began the President's Academic Fitness Awards, a scholastic version of the Physical Fitness Awards. Well, participation in the program exceeded our estimates by 400 percent.

This month 220,000 high school seniors, who had maintained high marks and achieved high scores on scholastic aptitude tests, won the Academic Fitness Awards. And yesterday, on the South Lawn of the White House, I personally gave the awards to 60 students from around the country. Just seeing their proud faces spoke a world of words about the importance of education to our country's future and the spirit of renewal that's underway.

This entire reform movement proves how wrong the people are who always insist money is the only answer to the problems of our schools. Well, leaving aside the fact that the 20 years they kept shoveling money in was the same 20 years in which the schools deteriorated, I think it's fair to say they missed the essential point. Money was never the problem. Leadership was -- leadership in getting the schools back to basic values, basic traditions, and basic good sense.

With the leadership of plain American citizens, we're getting back on track. Much remains to be done. Our administration will go forward with our efforts to control school crime, pass tuition tax credits and school vouchers as well. And, once again, I'll continue working for the restoration of voluntary school prayer, for nothing is as basic as acknowledging the God from whom all knowledge springs.

But we can be proud of the progress we're making. And I think this is only the first chapter of a marvelous story about how the people of America came together to re-create a school system that was once the envy of the world. Let's all write the next chapter together.

Until next week, thanks for listening, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 12:06 p.m. from Camp David, MD.