Remarks on Receiving a Report on American Education
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]
as Bill Bennett said, it was 5 years ago that we first issued our report on the
state of education in the
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.
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
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.''
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
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.
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
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 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.