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Richard Nixon: Special Message to the Congress on Education Reform.
Richard Nixon
66 - Special Message to the Congress on Education Reform.
March 3, 1970
Public Papers of the Presidents
Richard Nixon<br>1970
Richard Nixon
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To the Congress of the United States:

American education is in urgent need of reform.

A nation justly proud of the dedicated 'efforts of its millions of teachers and educators must join them in a searching re-examination of our entire approach to learning.

We must stop thinking of primary and secondary education as the school system alone--when we now have reason to believe that young people may be learning much more outside school than they learn in school.

We must stop imagining that the Federal government had a cohesive education policy during a period of explosive expansion-when our Federal education programs are largely fragmented and disjointed, and too often administered in a way that frustrates local and private efforts.

We must stop letting wishes color our judgments about the educational effectiveness of many special compensatory programs, when--despite some dramatic and encouraging exceptions--there is growing evidence that most of them are not yet measurably improving the success of poor children in school.

We must stop pretending that we understand the mystery of the learning process, or that we are significantly applying science and technology to the techniques of teaching--when we spend less than one half of one percent of our educational budget on research, compared with 5% of our health budget and 10% of defense.

We must stop congratulating ourselves for spending nearly as much money on education as does the entire rest of the world--$65 billion a year on all levels-when we are not getting as much as we should out of the dollars we spend.

A new reality in American education can mark the beginning of an era of reform and progress for those who teach and those who learn. Our schools have served us nobly for centuries; to carry that tradition forward, the decade of the 1970s calls for thoughtful redirection to improve our ability to make up for environmental deficiencies among the poor; for long-range provisions for financial support of schools; for more efficient use of the dollars spent on education; for structural reforms to accommodate new discoveries; and for the enhancement of learning before and beyond the school.

When educators, school boards and government officials alike admit that we have a great deal to learn about the way we teach, we will begin to climb the up staircase toward genuine reform.

Therefore, I propose that the Congress create a National Institute of Education as a focus for educational research and experimentation in the United States. When fully developed, the Institute would be an important element in the nation's educational system, overseeing; the annual expenditure of as much as a quarter of a billion dollars.

I am establishing a President's Commission on School Finance to help States and communities to analyze the fiscal plight of their public and non-public schools. We must make the nation aware of the dilemmas our schools face, new methods of organization and finance must be found, and public and non-public schools should together begin to chart the fiscal course of their educational planning for the Seventies.

I propose new steps to help States and communities to achieve the Right to Read for every young American. I will shortly request that funds totalling $200 million be devoted to this objective during fiscal 1971. The basic ability to read is a right that should be denied to no one, and the pleasures found in books and libraries should be available to all.

I propose that the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and the Office of Economic Opportunity begin now to establish a network of child development projects to improve our programs devoted to the first five years of life. In fiscal 1971, a minimum of $52 million will be provided for this purpose.

New Measurements of Achievement

What makes a "good" school? The old answer was a school that maintained high standards of plant and equipment; that had a reasonable number of children per classroom; whose teachers had good college and often graduate training; a school that kept up to date with new curriculum developments, and was alert to new techniques in instruction. This was a fair enough definition so long as it was assumed that there was a direct connection between these "school characteristics" and the actual amount of learning that takes place in a school.

Years of educational research, culminating in the Equal Educational Opportunity Survey of 1966 have, however, demonstrated that this direct, uncomplicated relationship does not exist.
Apart from the general public interest in providing teachers an honorable and well-paid professional career, there is only one important question to be asked about education: What do the children learn?

Unfortunately, it is simply not possible to make any confident deduction from school characteristics as to what will be happening to the children in any particular school. Fine new buildings alone do not predict high achievement. Pupil-teacher ratios may not make as much difference as we used to think. Expensive equipment may not make as much difference as its salesmen would have us believe.

And yet we know that something does make a difference.

