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Address to the Nation on the National Education Strategy

April 18, 1991

Thank you all for joining us here in the White House today. Let me thank the Speaker for being with us, and the majority leader; other distinguished Members, committee heads and ranking members, and very important education committees here with us today. I want to salute the Governors, the educators, the business and the labor leaders, and especially want to single out the National Teachers of the Year. I believe we have 10 of the previous 11 Teachers of the Year with us here today, and that's most appropriate and most fitting.

But together, all of us, we will underscore the importance of a challenge destined to define the America that we'll know in the next century.

For those of you close to my age, the 21st century has always been a kind of shorthand for the distant future -- the place we put our most far-off hopes and dreams. And today, that 21st century is racing towards us -- and anyone who wonders what the century will look like can find the answer in America's classrooms.

Nothing better defines what we are and what we will become than the education of our children. To quote the landmark case Brown versus Board of Education, "It is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education."

Education has always meant opportunity. Today, education determines not just which students will succeed but also which nations will thrive in a world united in pursuit of freedom in enterprise. Think about the changes transforming our world: the collapse of communism and the cold war, the advent and acceleration of the Information Age. Down through history, we've defined resources as soil and stones, land and the riches buried beneath. No more. Our greatest national resource lies within ourselves: our intelligence, ingenuity, the capacity of the human mind.

Nations that nurture ideas will move forward in years to come. Nations that stick to stale old notions and ideologies will falter and fail. So I'm here today to say America will move forward. The time for all the reports and rankings, for all the studies and the surveys about what's wrong in our schools is past. If we want to keep America competitive in the coming century, we must stop convening panels to report on ourselves. We must stop convening panels that report the obvious. And we must accept responsibility for educating everyone among us, regardless of background or disability.

If we want America to remain a leader, a force for good in the world, we must lead the way in educational innovation. And if we want to combat crime and drug abuse, if we want to create hope and opportunity in the bleak corners of this country where there is now nothing but defeat and despair, we must dispel the darkness with the enlightenment that a sound and well-rounded education provides.

Think about every problem, every challenge we face. The solution to each starts with education. For the sake of the future of our children, and of the Nation's, we must transform America's schools. The days of the status quo are over.

Across this country, people have started to transform the American school. They know that the time for talk is over. Their slogan is: Don't dither, just do it. Let's push the reform effort forward. Use each experiment, each advance to build for the next American century -- new schools for a new world.

As a first step in this strategy, we must challenge not only the methods and the means that we've used in the past but also the yardsticks that we've used to measure our progress. Let's stop trying to measure progress in terms of money spent. We spend 33 percent more per pupil in 1991 than we did in 1981 -- 33 percent more in real, constant dollars. And I don't think there's a person anywhere, anywhere in the country, who would say that we've seen a 33-percent improvement in our schools' performance.

Dollar bills don't educate students. Education depends on committed communities, determined to be places where learning will flourish; committed teachers, free from the noneducational burdens; committed parents, determined to support excellence; committed students, excited about school and learning. To those who want to see real improvement in American education, I say: There will be no renaissance without revolution.

We who would be revolutionaries must accept responsibilities for our schools. For too long, we've adopted a no-fault approach to education. Someone else is always to blame. And while we point fingers out there, trying to assign blame, the students suffer. There's no place for a no-fault attitude in our schools. It's time we held our schools -- and ourselves -- accountable for results.

Until now, we've treated education like a manufacturing process, assuming that if the gauges seemed right -- if we had good pay scales, the right pupil-teacher ratios -- good students would just pop out of our schools. It's time to turn things around -- to focus on students, to set standards for our schools and let teachers and principals figure out how best to meet them.

We've made a good beginning by setting the Nation's sights on six ambitious national education goals -- and setting for our target the year 2000. Our goals have been forged in partnership with the Nation's Governors, several of whom are with us here today in the East Room. And those who have taken a leadership are well-known to everyone in this room. And for those who need a refresher course -- there may be a quiz later on -- let me list those goals right now.

By 2000, we've got to, first, ensure that every child starts school ready to learn; second one, raise the high school graduation rate to 90 percent; the third one, ensure that each American student leaving the 4th, 8th, and 12th grades can demonstrate competence in core subjects; four, make our students first in the world in math and science achievements; fifth, ensure that every American adult is literate and has the skills necessary to compete in a global economy and exercise the rights and responsibilities of citizenship; and sixth, liberate every American school from drugs and violence so that schools encourage learning.

Our strategy to meet these noble national goals is founded in common sense and common values. It's ambitious and yet, with hard work, it's within our reach. And I can outline our strategy in one paragraph, and here it is: For today's students, we must make existing schools better and more accountable. For tomorrow's students, the next generation, we must create a new generation of American schools. For all of us, for the adults who think our school days are over, we've got to become a nation of students -- recognize learning is a lifelong process. Finally, outside our schools we must cultivate communities where learning can happen. That's our strategy.

People who want Washington to solve our educational problems are missing the point. We can lend appropriate help through such programs as Head Start. But what happens here in Washington won't matter half as much as what happens in each school, each local community, and yes, in each home. Still, the Federal Government will serve as a catalyst for change in several important ways.

