Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Students and Faculty at Oakton High School in Vienna, Virginia

March 24, 1988

The President. I know that two of your Congressmen, Frank Wolf and Stan Parris, are with us here today. I hope they haven't been talked into leaving their present occupation and— [laughter] . Should we move the class outdoors? [Applause]

Well, you know, being here in school today sort of reminds me—well, would you mind if I told you one of my favorite stories about schools? It seems a little boy had to take home a bad report card. And the next day back in his classroom he walked up to his teacher and said, "Teacher, last night my daddy told me that if my grades didn't improve, somebody was going to be in big trouble. So, I'd be careful if I were you." [Laughter]

But it's not so very long ago that all of American education needed to improve, or we were all going to be in big trouble. Back in 1983 a report entitled "A Nation at Risk"—that report itself said that the educational foundations of our society were being eroded by "a rising tide of mediocrity that threatens our very future as a nation and a people." Well, it was time to stem that tide, to get our educational house in order, or to suffer the consequences.

I'm particularly pleased to have the opportunity to learn about what Fairfax County has done to improve the quality of your teachers. You have become leaders in promoting excellence in the teaching profession, and I'm here to find out more about what works. Next month Secretary Bennett will turn in to me a homework assignment-yes, even Cabinet members have homework assignments—one that I gave him last March, asking for a status report on American education. Come to think of it, Bill, that's an awfully long time to complete an assignment. [Laughter] But don't worry; your work so far has been "A-plus." But the Secretary's report will tell us what kind of progress we've made over the last 5 years, and it will tell us what things we still must do. Secretary Bennett, I'm looking forward to reading your report and to continuing to work closely with you on specific ways that we can improve education. There are few areas of American life as important to our society, to our people, and to our families as our schools.

By the way, if I could just interject something here, if there's anybody who proves that learning doesn't have to be dull, that education and fun can go together, it's our nation's Secretary of Education, Bill Bennett. Secretary Bennett has a law degree and a Ph.D. in philosophy—that's pretty serious-sounding stuff. But he also happens to be an expert on something many of you probably know quite a lot about: rock 'n' roll. [Laughter] And I'll prove it.

Bill, who sang "Rock Around the Clock"?

Secretary Bennett. Bill Haley and the Comets.

The President. Name the two lead singers of the Drifters.

Secretary Bennett. Clyde McPhatter and Ben E. King.

The President. And what's at the top of this week's Top Forty?

Secretary Bennett. I don't have the foggiest idea, Mr. President.

The President. You mean, you don't know the answer?

Secretary Bennett. No, sir.

The President. But, Bill, everybody knows that this week's number one song is Michael Jackson's "Man in the Mirror." [Laughter] But, don't feel bad, Bill; two out of three isn't bad. But there's a serious point here, one I hope you'll always remember. Learning and fun can go together. And in many ways, the more you know, the more fun you can have.

Now, some of you may have heard that I've taken to visiting schools lately to find out firsthand what's going on. I must say these trips have strengthened my confidence in our country's future. The reason? When you visit schools like Oakton, you realize that they just don't come any better or any brighter than America's students and teachers.

Two months ago I visited Suitland High School in Prince George's County, Maryland. A few years ago Suitland had problems, bad problems—low academic performance, poor attendance by both students and teachers. But Suitland High School turned itself around, and it did so in large part by supporting some of the key articles of the education reform movement: parental choice in the form of magnet schools and increased accountability on the part of students, teachers, and administrators alike.

Now I've come to Oakton. I've done so to pay tribute to your school and to your superintendent, Robert Spillane, for his outstanding efforts on behalf of excellence in education in Fairfax County. And I'm especially impressed by all you've done in attracting and retaining good teachers. And it's teaching that I'd like to speak about for a moment or two today. It seems to me that given the job that teachers do, given the number of young lives they affect, teachers deserve at least as much praise and thanks and honor as those in any other profession in our society. So, I wonder: Would you students join me for a moment in applauding your own teachers here at Oakton? [Applause] You don't know what you've just done. I come from a business where getting a hand was the most important thing in life.