The outcome of schooling--what children learn--is profoundly different for different groups of children and different parts of the country. Although we do not seem to understand just what it is in one school or school system that produces a different outcome from another, one conclusion is inescapable: We do not yet have equal educational opportunity in America.

The purpose of the National Institute of Education would be to begin the serious, systematic search for new knowledge needed to make educational opportunity truly equal.

The corresponding need in the school systems of the nation is to begin the responsible, open measurement of how well the educational process is working. It matters very little how much a school building costs; it matters a great deal how much a child in that building learns. An important beginning in measuring the end result of education has already been made through the National Assessment of Educational Progress being conducted by the Education Commission of the States.

To achieve this fundamental reform it will be necessary to develop broader and more sensitive measurements of learning than we now have.

The National Institute of Education would take the lead in developing these new measurements of educational output. In doing so it should pay as much heed to what are called the "immeasurables" of schooling (largely because no one has yet learned to measure them) such as responsibility, wit and humanity as it does to verbal and mathematical achievement.

In developing these new measurements, we will want to begin by comparing the actual educational effectiveness of schools in similar economic and geographic circumstances. We will want to be alert to the fact that in our present educational system we will often find our most devoted, most talented, hardest working teachers in those very schools where the general level of achievement is lowest. They are often there because their commitment to their profession sends them where the demands upon their profession are the greatest.

From these considerations we derive another new concept: accountability. School administrators and school teachers alike are responsible for their performance, and it is in their interest as well as in the interest of their pupils that they be held accountable. Success should be measured not by some fixed national norm, but rather by the results achieved in relation to the actual situation of the particular school and the particular set of pupils.

For years the fear of "national standards" has been one of the bugaboos of education. There has never been any serious effort to impose national standards on educational programs, and if we act wisely in this generation we can be reasonably confident that no such effort will arise in future generations. The problem is that in opposing some mythical threat of "national standards" what we have too often been doing is avoiding accountability for our own local performance. We have, as a nation, too long avoided thinking of the productivity of schools.

This is a mistake because it undermines the principle of local control of education. Ironic though it is, the avoidance of accountability is the single most serious threat to a continued, and even more pluralistic educational system. Unless the local community can obtain dependable measures of just how well its school system is performing for its children, the demand for national standards will become even greater and in the end almost certainly will prevail. When local officials do not respond to a real local need, the search begins for a level of officialdom that will do so, and all too often in the past this search has ended in Washington.

I am determined to see to it that the flow of power in education goes toward, and not away from, the local conrad. unity. The diversity and freedom of education in this nation, founded on local administration and State responsibility, must prevail.


As the first step toward reform, we need a coherent approach to research and experimentation. Local schools need an objective national body to evaluate new departures in teaching that are being conducted here and abroad and a means of disseminating information about projects that show promise.

The National Institute of Education would be located in the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare under the Assistant Secretary for Education, with a permanent staff of outstanding scholars from such disciplines as psychology, biology and the social sciences, as well as education.

While it would conduct basic and applied educational research itself, the National Institute of Education would conduct a major portion of its research by contract with universities, non-profit institutions and other organizations. Ultimately, related research activities of the Office of Education would be transferred to the Institute.

It would have a National Advisory Council of distinguished scientists, educators and laymen to ensure that educational research in the Institute achieves a high level of sophistication, rigor and efficiency.

The Institute would set priorities for research and experimentation projects and vigorously monitor the work of its contractors to ensure a useful research product.

It would develop criteria and measures for enabling localities to assess educational achievement and for evaluating particular educational programs, and would provide technical assistance to State and local agencies seeking to evaluate their own programs.

It would also link the educational research and experimentation of other Federal agencies--the Office of Economic Opportunity, the Department of Labor, the Department of Defense, the National Science Foundation and others--to the attainment of particular national educational goals.

Here are a few of the areas the National Institute of Education would explore:

(a) Compensatory Education. The most glaring shortcoming in American education today continues to be the lag in essential learning skills in large numbers of children of poor families.

