Remarks at a Ceremony Honoring the 1983 - 1984 Winners in the Secondary School Recognition Program

August 27, 1984

Secretary Bell and ladies and gentlemen, I'm delighted to be here today to join you in honoring some of the finest secondary schools in America. And I want to extend a special greeting to the students in the audience. May I also extend a warm welcome to the principals who are here today, including Mrs. Vera White, who was kind enough to show me through Jefferson Junior High School this morning.

You know, the jobs of principal and President are somewhat alike: both of us have to keep a lot of people happy. You have the PTA; I have the voters. [Laughter] And you have unruly children, and I have -- well -- [laughter] -- I'd better not name names, but let me put it this way: When a Congress leaves town, it's no accident we call it a recess. [Laughter]

But I am pleased to help honor the 262 middle, junior, and senior high schools that are receiving awards today for outstanding educational performance. Today we honor you for doing a superb job of educating students and for setting an example that all our schools can follow.

We must remember, though, that American schools have not always performed as well as those represented here today. From the early sixties to 1980, combined SAT scores declined steadily, dropping by 90 points. Science achievement scores of 17-year-olds showed a steady drop. And, most shocking, our National Commission on Excellence in Education reported that in 1980 more than one-tenth of America's 17-year-olds could be considered functionally illiterate. The dropout rate increased so much that by 1982, 27 percent of our students failed to complete high school, and dropout rates among minority students were higher than 40 percent.

Now, this erosion in academic achievement took place during the very period, overall, when spending was up by over 600 percent. The crisis in our schools was symptomatic of a much larger crisis in our country. We were living under a tired philosophy of government knows best. It was out of touch with the reality of a changing world. And while spending was going up, that tired philosophy was dragging America down.

Big taxing and spending had led to soaring interest rates and inflation, and all over the world our once-proud nation was no longer known for strength and resolve but for vacillation and self-doubt. The future seemed clouded. And since the whole aim of our schools is to prepare our children for the future, it was only natural that when leaders lost faith in our future, many of our principals, teachers, and students felt robbed of their sense of purpose and self-esteem.

Well, the American people decided to put a stop to that long decline, and in the past few years our country has seen a rebirth of vitality and freedom -- a great national renewal. We've knocked inflation down, and all across our land a powerful economic expansion is providing new products and new work for millions. Once again, the United States is respected throughout the world as a force for peace and freedom. This is a springtime of hope for America.

When we came to Washington, we knew that the problems in education hadn't developed overnight and couldn't be cured overnight. We knew the key to educational improvement was not proposing still more Federal involvement and control, but helping to chart a new course that challenges State and local governments, teachers, administrators, students, and parents to meet the goals of an agenda for excellence.

That's why one of our first actions was to appoint a National Commission on Excellence in Education. And today -- from Maine to California -- parents, teachers, school administrators, and principals have begun the crucial work to carry out the Commission's recommendations by improving fundamentals of basic teaching and learning. Since the Commission's report, we've been witnessing a great reawakening of learning, reflecting a culmination of concern over the quality of American education at all levels.

On the State level, progress has been significant. When our administration took office only a handful of States had task forces on education. Today they all do, and many have begun to work on pay incentives for teachers. They know that to promote good teaching we must reward good teachers.

On the local level, parents, teachers, and administrators are making dramatic strides. The PTA reported last year that after a 20-year decline in its membership, 100,000 new members joined the organization. As with so many challenges throughout our history, the American people are showing again that it can be done.

Although we're doing much to make our schools more like the temples of learning we all want them to be, I don't believe there's an educator in this room, or in America, who wouldn't agree that we've barely begun. Our challenge is to sustain and build on the progress that we're now making.

As we strive to move forward, let's remember one essential precondition for success: We cannot reach for the future without a firm grasp of basic educational tools and the importance of traditional values.

Learning cannot take place without discipline. Today, in schools across our land, many teachers can't teach because they lack the authority to make students take tests and turn in homework. School disorder destroys the learning atmosphere, drives good teachers out of teaching, and hurts minority and low-income students who are concentrated in urban schools where the problem is most severe.

To keep learning in our schools, we must get crime, drugs, and violence out. We cannot expect to raise a new generation of responsible leaders in a lawless environment. We cannot expect young Americans to master the complexities of computers if they're high on drugs and alcohol. We must teach our sons and daughters a proper respect for academic standards, for codes of civilized behavior, and for knowledge itself.

