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Question-and-Answer Session at a Regional Forum of the National Commission on Excellence in Education in Hopkins, Minnesota

June 09, 1983

Secretary of Education Bell. Following on the analogy of passing the baton, I'd like to ask Steve1 if he would ask you, Mr. President, the first question.

1 Steve Englund, Presidential Scholar from Hopkins High School, Hopkins, Minn.

Mr. Englund. Mr. President, you're going to be hearing some specific questions dealing with the Commission's report; but, as long as I've been selected to ask the first question, I'll open with a very general one. Do you agree with the report to the Commission on Excellence in Education?

The President. I have agreed and approved the report in its entirety. I think it is an outstanding thing. I think that the whole country, those who have had an opportunity to read it, or a summary of it, it is causing great debate, but also great agreement that most people—I think it has touched a nerve, an American nerve in the whole population.

Secretary Bell. Thank you, Steve. Do you have any follow-up comment? [Laughter] Thank you very much.

The President. You mean, Steve, that you've never said to yourself, "If I had a chance to ask him I would—" [laughter] .—

Secretary Bell. I think, Mr. President, Steve is as nervous in responding as the chairman is here in presiding over this. [Laughter]

The President. He's nervous. [Laughter]

Secretary Bell. Charles Johnson is a superintendent of schools in Illinois. And I had talked to Charles earlier, and he has a question that he'd like to ask you, Mr. President.

The President. All right.

Mr. Johnson. Mr. President, increased salaries for merit pay, incentives for master teachers will cost millions of dollars. The Commission has properly noted that excellence does cost. What is your administration prepared to do to assist the States in meeting these costs?

The President. Well, first of all, this whole question of cost in education, and I think there's a lot of misunderstanding about it—I recognize it would cost more for this. At the same time, I believe that if such a plan is instituted, then in budgeting you take care of that and, at the same time, possibly see whether there are other things of much lower priority.

I happen to believe in it very much, the idea of merit pay. As Dr. Gardner 2 has said on occasion—that teachers grade students, ought to he able to grade each other. And how else do you provide an incentive for attracting the best and the brightest into teaching as a profession unless they can see a future more than just a salary scale that is laid out for the rest of their lives and careers no matter how good they might be? But then, we find a way to do it.

2 David P. Gardner, Chairman of the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

There is one thing that I think I should take advantage of you, and call attention to this fact—that in the last 20 years, spending on education in this country has gone up 600 percent. Now, many could say, "Well, that was because of 20 years of continued inflation." But look at it in constant dollars. In that same period of time, the per-pupil cost in education—in constant dollars, allowing for inflation—has nearly doubled. And in that same period of time, we know, are when the problems have arisen that are confronting us. So, you have to say, "Is just purely money an answer, or don't we have to look deeper for some of the answers to the problems we have in education?"

I know that it can be done, and I know this comes down to always the view is, "Well, Federal Government." The amount of money in education today, incidentally-with regard to the reaction to a previous statement—is that in 1982 the total budget for national defense was $179 billion. It was 215 billion for education. And I don't fault that at all. Education is truly important and as important to our national security as defense. But we can't neglect either one of them.

But I think that the whole question of school funding comes down to one of laying out the layers of government. We built the greatest public school system the world has ever seen, and we built it at the local school level—local, the State, and the Federal Government. And right now, they've been lined up vertically. And it's local and State, and then on top is the Federal Government, which only provides 8 percent of the educational budget, but which has, kind of, grabbed off about 50 percent of trying to regulate the schools.

Dr. Crosby, 3 a there, could show you some startling figures about one of the things that I'm proud of that we've accomplished—how much less paper he has to fill out with regard to Federal paperwork and requirements than he did a couple of years ago.

3 Emeral A. Crosby, member of the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

Secretary Bell. He just wants me to cut out the rest of it, Mr. President. [Laughter]

The President. But I think that then you work out in this the—I said that we were vertical; we ought to be horizontal. We should be looking at what properly belongs for decision at the local level, what is the proper place for the State, and what is the proper place for the Federal Government-its interest in education and its responsibility-and look at them in that way; and then, proportionately to their responsibilities, expect the support of schools to be laid out in that same way.

But I'm talking too long. I'll quit rambling.

Secretary Bell. Thank you, Mr. President, and—appreciate that question.

The next questioner here that wants to ask a question of you, Mr. President—we could all ask a question of him, he's supposed to have the answers. He's head of the Illinois School Problems Commission. [Laughter] He's also a member—he's a State representative in the Illinois Legislature-he made a great contribution, incidentally, in our deliberations here—and he's assistant minority leader in the House in the Illinois Legislature—Gene Hoffman. And your question, Gene.

Mr. Hoffman. Thank you, Mr. Secretary.

Mr. President, you've endorsed the recommendations in this report. How do you see, or how do you perceive the Federal Government responding to the recommendations in this report? In other words, what role do you see for, at the Federal level, for responding to the contents of this report?

The President. Well, the Federal Government—I have some notes here on some of the things. First of all, a meeting of this kind is an example of one of the things. And, as Secretary Bell has reminded you, there are going to be a series of these at the regional level around the country.

