Remarks on Receiving a Report on American Education

 

April 26, 1988

 

Secretary Bennett. Mr. President, ladies and gentlemen, I am pleased to present to you, Mr. President, and to the American people the first copy of a new Department of Education report entitled ``American Education: Making it Work.'' Mr. President, as you'll recall, on March 26th of last year, at an education symposium in Columbia, Missouri, you gave me a homework assignment: the preparation of a report assessing America's educational progress since 1983, when the National Commission on Excellence in Education 5 years ago today declared us a ``nation at risk.'' You asked that this report tell the American people how far we've come and what still needs to be done, what reforms have worked and what principles should guide us as we move ahead. Well, here's the gist of my report, Mr. President.

 

American education has made some progress in the last few years. The precipitous downward slide of previous decades has been arrested, and we have begun the long climb back to reasonable standards. Our students have made modest gains in achievement. They are taking more classes in basic subjects. And the performance of our schools has slightly improved. All this is encouraging. We are doing better than we were in 1983. But we are not doing well enough, and we are not doing well enough, fast enough. We are still at risk. The absolute level at which our improvements are taking place is unacceptably low. Widespread and fundamental reforms remain necessary. What these reforms are is not mysterious. Indeed, identifying what works, establishing the ideas and practices that make for effective schools, has been a signal accomplishment of the reform movement to date. Extending and applying the lessons of what works to every school in every community and State in the Nation is the task that lies ahead of us.

 

To do this, we need, we believe, to pursue five basic avenues of reform. First, we need to strengthen the content of our elementary and high school classes and provide our students with a solid core curriculum of basic studies. Second, we need to do a better job of extending equal intellectual opportunity to all our students by dramatically improving the education that is provided to minority and disadvantaged children. Third, we need to revive and restore a healthy ethos of achievement, discipline, and hard work in all our schools. Fourth, we need more effective and sensible methods of recruiting and rewarding good teachers and principals for our schools. And finally, we need to make American education accountable for results. We need to hold our school system responsible for doing its job, and we need to hold our schools responsible for ensuring that our students are learning.

 

We know how to achieve these goals. Necessary reforms are described and explained in this report. We know there is wide public support for these goals and reforms. The American people endorse by overwhelming margins almost every significant proposal made in this report. And we know that if we fail to act on such proposals, our schools cannot meaningfully improve.

 

If our schools are to improve, the powerful resistance to reform must be overcome. It can be. The Nation's modest success over the past 5 years is both proof of reform's possibilities and a summons to all of us for renewed effort. All Americans concerned for the quality of our children's education -- Governors, legislators, educators, and parents -- must become knowledgeable, aggressive, and courageous proponents of education reform.

 

I offer this report to you, Mr. President, as a guide to our future work together. It is work for our children and our country. I know you agree with me that there are few things more important than this work. So, here it is, Mr. President.

 

Mr. President, I know the audience is eager to hear from you, and I want to tell you that in this audience are many principals and teachers. And I know since the time you were a young boy, you've been comfortable in the presence of teachers and principals. [Laughter]

 

The President. Well, that was my story. [Laughter] Well, I thank you, Secretary Bennett. And I'm pleased to see David Gardner and other members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education back here with us today. Let me begin by welcoming all of you to the White House. When I was a boy in school, now and then I was, as Bill has indicated, shall we say, ``invited'' to visit the principal's office. Today at least a few of you are letting me return the favor. [Laughter] I hope you'll feel more comfortable than I did. [Laughter]

 

But as Bill Bennett said, it was 5 years ago that we first issued our report on the state of education in the United States, ``A Nation at Risk.'' Brenda Lee is with us today. She has my admiration and the Nation's. And another star who is with us today is Jaime Escalante. Jaime Escalante has taught calculus at Garfield High School, a predominantly Hispanic inner-city school in Los Angeles, since 1974. And when he arrived there, Garfield was terrorized by gangs and close to losing its accreditation. And Jaime set out to prove that their kids could learn math as well as any -- with incredible success. In 1982 his students did so well on the advanced placement calculus exam that the Educational Testing Service in Princeton couldn't believe their eyes. They thought the Garfield students must have cheated. Escalante advised his students to take the test again, and they served [scored] as well or better. Today, thanks to Mr. Escalante, Garfield has one of the best calculus programs in America. A movie about Mr. Escalante, ``Stand and Deliver,'' has just been released, which is particularly gratifying to me. Too often my old industry glorifies the wrong kind of people. Jaime Escalante and those at Garfield High School are the kinds of people movies ought to glorify, and this time the movies did.

 

Well, I had lunch today with Mr. Escalante, Miss Lee, and four other extraordinary educators, and over the last few years I've visited a number of schools dedicated to quality -- from Jacksonville, Florida, to Chattanooga, Tennessee, to Columbia, Missouri, and, yes, to Suitland, Maryland, and Vienna, Virginia, just outside of Washington. I've heard and seen how far we've come.