As the National Commission forcefully argued, we must also get our students back to the proper study of basic subjects. Today too many students are allowed to abandon vocational and college prep courses, so when they graduate, they're prepared for neither higher education, nor work, nor the training they may later need to keep up with technological advances. In 1980, 35 States required only 1 year of math for a high school diploma; 36 required only 1 year of science. This, too, must stop. We must insist that all our students master math, science, history, reading, and writing, the fundamentals of our civilization.

Earlier this month, I signed into law the Education for Economic Security Act. It authorizes more scholarships for science and math teachers to help raise the level of instruction in those crucial basics. But it isn't just basic subjects that need to be taught; it's also basic values. If we fail to instruct our children in justice, religion, and liberty, we will be condemning them to a world without virtue, a life in the twilight of a civilization where the great truths have been forgotten.

In many schools, students are being taught the dangers of nuclear weapons and the burdens of national defense. Well, let's make certain they understand not only the price of defending America but the price of failing to. The students from St. George's University School of Medicine learned in Grenada that freedom is worth sticking up for.

And while it makes sense that our children learn of our nation's problems, I hope they're also learning that Americans are good and decent people who face up to those problems with courage and conviction.

Yes, we're human, we have our faults. But by any objective measure, we live in the freest, most prosperous nation in the history of the world, and our children need to know that. Jeane Kirkpatrick, Ambassador to the United Nations, said, ``. . . we must learn to bear the truth about our society, no matter how pleasant it may be.'' [Laughter]

So, we've identified long-neglected problems. We're beginning to turn them around. We're remembering the all-important foundation of basic educational tools, values, and discipline -- all good and important steps of progress, but still not good enough. If the world of learning is to meet the needs of America's future, then we must clearly see where America is headed.

You know, during my own lifetime I've seen this country change so much. When I was a boy, dirt roads were still the rule. Cars had been invented, but very few people had one. In the winter, people got around by horse and sleigh. A huge number of Americans were farmers, and the one-room schoolhouse was common.

Those dirt roads gave way to sleek interstate highways. The commercial development of the airplane, then the creation of the jet engine, revolutionized our transportation. In agriculture, innovations in farm equipment and techniques made it possible for more and more workers to leave the fields to pursue other jobs. As they did so, our great industries grew -- became the mainstay of our economy.

Today we're well into a new revolution driven by technologies that offer virtually unlimited opportunities for satisfying jobs and personal fulfillment. This revolution is based in large part on an American breakthrough -- development of the microchip. A current author has noted: ``Through a vast burst of creativity in the use of microchips, the human race has projected its computational technology beyond all time and size into new galaxies of inner space, where distances are measured in billionths of a meter, time is measured in trillionths of a second, and costs drop to thousandths of a penny.''

I, just a few years ago, received a great shock when I was told about a satellite of ours and a communications thing -- in which the entire Encyclopaedia Britannica could be transmitted in a matter of something like 3 or 4 seconds.

Today our children learn to tell time on digital watches. They mix traditional games like baseball with the latest video craze. And they grow up with constant exposure to the mass media, watching television some 25 hours a week. Today's children can expect to live longer, have more leisure, enjoy better health, change jobs more often, and move to more new locations then ever before.

We've heard it said that our nation's most important recess [resource]\1\ (FOOTNOTE) is the mind of a child, and that's truer than ever. Not long ago we were asking how America could bring the world of learning into better harmony with the world of work. Well, those worlds must not only come together, but also strengthen and enrich each other.

(FOOTNOTE) \1\White House correction.

Our vision of education must be as forward-looking as our vision of the rest of American life. This will mean a school system that teaches our children how to enrich their lives by using telecommunications as educational tools, that shows them how to educate themselves so they'll be able to keep their skills current in an ever-changing job market, and that gives them an appreciation of the arts and humanities so that they may broaden their vision and deepen their understanding of the values that give life meaning.

One way of helping American schools better serve and shape our future is to keep bringing technology into more classrooms. Now, when I was a boy, an apple was something you brought the teacher. [Laughter] Today you learn on an Apple or a MacIntosh or an IBM.

Already our schools and universities have begun to make extensive use of the technological revolution. Young children can use computers to teach themselves colors and basic concepts like ``up'' and ``down'' or ``fast'' and ``slow.'' Others, older students, can use computers to sharpen their grasp of virtually any subject from math to history. Computers can tie in with vast libraries and, in effect, put those libraries in every classroom. One dramatic advantage of the new technology is that, as we put it to use in our schools, it can ease the burden on our teachers. In any given classroom, some students are able to work quietly with computers while their teacher spends time with others -- perhaps with students who require more personal attention.