You know, I have to tell you a little story, if I could, about a teacher that had an impact on my life. And this happens, and will happen to all of you, as the years go on. Yes, I remember a teacher. I was in his office one day—and not by invitation—by order. [Laughter] He was the principal as well as the English teacher in our school at that time. And in the course of his words to me he said, "Reagan, it doesn't matter much to me what you think of me now. What I'm concerned about is what you'll think of me 15 years from now." Well, I guess I just took that in stride. But, well, after 15 years I had the pleasure of telling that man how much an impact he had made on my life and then, those many years later, how important he was to me in all the things that I was doing. And to increase the pleasure I get from that memory was that it was only a short time later that I heard he had departed, he had left us, died. But I was able to tell him, and he had been right about when I would remember about him.

I was very pleased the other day to read of a poll that shows a sharp increase among college students who intend to enter the teaching profession. And I'm curious-having heard some remarks about this very subject just a moment ago—could the students in this audience who are just thinking that maybe they might become teachers please raise their hands? I see from up here a scattering of more hands than you down there probably. So, well, good for you.

I'd like to tell you something about an American hero, Sam Houston. He once wrote—in his lifetime, Sam Houston was a frontiersman, a soldier, a general, a U.S. Senator, a Governor, and yes, even a President-President of the Republic of Texas. And for a while in Maryville, Tennessee, he was a teacher. Years later, as Sam Houston looked back over a lifetime of accomplishments, he wrote that being a teacher gave him a higher feeling of dignity and self-satisfaction than any other office or honor he had ever held. Well, that speaks volumes.

Now, just why have we seen this increase in teaching lately—this increased interest, I should say. Well, in part, it's because we've begun to reward excellence in the teaching profession—as you've been told already-just as we reward excellence in any other profession. We've begun to introduce free market principles like incentives and accountability in education. Listen, for a moment, to the recommendations of the "Nation at Risk" report: "Salaries for the teaching profession should be increased and should be professionally competitive, market-sensitive, and performance-based. Salary, promotion, tenure, and retention decisions should be tied to an effective evaluation system that includes peer review so that superior teachers can be rewarded, average ones encouraged, and poor ones either improved or terminated."

The report also recommended that "qualified individuals, including recent graduates with mathematics and science degrees, graduate students, and industrial and retired scientists could, with appropriate preparation, immediately begin teaching in these fields." And you heard that that's taking place here and is approved in your county. And it said that "incentives should be made available to attract outstanding students to the teaching profession." Well, today we can see that Fairfax County has taken these recommendations to heart. Your blue ribbon commission pointed to the necessity of recruiting and maintaining excellent teachers, and said that the people of Fairfax County are willing to pay more for good teachers if there is assurance of quality control and accountability. The school board approved the plan, and Dr. Spillane met with the teachers to get their advice and support.

Fairfax County has shown the Nation how to upgrade the teaching profession by demonstrating how to attract and retain good teachers. Career ladders, performance based pay, and other initiatives help to keep good teachers in the profession. Everybody benefits—students, parents, and teachers. To improve the quality of the teaching force, Virginia is moving toward requiring a prospective teacher to have a bachelor of arts degree in a subject area rather than an education degree. Virginia also allows teachers to enter the profession through the alternate certification route. Your alternate certification allows school systems to draw from an expanded pool of qualified teachers and enables qualified exmilitary personnel, scientists, engineers, and others to become teachers. I wonder, Superintendent Spillane, do ex-Presidents qualify for this program? [Laughter] Well, there you have it. It's no mystery. It's a miracle. We know what works in education, and we understand, in particular, the vital importance of good teaching.