In the last decade, the Government launched a series of ambitious, idealistic, and costly programs for the disadvantaged, based on the assumption that extra resources would equalize learning opportunity and eventually help eliminate poverty.

In some instances, such programs have dramatically improved children's educational achievement. In many cases, the programs have provided important auxiliary services such as medical care and improved nutrition. They may also have helped prevent some children from falling even further behind.

However, the best available evidence indicates that most of the compensatory education programs have not measurably helped poor children catch up.

Recent findings on the two largest such programs are particularly disturbing. We now spend more than $1 billion a year for educational programs run under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Most of these have stressed the teaching of reading, but before-and-after tests suggest that only 19% of the children in such programs improve their reading significantly; 13 % appear to fall behind more than expected; and more than two-thirds of the children remain unaffected--that is, they continue to fall behind. In our Head start program, where so much hope is invested, we find that youngsters enrolled only for the summer achieve almost no gains, and the gains of those in the program for a full year are soon matched by their non-Head start classmates from similarly poor backgrounds.

Thoughtful men recognize the limitations of such measurements and would not conclude that the programs thus assessed are without value. It may be necessary to wait many years before the full impact of such programs on the lives of poor youngsters can be ascertained. But as we continue to conduct special compensatory education for the disadvantaged, we must recognize that our present knowledge about how to overcome poor backgrounds is so limited that major expansion of such programs could not be confidently based on their results.

While our understanding of what works in compensatory education is still inadequate, we do know that the social and economic environment which surrounds a child at home and outside of school probably has more effect on what he learns than the quality of the school he now attends. Therefore, the major expansion of income support proposed in the Family Assistance Plan should also have an important educational effect.

The first order of business of the National Institute of Education would be to determine what is needed--inside and outside of school--to make our compensatory education effort successful. To help get this process under way now, I have also reactivated the National Advisory Council on the Education of Disadvantaged Children, and have appointed a slate of distinguished educators who will make recommendations and help monitor our efforts in this field. The nation cannot afford defeat in this area.

(b) The Right To Read. In September, the nation's chief education officer, Dr. James E. Allen, Jr., proclaimed the Right to Read as a goal for the 1970's. I endorse this goal.

Achievement of the Right to Read will require a national effort to develop new curricula and to better apply the many methods and programs that already exist. Where we do not know how to solve a reading problem, the National Institute of Education would undertake the research. But often we find that someone does know how, and the Institute would make that knowledge available in forms that can be adopted by local schools.

In some critical areas, we already know how to work toward achieving the Right to Read for our nation's children. In the coming year, I will ask the Congress to appropriate substantial resources for two programs that can most readily serve to achieve this new commitment--the program that assists school libraries to obtain books, and the program that provides funds through the states for special education improvement projects.

I will shortly ask Congress to increase the funds for these two programs--funds which are available to public and nonpublic schools alike--to $200 million. I shall direct the Commissioner of Education to work with State and local officials to assist them in using these programs to teach children to read. This is a purpose which I believe to be of the very highest priority for our schools, and a right which, with the cooperation of the nation's educators, can be achieved for every young American.

(c) Television and Learning. Most education takes place outside the school. Although we often mistakenly equate "schooling" with "learning," we should begin to pay far greater attention to what youngsters learn during the more than three quarters of their time they spend elsewhere.

In the last twenty years, there has been a revolution in the way most boys and girls--and their parents--occupy themselves. The average high school student, for example, by the time he graduates, has spent 11,000 hours in school--and 15,000 hours watching television.

Our goal must be to increase the use of the television medium and other technological advances to stimulate the desire to learn and to help teach.

The technology is here, but we have not yet learned how to employ it to our full advantage. How can local school systems extend and support their curricula working with local television stations? How can new techniques of programmed learning be applied so as to make each television set an effective teaching aid? How can television, audiovisual aids, the telephone, and the availability of computer libraries be combined to form a learning unit in the home, revolutionizing "homework" by turning a chore into an adventure in learning?