At the same time, technology can produce new opportunities for learning in the workplace and the home. Audiovisual courses can teach workers how to use new techniques and equipment, and computers can help them prepare for new fields. In the home, personal computers can put all the world's great art, literature, and drama at a family's fingertips. Two-way cable television stations can bring classroom instruction into the living room, and new techniques of viewer participation can enable people in the home to take tests and practice skills. If we apply technology to education with thoughtful skill, good education will be available to all. Education and technology will enable all to participate fully in the wonders and benefits of American life.

One area where those wonders and benefits is most apparent is space. It's long been a goal of our space shuttle, the program, to some day carry citizen passengers into space. Until now, we hadn't decided who the first citizen passenger would be. But today I'm directing NASA to begin a search in all of our elementary and secondary schools and to choose as the first citizen passenger in the history of our space program one of America's finest -- a teacher.

Now, I promise you there will be a little bit of voluntarism in that, also. [Laughter] But when that shuttle lifts off, all of America will be reminded of the crucial role that teachers and education play in the life of our nation. I can't think of a better lesson for our children and our country.

So, now we know that there's reason for hope. We can see an exciting future, but we also know what the current problems are. We've defined them, studied them, quantified them. We've made some progress in combating them, but not enough. Now is the time to set ourselves some additional challenges.

We've slowed the downward trend in SAT scores in the past few years. We may even have ended that trend. But that isn't enough. We have to do better. We have to challenge ourselves further, and we must challenge ourselves as individuals. The state can't do it for us. This town and the Federal Government can't do it for us. We have to challenge ourselves to get moving again.

I propose that, like an Olympic athlete, we set ourselves some goals -- four specific challenges -- and go for it.

Before this decade is out, scholastic aptitude test scores should regain at least half the losses of the last 20 years -- a big challenge. And we know what hurdles lie ahead, but it's doable if we try.

Another challenge before this decade is out: States should reduce their high school dropout rates to less than 10 percent. A big task? You bet. But from the teachers and principals and administrators that I've met over the past 3\1/2\ years, believe me, they've -- or should I say, you? -- are up to the challenge.

Challenge number three: Violence in the schools is, in some ways, the toughest of our problems. But, again, I know we're up to it. Already school and community concern has begun to pay off. A Gallup Poll now shows that the number of parents with children in public schools who cite violence as their major concern is down from 29 percent last year to 23 percent this year. And that's reason to cheer. But, again, it's not enough. We have to do better.

So, here's our goal: Before this decade is out, every school in the Nation should have adopted clear discipline codes, and the percentage of parents who cite school safety as a major concern should be half of what it is now.

You know, our country is perfectly poised to meet these challenges and reach these heights. So many things have begun righting themselves the past few years, or, I should say, you have helped right them. It's a time of good feeling about the future. It's a time of progress. And we're showing ourselves again that effort and dedication and tenacity really make a difference.

As a young fellow said recently, ``America's on top again.'' And we can reach the top in education again, if only we try.

And that brings me to a fourth and last challenge. We can judge our success in turning the schools around by measuring public confidence in the schools. In 1980 only 35 percent of Americans gave the schools an ``A'' or even a ``B'' when they were asked to grade them in a poll. Well, the latest Gallop Poll shows 42 percent now give the schools an ``A'' or a ``B.'' That's a solid increase, but it's not enough. We have to do better. We've got to challenge ourselves further. And so, before the decade is out, this general level of confidence in our schools should grow at least another 20 percent so that a solid majority of our people give our schools an ``A'' or a ``B'' -- no, make that an ``A+'' or a ``B+.''

Less than 2 years ago, one of our great Olympic heroes, Jeff Blatnick, was lying in a operating room being operated on for cancer. He vowed he'd come back, reach his potential, and meet his destiny. And a few weeks ago, we saw him drop to his knees in joy and thanks when he won an Olympic gold medal in wrestling.

My friends, there's nothing we can't do if we set our minds to it. There's nothing we can't achieve. And like those shining young men and women that we sent to the Olympics, we'll stick to these goals; we'll meet them; and this will change our country. We will continue to be what we've already started to be: America reemergent on the scene, full of dynamism and vision; America renewed in a golden age of learning.

I thank you for inviting me here today. It's an honor to meet these scholastic heroes, our Olympians of the classroom. And as school doors open this week and you and 45 million of your fellow students return to your classrooms, I wish you success in your studies, success in helping America meet these great challenges for excellence in education in the 1980's and beyond.

Thany you. God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 2:34 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom at the J.W. Marriott Hotel. In his opening remarks, he referred to Secretary of Education T.H. Bell, whose Department sponsors the program.