Working closely with the Governors, we will define new world-class standards for schools, teachers, and students in the five core subjects: math and science, English, history and geography. We will develop voluntary -- let me repeat it -- we will develop voluntary national tests for 4th, 8th, and 12th graders in the five core subjects. These American Achievement Tests will tell parents and educators, politicians, and employers just how well our schools are doing. I'm determined to have the first of these tests for fourth graders in place by the time that school starts in September of 1993. And for high school seniors, let's add another incentive -- a distinction sure to attract attention of colleges and companies in every community across the country -- a Presidential Citation to students who excel on the 12th-grade test.

We can encourage educational excellence by encouraging parental choice. The concept of choice draws its fundamental strength from the principle at the very heart of the democratic idea. Every adult American has the right to vote, the right to decide where to work, where to live. It's time parents were free to choose the schools that their children attend. This approach will create the competitive climate that stimulates excellence in our private and parochial schools as well.

But the centerpiece of our national education strategy is not a program, it's not a test. It's a new challenge: To reinvent American education -- to design new American schools for the year 2000 and beyond. The idea is simple but powerful: Put America's special genius for invention to work for America's schools. I will challenge communities to become what we will call America 2000 communities. Governors will honor communities with this designation if the communities embrace the national education goals, create local strategies for reaching these goals, devise report cards for measuring progress, and agree to encourage and support one of the new generation of America's schools.

We must also foster educational innovation. I'm delighted to announce today that America's business leaders, under the chairmanship of Paul O'Neill, will create the New American Schools Development Corporation, a private sector research and development fund of at least $150 million to generate innovation in education.

This fund offers an open-end challenge to the dreamers and the doers eager to reinvent, eager to reinvigorate our schools. With the results of this R&D in hand, I will urge Congress to provide $1 million in startup funds for each of the 535 New American Schools -- at least one in every congressional district -- and have them up and running by 1996.

The New American Schools must be more than rooms full of children seated at computers. If we mean to prepare our children for life, classrooms also must cultivate values and good character -- give real meaning to right and wrong.

We ask only two things of these architects of our New American Schools: that their students meet the new national standards for the five core subjects, and that outside of the costs of the initial research and development, the schools operate on a budget comparable to conventional schools. The architects of the New American Schools should break the mold. Build for the next century. Reinvent -- literally start from scratch and reinvent the American school. No question should be off limits, no answers automatically assumed. We're not after one single solution for every school. We're interested in finding every way to make schools better.

There's a special place in inventing the New American School for the corporate community, for business and labor. And I invite you to work with us not simply to transform our schools but to transform every American adult into a student.

Fortunately, we have a secret weapon in America's system of colleges and universities -- the finest in the entire world. The corporate community can take the lead by creating a voluntary private system of world-class standards for the workplace. Employers should set up skill centers where workers can seek advice and learn new skills. But most importantly, every company and every labor union must bring the worker into the classroom and bring the classroom into the workplace.

We'll encourage every Federal agency to do the same. And to prove no one's ever too old to learn, Lamar, with his indefatigable determination and leadership, has convinced me to become a student again myself. Starting next week, I'll begin studying. And I want to know how to operate a computer. [Laughter] Very candidly -- I don't expect this new tutorial to teach me how to set the clock on the VCR or anything complicated. [Laughter] But I want to be computer literate, and I'm not. There's a lot of kids, thank God, that are. And I want to learn, and I will.

The workplace isn't the only place we must improve opportunities for education. Across this nation, we must cultivate communities where children can learn -- communities where the school is more than a refuge, more than a solitary island of calm amid chaos. Where the school is the living center of a community where people care -- people care for each other and their futures -- not just in the school but in the neighborhood, not just in the classroom but in the home.

Our challenge amounts to nothing less than a revolution in American education -- a battle for our future. And now, I ask all Americans to be Points of Light in the crusade that counts the most: the crusade to prepare our children and ourselves for the exciting future that looms ahead.

What I've spoken about this afternoon are the broad strokes of this national education strategy: accountable schools for today, a new generation of schools for tomorrow, a nation of students committed to a lifetime of learning, and communities where all our children can learn.

There are four people here today who symbolize each element of this strategy and point the way forward for our reforms. Esteban Pagan -- Steve -- an award-winning eighth-grade student in science and history at East Harlem Tech, a choice school. Steve? Right here, I think. Stand up, now.

Mike Hopkins, lead teacher in the Saturn School in St. Paul, Minnesota, where teachers have already helped reinvent the American school. Mike, where are you? Right here, sir. Thank you.

David Kelley, a high-tech troubleshooter at the Michelin Tire plant in Greenville, South Carolina. David has spent the equivalent of 1 full year of his 4 years at Michelin back at his college expanding his skills. David? There he is.

Finally, Michelle Moore, of Missouri, a single mother active in Missouri's Parents as Teachers program. She wants her year-old son, Alston, to arrive for his first day of school ready to learn. Michelle?

So, to sum it up, for these four people and for all the others like them, the revolution in American education has already begun. Now I ask all Americans to be Points of Light in the crusade that counts the most: the crusade to prepare our children and ourselves for the exciting future that looms ahead. At any moment in every mind, the miracle of learning beckons us all. Between now and the year 2000, there is not one moment or one miracle to waste.

Thank you all. Thank you for your interest, for your dedication. And may God bless the United States of America. Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 2 p.m. in the East Room at the White House. In his remarks, he referred to Thomas S. Foley, Speaker of the House of Representatives; Richard A. Gephardt, House majority leader; Paul H. O'Neill, chairman and chief executive officer of the Aluminum Co. of America and Chairman of the President's Education Policy Advisory Committee; and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander.

George Bush, Address to the Nation on the National Education Strategy Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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