The National Institute of Education would examine questions such as these, especially in that vital area where out-of-school activities can combine with modern technology and public policy to enhance our children's education. It will work in concert with other organizations and agencies dedicated to the educational uses of television technology. Prominent among these is the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, which the Congress established in 1967 as a private entity to channel and shape the use of Federal funds in support of public broadcasting. With its authorization for Federal funds expiring shortly, the time has come to extend the Federal support for the Corporation to stimulate its continuing growth and improvement. Accordingly, the Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare is today transmitting a bill to authorize funds for the Corporation for a three-year period. This will permit the Corporation to grow in the orderly and planned way so important to a new undertaking. A portion of the annual Federal funding would be based on matching the dollars raised by the Corporation from non-Federal sources. The Congress did not intend that the Corporation derive its funds solely from the Federal Government. Therefore, increased contributions from private sources should be stimulated during the early years through the incentive offered in the matching process.

(d) Experimental Schools. As a bridge between basic educational research and actual school practices, I consider the Experimental Schools program to be highly important. Accordingly, I renew my request to the Congress to appropriate the full amount asked--$25 million in Fiscal Year 1971.

The Secretary of Health, Education, and Welfare is today transmitting a bill to establish the National Institute of Education. We have taken a similar approach in biomedical research through the National Institutes of Health; this effort in education would be an historic step forward.


I am today signing an Executive Order [11513] establishing a President's Commission on School Finance, to be in existence for two years, reporting to the President periodically on future revenue needs and fiscal priorities for public and non-public schools.

(a) From Quantity to Quality. Over the past twenty years the public schools have experienced the greatest expansion in their history. Enrollments increased by 80%--from 25 million to 45 million pupils---in those two decades.

But now the period of steep enrollment growth in the schools is over: The birthrate has been declining for about ten years and the number of pupils in the public schools is expected to rise only slightly in the decade ahead. This means that the schools, no longer faced with a problem of sharply increasing numbers, will now be able to concentrate on finding improved educational methods. They can now shift their emphasis from quantity to quality.

(b) Future Financial Needs. Despite this leveling-off of enrollments, additional resources will be necessary, particularly if the present rate of growth in per pupil expenditures continues. Yet, because we have neglected to plan how we will deal with school finance, we have great instability and uncertainty in the financial structure of education.

(c) Disparity Among Districts and States. The continuing if narrowing gap in educational expenditures between rich and poor States and rich and poor school districts is cause for national concern. Differences in dollars per pupil are not in themselves wrong; in a democracy, communities should have the right to provide extra support to their schools if they wish. But some areas with a low tax base find it difficult or impossible to provide adequate support to their schools, a problem that crosses State lines in an era of mobility-when the poorly taught of one area frequently become unemployed adults elsewhere.

The need is apparent for a central body to study the different approaches being pioneered by States and local districts, and to disseminate the information about successes achieved and problems encountered at the local level.

(d) Sources of Funds for Education. State support accounts for 38% of school revenues, Federal support for about 8%, with 54% of the burden carried locally. Of the local funds, almost all come. from property taxes, but that tax base is not keeping up with educational expenditures. A major review of the tax resources and needs of education is in order.

The best method of providing direct Federal monetary aid to education, and the one most consistent with local control of education, is through the system of revenue sharing which I proposed to the Congress in August. Much of the tax revenue which the Federal government would return to the States will probably be used where two-fifths of State and local funds now go--to the schools. Revenue sharing proposals which would total five billion dollars annually by 1975 will help States and localities meet their educational and other needs in the way that ensures the most diversity and the most responsiveness to local need--without Federal domination.

A related and important reform is urgently needed in the present program of grants to schools in Federally-impacted areas. As presently constituted, this program neither assists States to determine their own education expenditures nor redirects funds to the individual districts in greatest need. That is why, in the Federal Economy Act submitted to the Congress last week, I called for a thoroughgoing reform of this program. The President's Commission on School Finance will examine the combined effects of this reform, the potential of revenue sharing for educational finance, and the impact of savings accruing to States under the proposed Family Assistance Program, and will assist State and Federal agencies to plan effectively for these important changes.