There's one topic in this regard that's of special importance to Nancy and me: putting an end to drug abuse. When it comes to drugs and education, let me just say this: If a school has a drug problem, then we might as well stop and forget about improving education through qualified teachers, a solid curriculum, high expectations, performance-based pay, or any other reform measure. If students are using drugs, then no education can work. If kids are using drugs, they won't learn. It's that simple. It's that awful. And so, we need to get tough on drugs, on drug pushers, but also on drug users. We need to get drugs out of our schools and our neighborhoods. We need to get drugs out of our children's lives. So, I commend Fairfax County for your efforts—commend you from my heart—and urge you to continue the good fight.

You know, let me just say something to you here and issue a challenge. You stop to think: not only the drugs and the effect they have on people and the destruction that they can create but that there are some soulless people who are living in the veritable lap of luxury, with literally billions of dollars, at the highest standard of living, and paying no taxes or supporting no worthwhile operation. They are supported by those who are their customers. Why shouldn't your generation—now with the changes that we've tried to make in your behalf—why don't you make up your minds that your generation is going to be the one that decides there will be no more drug customers in this country of ours, that you are going to eliminate drugs by taking away their customers? Your generation will be the one that makes that change overall in the United States.

I've talked quite a lot about teaching this afternoon, and there's one story that just about says it all when it comes to the importance of teachers. The story comes from Robert Bolt's play, a drama called "A Man For All Seasons." It's about Thomas More, a great man who lived in England some 400 years ago. The story goes like this. A young man, Richard Rich, approached Sir Thomas for advice on prospective careers. Rich is a bright and ambitious young man and is considering law or politics. But instead Sir Thomas More makes this suggestion: "Why not be a teacher? You'd be a fine teacher-perhaps even a great one." "And if I was," asked Rich, "well, who would know about it?" And Sir Thomas in the play replies, "You, your pupils, your friends, God—not a bad public, that."

Well, that isn't a bad public. It's our teachers' public. And I've come here today to pay tribute to you for your efforts. And to you here at Oakton High who have done so much to foster good teaching and an understanding of teaching's importance, on behalf of a great many people in this country, I thank you.

Now, it so happens that in order to give Secretary Bennett that pop quiz I did a little homework myself. And to tell you the truth, I was really struck by Michael Jackson's song, "Man in the Mirror." It's a wonderful song. It's full of energy and drive and, of course, that helps to make the point that I was talking about earlier: learning and fun go together. After all, Michael Jackson and the others involved have spent years training as musicians, learning to read and write music, mastering vocal techniques, becoming highly skilled at playing various musical instruments. The result of all this training and education? Well, as I said, the result is a wonderful, powerful song. But the song has a powerful moral as well: "I'm starting with the man in the mirror. I'm asking him to change his ways."

Well, it's true—whether the problem is improving education or eliminating drug abuse or helping the homeless—whatever the challenge, individual initiative and responsibility is always part of the answer. And so, as I thought about the message I'd like to leave with you, as I considered what word I could give to you, in your youth, and for many years, well, I decided that this week's top song would do just fine.

My young friends, you've given me such a gift today—the gift of your energy, your exuberance, and your love of learning. And, always to remember: "No message could be any clearer. If you want to make the world a better place, just start with the man in the mirror." Thank you, and God bless you all.

Ms. Thomas. Thank you very much, Mr. President. The students have a few questions that they would like to ask you if you would be willing to answer them.

The President. I'd love to.

Academic Standards

Q. Mr. President, do you feel that the pressure to achieve and the competition between students in the United States is as great today as it was in your high school days?

The President. Is it as great today?

Q. Yes, sir.

The President. Yes, it is because the period that I was referring to—back then, we had not entered into that decline that seemed to come upon us in later years. I don't know what caused it, but it did happen. But, no, we had curriculums that were stiff and required courses that you had to take. And you find out later that they were very beneficial—in taking them. And also, we had a great feeling about our land. Maybe part of it was because I'm old enough that that was in the immediate postwar era, post-World War I. [Laughter]

Liberal Arts

Q. Mr. President, the Secretary of Education's decision to place emphasis on math and science programs took away the strength of the arts program. How can we achieve a balance between the subjects?