 

Well, I'm going to back a ways here and pick up some other things before I get too far along that line. You know, that report that I mentioned first, it concluded that, in its words: ``If an unfriendly foreign power had attempted to impose on America the mediocre educational performance that exists today, we might well have viewed it as an act of war.'' It helped heighten and accelerate a wave of education reform in States and communities all around the country. Last year Secretary Bennett and I had a chance to hear about some of those reforms when we flew out to Columbia, Missouri, and attended a conference there that was sponsored by the Secretary's department and the National Governors' Association. At that conference I gave Bill a little homework assignment -- well, maybe not that little, since I knew he'd need a whole year to complete it. [Laughter] I wanted a full progress report.

 

Yes, some States had installed career ladders, merit pay, and other means of rewarding good teachers. Many schools were placing a new emphasis on quality and discipline, more homework, more attention to basic skills, more attention to what works, that is, to results. This was truly revolutionary after two decades in which money had been the only measure of progress in education, and in which, while Federal spending on education went steadily up, test scores fell steadily down and too many schools accepted the fashions of the day -- the fashions of liberal culture -- that held traditional standards in scorn.

 

It appeared in the newspapers and is about a guidance counselor who asked a class what they should do if they found a purse with $1,000 in it. The class decided that returning it would be neither right nor wrong, just dumb. And when they asked what the counselor thought, he said he wouldn't force his values on them. He told the reporter, and I'm quoting now: ``If I come from the position of what is right and what is wrong, then I'm not their counselor.'' Well, it reminds me of what someone once said that if God had been a liberal, we wouldn't have 10 Commandments, just 10 suggestions. [Laughter] Plato once said that ``the direction in which education starts a man will determine his future life.''

 

When we've looked at schools that work across the country, we've found that the key to what works is not money or being in a prosperous neighborhood but establishing a direction, that is, setting standards. And that's what Edison Primary School in the inner-city area of Dayton, Ohio, does. Almost all of the students at Edison come from low-income families. When they first enter the school, many suffer from intellectual understimulation and other problems associated with poverty.

 

And Principal Brenda Lee, that I mentioned before, combats that with love and caring and by teaching each child to do his or her best. In her more than 5 years at the school, she has strengthened the academic program. She established a schoolwide homework policy and required that students demonstrate that they are ready to be promoted before they're promoted. With the help of outside volunteers, she set up a tutoring program. She also got to know parents, meeting them first at bus stops or on the playground. Now more than 50 volunteer to help at the school each day, and having their parents care like that is an incentive for the children to do well. Another incentive is the Student of the Month Award that Principal Lee established to recognize and encourage excellence. The result of all of this is that in just 3 years students doing math at or above grade level went from 40 percent to 64 percent, while those reading at or above grade level rose from 65 to almost 80 percent.

 

Yes, the reverse, to get back where I was earlier, in the decline in test scores is no accident, but I also know that we still have a long way to go, as Bill said. I'm confident that this report will help us find the way. As I'm told the report notes, we've all heard the arguments of those who believe education reform will fail: that it will take much more steadfastness than the American people possess, much more money than we are willing to pay, or a more fundamental transformation of society than we're willing to bring about.

 

Well, I reject these arguments. American education can be made to work better, and it can be made to work better now. The first step is to identify where we stand and what needs to be done, and that has largely been done. Now, there is a second step: We must overcome the obstacles that block reform. Successful reform won't come about from the top down. Central planning doesn't make economies healthy, and it won't make schools work, either. How can we release the creative energies of our people? By giving parents choice, by allowing them to select the schools that best meet the unique needs of their children, by fostering a healthy rivalry among schools to serve our young people. Already, the power of choice is revitalizing schools that use it across the Nation. We must make education reform a reality. And if we act decisively, American education will soon work much better than it does today, and we'll provide our children with the schools they deserve.

 

Educators like Jaime Escalante and Brenda Lee give us examples of how good American education can be. But a few good examples aren't enough. Every school in America must be a good example. Every school in America needs to have a solid curriculum of basic studies. Every school in America needs to offer its students equal intellectual opportunity that knows no distinction of race, class, or family background. Every school in America needs to have an ethos of achievement, moral quality, discipline, and hard work. Every school in America needs to be able to recruit and reward good teachers and principals. And all of American education needs to be accountable for the only result that matters: student learning.

 

I believe we can do it. We know what works. It's already working at schools around the country. It just needs to be done everywhere. Every American child deserves the kind of school that Brenda Lee runs. Every American child deserves the kind of teaching that Jaime Escalante provides. So, let's dedicate ourselves to giving it to them.

 

I thank you all, and God bless you all. If my old principal could see me now. [Laughter]

 

Note: The President spoke at 2:13 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his opening remarks, he referred to David P. Gardner, Chairman of the National Commission on Excellence in Education.