Remarks at a White House Ceremony Honoring the Winners in the Secondary School Recognition Program and the Exemplary Private School Recognition Project

October 1, 1985

Thank you all, and welcome to the White House. You know, I have been out of school for some time now, but I still get nervous around so many principals. [Laughter] Actually, one of the advantages of being 39 years old as long as I have is that you develop a different perspective on life. I have come to realize that principals and Presidents have a great deal in common; both of us have to keep a lot of people happy. You have school boards, and I have the administration. You have the PTA, and I have the voters. You have unruly children; I'd better not name any names. [Laughter]

Seriously, it is a great honor to have you here today. I don't think it's an exaggeration to say that we are seeing a renaissance in American education, and it's people like you in communities like yours who are making it happen. Not too long ago, much of the news we heard about education was bad. From 1963 to 1980, scholastic aptitude test scores underwent a virtually unbroken decline. Science and achievement scores of 17-year-olds were dropping, and an alarming number of those 17-year-olds were dropping out. Crime was on the rise in our nation's schools; teachers and students lived in fear of violence. Our educational system, the very underpinning of our free society, appeared to be breaking apart. Well, as we used to say when I was in school: That's all ancient history. No, we haven't solved all of the problems yet. In public and private schools throughout the country, administrators, teachers, and parents still labor like heroes against tremendous odds. But today there is a new spirit of optimism in our land, and, as Secretary Bennett has said, American education is on the mend.

Last year I issued a challenge to America's students and educators. By the end of this decade, I said scholastic aptitude test scores should regain at least half of what they've lost in the last 20 years. Well, that is 42 points -- 7 points a year -- a big challenge. I bet a lot of people were saying to themselves at the time that it couldn't be done. Well, I've learned one thing as President of this great country: Never underestimate the American people. Secretary Bennett told me just last week that the SAT scores for 1985 are up 9 whole points over last year -- 2 points above the yearly increase we need to meet our challenge. So, congratulations to you. Congratulations to all educators out there who are doing their part to build a better America. Congratulations to parents who care, all parents who are involved in their children's education. And let's give credit where credit is due -- to America's students. Well done, and keep up the good work!

You know, I have been on a number of campuses recently, and, granted, I am talking about those who are up there on the college level, but from all those appearances, and after having gone through the years of the sixties when it was quite different, I have come back with the firm conviction that the 21st century is going to be in good hands. Well, one of the most heartening things I've witnessed in these last 4\1/2\ years is the pride and exuberance with which our young people have taken up the call to America's future. I don't think there's ever been a younger generation with more spirit or promise. America's a team effort, and as we've seen with these recent SAT scores, America's young people are some of our star players.

We have a challenge at the Federal level as well: to reform programs that stand in the way of educational excellence. That's why we're going to make our program for teaching English to limited English-speaking students more flexible, allowing local districts to use the teaching methods that they know from experience work best. And in our compensatory education program, we're going to give parents of disadvantaged children the right to choose the school that gives their children the best education. Affluent Americans already have that choice; why shouldn't the poor and the minorities, too?

There can no longer be any question that an education founded on the basics works; that higher standards produce higher achievement; and that an orderly, disciplined classroom is a prerequisite for learning. And we're also finding out again the value of values. A recent Gallup Poll found that the overwhelming majority of parents want their schools to do two things above all: to teach their children to speak and write correctly and, just as important, to teach them a standard of right and wrong -- in other words, to teach them values; teachers agree. In another recent poll, 92 percent of teachers polled said that schools should emphasize the development of ethical character in students. Unfortunately, some so-called experts in the field still insist that education should be what they call value neutral. Well, as I've said before, a value-neutral education is a contradiction in terms. If we fail to instruct our children in values of justice and liberty, we'll be condemning them to a world without virtue, a life in the twilight of civilization where the great truths have been forgotten.

In many schools, students are being taught the economic burdens of our national defense. Fair enough, but while being taught about the cost of defending freedom, shouldn't they also learn that the price will be far greater if we fail to defend freedom? Yes, our schoolchildren should know about their country's faults, but they should also be taught that by any objective measure, we live in the freest, most prosperous nation in the history of the world. As Jeane Kirkpatrick once said, ``We must learn to bear the truth about our society no matter how pleasant it may be.'' [Laughter] America's schools do not and cannot exist in isolation from the rest of our society; and that brings me to an important point.

As we work to rid our schools of crime, drugs, and violence, isn't it time that everybody in the media and entertainment industries followed the leadership of those who've accepted their responsibility to our nation's youth? Isn't it time that those who have so much influence over young minds stop glorifying violence and promiscuous sex? As a matter of fact, I heard a clergyman one day from the pulpit ask, ``When did promiscuity become `sexually active'?'' [Laughter] Let's start being a little more blunt with this wonderful language of ours and using words that describe what we're talking about. Aren't we tired of people who plead first amendment rights when it's as clear as day that what they're really talking about is big profits for themselves? America's young people have rights, too. They have a right to grow up without being constantly bombarded by images of violence and perversity. Let's give our children back their childhood. Let's give them the support all children need -- the support of traditional values like family, faith, hope, charity, and freedom.

And maybe in this modern age our schoolchildren need a little extra support; maybe like the rest of us, sometime during the day they need that extra support of prayer. I can't help but thinking that if some of those people who spend all their time trying to keep God out of our nation's schools spent just as much time trying to keep out drugs and violence, well, they'd certainly be doing our children a lot more good.

Now, I realize, here -- and speaking to you particularly -- I'm ``preaching to the choir.'' [Laughter] You here today represent the best in American education. You're in the vanguard of educational reform, and every vanguard needs a flag. So, I'm going to hand over the podium to the only substitute teacher I know of with Cabinet rank -- [laughter] -- our Secretary of Education, Bill Bennett, and he is going to hand out your awards. Fly these flags with pride; you've earned them.

And now, I'll do what the little girl told me to do in a P.S. to a letter she wrote, telling me all the problems that had to be solved, and then the P.S. was, ``Now get back to the Oval Office and get to work.''[Laughter] So, congratulations, and God bless you all. Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 3:01 p.m. on the South Lawn of the White House. Following his remarks, 281 principals were presented with American flags, honoring the achievements of their schools.