We're doing a number of things at the Federal Government that have come out of the things in this report by the Commission on Excellence in Education. We're going to—Secretary Bell is going to hold meetings with government officials and Governors at the State levels throughout the country. We're also going to have meetings at the private sector to find out what more the private sector can do.

And I would like to point out that already, as a result of this report, there is a thing sweeping the country of businesses and neighborhood groups and communities adopting schools for whatever help they can be to the schools—not only in, maybe, in financing some special projects but also in bringing the outside world into the school, where, for example, business and industry might be able to offer something to the students with regard to their own decisions they have to make on what they're going to do with their lives.

There are any number of things here that we've laid out in this program, and we want to bring it to a national debate for all the people of the country to be familiar with it, and particularly the parents and the teachers. And so, all of us are stepping up our efforts in that regard to promote it.

Secretary Bell I'm very grateful that we have education now up where it's high on the education agenda of this country. It certainly has occupied a great deal of nationwide importance. And we're grateful to you, and those in the discussions today Mr. President, express their appreciation for the fact that we do have education now such a high priority. And I know it's because you've participated in events like this one, and we appreciate that. Well, those are the—

The President. Could I just—

Secretary Bell Yes.

The President. Could I just ask you—

Secretary Bell. Yes.

The President. to do something else-because I know I left out a half a dozen of the things that we are doing. I know we're promoting legislation having to do with excellence in certain lines of teaching. Secretary Bell. That's correct.

The President. Could you fill in what I left out? I won't be offended. [Laughter]

Secretary Bell. Well, we have a number of other initiatives. We'll be announcing soon a major effort in the area of adult illiteracy. That'll be coming at the latter part of this month, and I discussed that with you earlier. And that will be launched, and we'll be involved to try to help the huge number of adult illiterates we have in this country. And that's highlighted in the report.

Another thing we're doing is—as you recall in your State of the Union message, you recommended a block grant for mathematics and science. And that legislation is moving through the Congress, and we'll be able to offer some scholarships under a block grant basis to add further momentum in that direction.

We're also examining, Mr. President, the Student Financial Aid program to see if we can work in, as that bill is up for renewal, to see if we can work in some emphasis in the student aid program as we rewrite it, where we can encourage more gifted and talented and promising young people to move into teaching so we can increase the supply of teachers.

So, those are just starters. We're looking at our entire budget and our entire legislation to see what we can do with some of the resources we have and looking at some of the other block grants that we're now getting ready to propose to Congress and see if we can work into some of them some legislation to fund these efforts. So, we do have quite a number of initiatives like that moving forward.

The President. Ted, I wonder if just—if I could interrupt for a second and say to many people who might not understand the significance of calling it a block grant. There's a Governor here and a former Governor here—and I was a former Governor also—and from that vantage point I think we can tell you that so much of Federal spending, grants to States or to local communities, comes so belabored and loaded down with red tape and regulations as to how every dollar of that money must be spent that you find out that a great deal of it is wasted in the spending.

Our idea of switching to block grants is to give you a block grant and say, "Here. This is for this general idea. You spend it the way you think it'll do the most good. We won't tell you how."

Secretary Bell. Thank you, Mr. President. I'm getting numerous testimonials now on the first block grant that you got passed in the fall of 1981 from superintendents expressing their appreciation for the flexibility that they have in that regard.

Now, as I look at my watch, Mr. President, I was told that we could have 30 minutes of your time, and we're almost out of that. We thought, turnabout, you ought to have an opportunity to ask some of these panelists a question. And if you have any summary comments that you want to make, Mr. President, before you have to leave, we'd appreciate hearing that.

The President. Well, I didn't really come to ask them. But I have one right here that I would ask David Gardner about. And it gets back to one of the first subjects that was here today: that is, can we evaluate teacher performance, can we do this and pay for outstanding performance? And, as to the first part of the question, if you can evaluate it at the college and university level, why is it that some say that it can't be done in the public schools, and can it?

Mr. Gardner. Mr. President, this issue was discussed at very considerable length by the Commission in the course of its deliberations. We took testimony on this issue. We had commissioned papers on it. And we offered a recommendation in our report which was intended to foster the development of performance-based compensation for teachers.

I'm well aware of the arguments that are being advanced against that recommendation, the most prominent of which is that such judgments are difficult to make, give rise to the possibility of arbitrariness on the part of administrators and so forth. But I think it's fair to say that, to the Commission at least, the most arbitrary assumption one can make is that there are no differences among people, that everyone is equally possessed of the same level of competence and commitment. That, surely, is arbitrary.

To say that, on the other hand, that it can be done doesn't mean it's easy. But every profession undertakes to do it. The trades undertake to do it. And it seems to me, the profession—the teaching profession, itself-has the principal burden of coming forth with a set of recommendations and criterion procedures that will permit that evaluation to occur in ways that are comfortable to the profession, and responsive to the basic and genuine talents and competencies of the teachers in the classroom.

