Remarks to Participants in the Elementary School Recognition Program

 

September 15, 1988

 

Well, good afternoon. It's a pleasure to be with you today as we recognize and honor 287 elementary schools. Of course, education has been a part of our culture from its very beginning. Moses, for example, was known to his people not as a king or as a prophet but as a teacher. And when I had him, that's what I called him: teacher. [Laughter] And boy, was he strict. If you made a mistake, he'd do that trick where he turned his cane into a snake. [Laughter] All of his students did very well, you can be sure.

 

Well, seriously, though, I can't think of an event that I'd be happier to attend. As you know, education has been a particular concern of this administration, and I'm proud to be standing here with one of my two master teachers, Bill Bennett. Bill, I know you'll be leaving next week, and I want you to know that your legacy is an America more committed than ever to improving the education of our children. And we all thank you.

 

Now, replacing Bill, after the Senate gives its okay, will be Lauro Cavazos. Both Bill and Lauro are examples of what education can produce. Lauro is a zoologist and physiologist, Bill a philosopher and a lawyer. They've taught kids, and they've managed institutions of higher learning. And it was their hard work, determination, and the drive they had when their hunger for knowledge was fulfilled that brought them so far. They don't simply speak well about American education: they represent American education at its best, as students, teachers, and administrators.

 

But let's talk about your schools, the schools we honor today. They're very important places because they provide the children who attend them a solid foundation for literally everything they will have to know to be good and useful people.

 

William Wordsworth said that ``the child is father to the man.'' Well, it's a profound thought and not as straightforward a statement as it sounds. It means that the experiences we have as children have a great deal of influence over what we become later in life. And when a youngster's early educational experiences are not good ones -- if the youngster goes through childhood baffled because nobody answers those basic questions about life and the universe -- his thirst for learning will decrease. And when we lose our desire to learn, the world around us begins to shrink. Opportunities shrink. And our natural desire for self-improvement deteriorates. Tragically, we see this happen time and time again in schools that seem to serve more often as places that kids go during the day to kill time rather than places where they go to learn and grow.

 

Well, the children that attend your 287 schools are in little danger of being unfulfilled in their educations. Instead, they arrive in school bright with promise, and they're met with a concerted effort to make sure they fulfill that promise. And that means principals and teachers taking a firm hand and telling their students: This is what you must know, this is how hard you must work to know it, and your reward is the knowledge itself.

 

The K.R. Smith Elementary School in San Jose, California -- it's a school with an ethnically diverse student body of Asians, Hispanics, blacks, whites, and native Americans. And why is this school among the 287 we honor? Well, let's take a look at the expectations superintendent James F. Smith and principal Will H. Ector have for the kids, and how those kids do.

 

There's an hour a day of mathematics instruction, instruction that emphasizes problem-solving skills. And what do the students have to show for it? Eighty percent of the school's students are above average in math proficiency. Students have to take 2 hours a day of reading and language arts, with a curriculum heavy on literature and light on textbook formulas. And what's the result? The scores of K.R. Smith students on the 1987 California survey of basic skills for writing were the highest in the San Jose School District. And that's in a school whose kids are predominantly immigrants or from families that move around a great deal, kids whose first language isn't English.

 

And how is this possible? Will Ector put it best when he said that ``education is our business, excellence is our goal.'' Excellence is not simply an ``A'' grade. Excellence is a philosophy. It says: Do your best at all times because you owe yourself no less. That kind of philosophy spills over into everything and helps children to develop not only good study habits but good character as well.

 

The demand for excellence is a booster to the all-important self-esteem that kids must have to sustain hard work and resist the temptations to sloth or self-indulgence that the world and the devil place in their path. It's the best preventative against the scourge of drugs that I can think of, because if you give children a sense of the past and the future, they won't be so tempted to obliterate the present with drugs.

 

All American elementary schools can learn from your example. And to make that easier to accomplish, the Department of Education has just released a report called ``James Madison Elementary School: A Curriculum for American Students.'' It's a portrait of a model American elementary school, complete with a full-scale curriculum in all relevant subjects. And how did Bill Bennett come up with the curriculum we propose in this volume? Well, from you, your schools, and your programs.

 

You know, some would want to judge America's commitment to education solely by counting the number of Federal dollars going into education. All of you here today have proved that excellence cannot be bought. If it could, some of our most troubled school systems would be our best. No, excellence is the product of dedicated people like you -- working hard, relying on a rigorous curriculum, and always demanding the best from your students. People like Nancy Jude, the principal of John Marshall Elementary School in Glendale, California. Facilities there are crowded, and Nancy says, ``We try to work with what we have.'' What they have are committed teachers and enthusiastic students, and that's what makes Nancy Jude's school one of the 287 that we honor today.

 

All of you've done well by your communities and done credit to your profession. Your example is a guiding light for parents, teachers, and administrators who want all American children to have the kind of education you're already providing. I don't think any of you are ever going to be characterized by that little story about the little boy who came home with his report card and when he got back to school the next day, he said to his teacher, ``You better watch out. Because if I don't get better grades, my father said he's really gonna smack somebody.'' [Laughter]

 

Well, thank you and not just for that but thank you for all you've done, and God bless you all.

 

Note: The President spoke at 2:07 p.m. in the Grand Ballroom at the J.W. Marriott Hotel. In his opening remarks, he referred to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett and Lauro F. Cavazos, who was nominated to succeed Secretary Bennett.