Radio Address to the Nation on Education

September 8, 1984

My fellow Americans:

Young people across the country returned to school this week. The approach of autumn marks the end of the year, but somehow it always seems to be a time of new beginnings in the home and the workplace and in the classroom.

We've seen a great resurgence of interest in how our public schools run the past few years. We've seen a new seriousness about the importance of education in our lives. You may remember when a commission we appointed almost 3 years ago to study the state of our schools concluded that if another country had done to our schools what we ourselves did to them, we would be justified in calling it an act of war.

But already things are beginning to turn around. It's been one of those great American stories, a little like how neighbors used to band together to raise a house out of the wilderness. Teachers and school principals and school boards have joined with parents and local community leaders to turn things around. Scholastic aptitude test scores are turning up. Academic performance is up, and more parents are showing confidence in the schools.

Forty-two percent of Americans now grade their local schools with an ``A'' or ``B,'' and that's up 11 percent since last year. A number of schools are leading this academic renewal. Katahdin High School up at Sherman Station, Maine, was named by the Department of Education as an exemplary school. At Katahdin, they encourage students and teachers to work together and understand each other's problems. They have firm disciplinary rules. Teachers feel they have a say in how the school is run. They can get the supplies they need. And they're looking to the future. This little school of 260 students has seven computers.

Then there's Jefferson High School in Los Angeles, a big city school with 2,000 students, most of them Hispanic or black. Principal Francis Nakano came to Jefferson 2 years ago and found walls full of graffiti and halls full of unruly youngsters. But Nakano turned it around. He started with discipline -- fast, firm, and fair. He overhauled the buildings to create a climate for learning. He encouraged learning, recognizing and giving honors to the school's best scholars and helping slow learners with a special program that has them sign a personal contract accepting responsibility for their own progress in return for special, individual instruction.

These are just two schools that are a part of our national renewal in education. But what we're doing isn't enough; we've got to do better. I propose that this week the young people starting school and their parents and future employers accept some challenges, and they'll be tough challenges, the type you have to meet by yourself.

First challenge: Before this decade is out, we should regain at least half of what we lost in the sixties and seventies on scholastic aptitude test scores. As I said before, those scores are inching their way up, but not fast enough. Now, if you think that ``I can't do anything to help,'' you're wrong. If you're a student who will take the scholastic aptitude test this year, study hard and do your very best. You can help lift our national average.

Second, violence and disorder have no place in our schools. Parents worry about it, and so do many children. Before this decade is out, we should reduce crime in the schools so much that it becomes a mere anecdote in studies about our schools.

Third, there's the problem of dropouts. Our high school dropout rate is now 27\1/2\ percent. I propose that before this decade is out the public schools of this country reduce the dropout rate to 10 percent or less. You know, when a girl or boy drops out of school, we tend to think the child failed the system. But I wonder sometimes if it isn't also true that the system failed the child. Sometimes they just need that extra little bit of care and motivation.

There's one other great challenge I want to speak to you about: watching too much TV. Now, I don't want to sound like a scolding parent, but time given to a television show that ought to be given to a school book is time badly used. TV is entertaining and sometimes educational. It's part of the fabric of our lives. But watching TV is passive, it's not living life.

Life involves effort and growth. You won't grow by watching a situation comedy, though you can grow by reading a book. I hope we aren't becoming a nation of watchers, because what made us great is that we've always been a nation of doers.

A dynamic and secure American future requires keeping today's economic expansion strong for tomorrow. And to meet that challenge, we must begin meeting these crucial educational challenges today.

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

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