The surest ways to drive out able teachers is to reward the least able as much as those who are the most able. And I think we tend to have that experience more than we would prefer. And the evidence that the Commission's received tends to corroborate that.

At the higher education level, it's done routinely. We have assistant professors, associate professors, full professors. We have a career ladder. Peer evaluation is undertaken. Judgments are made about the worth of one professor as against another. And compensation flows from those decisions. It does seem to me, however difficult it is and however possible it might be for error to creep in, the greatest error is to assume that everyone is equally competent and equally committed when, in fact, we know they are not.

Secretary Bell. Now, Mr. President, as I look at my watch, it looks like we've about spent our time. If you have any final comments here or any additional questions you want to raise, I was admonished that we had to be concluding this so you could meet your other commitments. But any comments or any summary that you want to give, I just express, on behalf of everyone here, our appreciation for your coming and your participation in this panel. I think this is a panel discussion we'll all remember for quite awhile.

The President. Well, Ted, I don't know that I contributed that. You were doing just fine here in all of this.

I would like to take advantage of you too—in a little self-defense here, the word "budget"—or term "budget cut" has been so widespread, and I usually find it applied to me. [Laughter] And the truth of the matter is we haven't cut any budgets. What we've done is reduced the proposed increase in the budgets. But each budget is still bigger than the last one.

And, for example, I have had students accost me that we have reduced their ability to get help. Well, for a fellow that worked his own way through school, I understand the problem of students that have to. I must say, it wasn't too arduous. I washed dishes in the girls dormitory. [Laughter] But right now, $5.9 billion was the Guaranteed Student Loan program in 1982. It was 6.6 billion in '83. And we've asked for 7.2 billion in '84. That's a 22-percent increase in just 2 years.

The proposed Federal spending for disadvantaged and handicapped children in public schools is $4.1 billion, and that's the highest level of funding in the history of the program.

We have removed—and the thing that I mentioned with regard to Dr. Crosby—we have removed 30 sets of regulations at the State and local level, which as we figure them out has reduced by 191,000 personhours of work the administrative process of filling out those papers.

And I'm going to leave that, and I think the best concluding thing, if it hasn't been done here—I'm so proud of this Commission and what they have accomplished. And they know and will agree better than anyone else, we didn't ask them what party they belong to when they were appointed, and I didn't suggest anything to them. I figured they all knew more about the subject than I did. And the result is their program.

But this I thought you might just be interested in hearing a little review of what's happened already. The Florida House has passed the Commission's basic curriculum. The Senate in Florida's passed a different bill, and they're in conference now working out their differences. The board in Ypsilanti, Michigan, has voted to extend the school year. This is directly attributable to the Commission report.

The board of Temple University requested its president's advice on implications of the Commission report for Temple's School of Education. Oregon—the State Board of Higher Education is ready to take final action on college and university entrance requirements which almost completely parallel the Commission's high school graduation requirements. They would require 4 years of English, 3 years of math, 2 years of science. The Commission recommends, I think.—

Secretary Bell. Three years.

The President.—3 years of social studies and 2 additional years of college prep courses. The Commission recommends 2 years of foreign language.

Governor Charles Robb of Virginia has called on the State Board of Education to adopt the full slate of recommendations made by the National Commission.

In the State of Utah, a new high-level organization called HOPE—Helping Organizations in Public Education—has announced they will use the Commission's report to promote improvements in the Utah schools. And the group is made up of the State PTA, the Utah Education Association, the Utah School Board Association, Society of Superintendents, and the State Board of Education.

In the State of Illinois, high school graduation requirements have recently been increased in a 110-to-6 vote for which the Commission report was cited. Three years English, 2 years math, 2 years science, and 2 years social studies. One year should be American history.

Washington State Board of Education unanimously approved a plan to upgrade high school graduation and requirements. It tripled the minimum credits necessary in science from two to six, doubled the minimum in mathematics from three to six, added a year in English. Battle Creek, Michigan, School Board is reviewing the text of the Commission's report to determine implications for school district policies.

And, as a direct result of the report, Chelmsford, Massachusetts, School Board will consider new classes for the gifted, which has been dropped in recent years. Probably the most neglected students in our educational system in recent years have been those with special aptitudes and talents.

And it's just—I just have a feeling that maybe a generation that went through the Great Depression and the Great War, World War II, maybe thought we ought to make things easier for our children. Maybe we're partly responsible for what has happened, and we've thought that they should enjoy things more than sometimes have to work at things. And, in effect, what I'm saying is maybe a lot of us put together have shortchanged those wonderful young people that are sitting up there, and, God bless them, let's stop doing that and give them a good running start in that relay race they're going to enter in a few short years. Secretary Bell. Thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 2:50 p.m. in the gymnasium of the Hopkins-Eisenhower Community Center.

The regional forum, the second of 11 planned to be held around the country, consisted of a day-long program of panel discussions and group sessions on the findings of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. The President was present for three summaries of the forum's proceedings, after which he participated in the discussions.

Ronald Reagan, Question-and-Answer Session at a Regional Forum of the National Commission on Excellence in Education in Hopkins, Minnesota Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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