(e) Possible Efficiencies. Many public and non-public school systems make inefficient use of their facilities and staff. The nine-month school year may have been justified when most youngsters helped in the fields during the summer months, but it is doubtful whether many communities can any longer afford to let expensive facilities sit idle for one-quarter of the year.

Thousands of small school districts-some without schools---continue to exist, resulting in inequities in both finance and education. On the other hand, some of our large city school systems have become too large, too bureaucratic, and insensitive to varying educational needs.

The present system of Federal grants frequently creates inefficiency. There are now about 40 different Federal categorical grant programs in elementary and secondary education. This system of carving up Federal aid to education into a series of distinct programs may have adverse educational effects. Federal "pieces" do not add up to the whole of education and they may distract the attention of educators away from the big picture and into a constant scramble for special purpose grants. Partly for this reason, I will continue to recommend to the Congress plans for consolidation of grants into packages that are truly useful to States and localities receiving them. This would place much more administrative control of these Federal funds in local hands, removing red tape and providing flexibility.

(f) Non-Public Schools. The nonpublic elementary and secondary schools in the United States have long been an integral part of the nation's educational establishment--supplementing in an important way the main task of our public school system. The non-public schools provide a diversity which our educational system would otherwise lack. They also give a spur of competition to the public schools--through which educational innovations come, both systems benefit, and progress results.

Should any single school system--public or private--ever acquire a complete monopoly over the education of our children, the absence of competition would neither be good for that school system nor good for the country. The non-public schools also give parents the opportunity to send their children to a school of their own choice, and of their own religious denomination. They offer a wider range of possibilities for education experimentation and special opportunities for minorities, especially Spanish-speaking Americans and black Americans.

Up to now, we have failed to consider the consequences of declining enrollments in private elementary and secondary schools, most of them church supported, which educate 11% of all pupils--close to six million school children. In the past two years, close to a thousand non-public elementary and secondary schools closed and most of their displaced students enrolled in local public schools.

If most or all private schools were to close or turn public, the added burden on public funds by the end of the 1970s would exceed $4 billion per year in operations, with an estimated $5 billion more needed for facilities.

There is another equally important consideration: these schools--non-sectarian, Catholic, Protestant, Jewish and other-often add a dimension of spiritual value giving children a moral code by which to live. This government cannot be indifferent to the potential collapse of such schools.

The specific problem of parochial schools is to be a particular assignment of the Commission.

In its deliberations, I urge the commission to keep two considerations in mind. First, our purpose here is not to aid religion in particular but to promote diversity in education; second, that non-public schools in America are closing at the rate of one a day.


In the development of the mind, child's play is serious business. One of my first initiatives upon taking office was to commit this Administration to an expansion of opportunities during the First Five Years of Life. That commitment was based on new scientific knowledge about the development of intelligence--that as much of that development takes place in the first five years as in the next thirteen.

We have established a new Office of Child Development in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare. I am now directing that Department and the Office of Economic Opportunity jointly to establish a network of experimental centers to discover what works best in early childhood education.

An experimental program of this nature is necessary as we expand our child development programs. The Early Learning Program will also provide us with a strong experimental base on which to build the new day care program, involving $386 million in its first full year of operation, which I have proposed as part of the Family Assistance Plan.

The experimental units of the Early Learning Program, working with the National Institute of Education, will study a number of provocative questions raised in recent years by educators and scientists:

--A study of language and number competence between lower and middle-class children shows a significant difference by the time a child is four years old, but the difference is said to become "awesome" by the time the child enters first grade. If this is so, what effect should it have on our approach to compensatory education in the early years?

---A study of poor children in Washington, D.C., conducted by the National Institute of Mental Health, indicates a decline in I.Q.s of infants between the ages of 14 and 21 months--a decline that can be forestalled by skillful tutoring during their second year. If this is true, how should it affect our approach to the education of the very young?

--Many child development experts believe that the best opportunity for improving the education of infants under the age of three lies not in institutional centers but at home, and through working with their mothers. What might we do, therefore, to communicate to young women and mothers--especially to those in or near poverty--the latest information on effective child development techniques with specific suggestions about its application at home?


The tone of this message, and the approach of this Administration, is intended to be challenging. America's education have the capacity and dedication to respond to that challenge.

For most of our citizens, the American educational system is among the most successful in the history of the world. But for a portion of our population, it has never delivered on its promises. Until we know why education works when it is successful, we can know little about what makes it fail when it is unsuccessful. This is knowledge that must precede any rational attempt to provide our every student with the best possible education.

Mankind has witnessed a few great ages when understanding of a social or scientific process has expanded and changed so quickly as to revolutionize the process itself. The time has come for such an era in education.

There comes a time in any learning process that calls for reassessment and reinforcement. It calls for new directions in our methods of teaching, new understanding of our ways of learning, for a fresh emphasis on our basic research, so as to bring behavioral science and advanced technology to bear on problems that only appear to be insuperable.

That is why, in this field more importantly than in any other, I have called for fundamental studies that should lead to far-reaching reforms before going ahead with major new expenditures for "more of the same."

To state dogmatically "money is not the answer" is not the answer. Money will be needed, and this Administration is prepared to commit itself to substantial increases in Federal aid to education--to place this among the highest priorities in our budget--as we seek a better understanding of the basic truths of the learning process, as we gain a new confidence that our education dollars are being wisely invested to bring back their highest return in social benefits, and as we provide some assurance that those funds contribute toward fundamental reform of American education.

As we get more education for the dollar, we will ask the Congress to supply many more dollars for education.

In the meantime, we are committing effort and money toward finding out how to make our education dollars go further. Specifically, the 1971 budget increases funds for educational research by $67 million to a total of $312 million. Funds for the National Institute of Education would be in addition to this increase.

Nearly a century ago, Benjamin Disraeli advised Parliament that "upon the education of the people of this country the fate of this country depends." That is no less true in the United States today, where nearly one person out of three is teaching or studying in one of our schools and colleges and where the greatest social controversy of our generation has centered.

This Administration is committed to the principle and the practice of seeing to it that equal educational opportunity is provided every child in every corner of this land.

I am well aware that "quality education" is already being interpreted as "code words" for a delay of desegregation. We must never let that meaning take hold. Quality is what education is all about; desegregation is vital to that quality; as we improve the quality of education for all American children, we will help them improve the quality of their own lives in the next generation.

We must not permit the controversy about the progress toward desegregation to detract from the shared purpose of all-better education, and especially better education for the poor of every race and color.

That is why this Administration has committed itself to finding the reason-all other things seeming equal--why so much educational achievement remains unequal. We commit ourselves to the realizable dream of raising the American standard of learning.

Teachers and taxpayers alike must not accept the status quo in the process of teaching. We must make the schooling fit the student. We must improve education in those areas of life outside the school where people learn so much or so little. We must discover how to begin educating the young mind when it really begins to learn.

By demanding educational reform now, we can gain the understanding we need to help every student reach new levels of achievement; only by challenging conventional wisdom can we as a nation gain the wisdom we need to educate our young in the decade of the 70s.

The White House
March 3, 1970

Note: On March 3, 1970, the White House also released a fact sheet and the transcripts of two news briefings on the President's message; the first briefing held by Dr. Daniel P. Moynihan, Counsellor to the President, and Dr. James E. Allen, Jr., Commissioner of Education, Department of Health, Education, and Welfare, and the second by Senator Hugh Scott and Representative Gerald R. Ford.
Citation: Richard Nixon: "Special Message to the Congress on Education Reform.," March 3, 1970. Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project. http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=2895.
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