The President. Well, again, I could refer to the past. I think you can have that balance—depends a lot on you. But that principal that I spoke about that had such an imprint on my life—because not only the principal and the English teacher but by virtue of that particular class—he also directed all the school plays and the drama club plays. And many years later in Hollywood I once said to myself, I haven't come across a director yet that was better than B.J. Frazier. So, it's there, and it's possible. And I don't think they detract at all. Even though I spoke and asked some of you if you were thinking about being teachers, let me say another word of encouragement. If you're still pondering and you haven't thought of what you want to be in life, don't get discouraged. I graduated from college unable to say exactly what I wanted to do with my life. So, the broadest exposure you get to all of these subjects—the compulsory ones, math and science and all the rest—all of them are going to help you one day answer that question for yourself.


Q. Mr. President, do you feel the problem of the homeless is one the Federal Government should tackle? And if not, how can it be resolved?

The President. Frankly, I think the problem of the homeless, like so many other problems, actually belongs at the local community and State level, with the Federal Government ready to help in any way that it might be able to in which something would come properly under the Federal Government's province. But you see, that's one of the great secrets of this country that we tended to forget for about 40 or 50 years. As we started going into more and more Federal domination and Federal interference in local programs, including education, we played a hand in the decline of education by thinking that in addition to doing some added funding we could use that as an excuse for the Federal Government trying to run the public schools. The schools for a long time have been run in this country best when they're closer to the people in the communities where the parents and the students are. And so, I have to say that in this particular thing that you've raised, the problem of the homeless, is best known by the people in the community where it's taking place—why they're homeless, can see them as individuals instead of a mass of faceless people that the Federal Government just thinks of in numbers. So, as I say, if there is a way in which the Federal Government's help can be used, whether it is in financing or what else, actually the administering of this belongs right back where the people are.

Q. Thank you, Mr. President.

U.S. Involvement in Panama

Q. Mr. President, because of the recent uprising in Panama, will it be necessary to resume U.S. military control in Panama for the safety of the Canal Zone?

The President. No, we're going to abide by the Canal treaty, and we're not going to be the big Colossus of the North once again coming into our smaller neighbors' places of living and business and trying to guide and direct them. They have a very difficult problem there. We think that they're moving toward solving it with the reaction of the people to the man that has caused so much of this problem. We want to be of help in any way we can, and so we've helped them in that regard in the economic restraints that we've put down there so that there can be pressure focused on this particular individual. But, no, there's no danger of us coming in with our power and muscle and saying this is the way it has to be.

President's Future Plans

Q. Mr. President, what are you going to do when you step down from the Presidential spotlight?

The President. Hmmm. [Laughter] I'm a little old to be a teacher, in spite of what I said earlier. [Laughter] Well, I tell you, I do have some ambitions for when that time comes. There are some things that I would like to crusade for that I could not crusade for while I'm President—some I could but some others that I couldn't—because it would seem as if I was selfishly doing it in my own interest.

For example, I would like to start calling to the attention of the people of this country the flaw in the 22d amendment to the Constitution, passed a few years ago, which says a President can only serve two terms. Now let me explain something here. The reason I have to wait is because, as I say, I couldn't dare open my mouth and do this in my own behalf while I'm here, and I don't want to. But what I want to call to the people's attention is: The President is the only one in government who is elected by all the people, and it seems to me that that constitutional amendment, which was born out of vengeance against Franklin Delano Roosevelt—I think that that amendment is an infringement on the democratic rights of the American people, who should be allowed to vote for who they want as long as they want and— [applause] .

And also, I'm going to crusade for some other things, too, like the line-item veto and the— [laughter] —43 Governors had it. I had it when I was Governor of California. I lineitem vetoed out of budgets 943 times in 8 years and was never overridden once. Now, in California, the legislature takes a twothirds majority to pass the budget, and then they send it to the Governor. And it only takes two-thirds of a majority to override a veto. But when I found spending things in that budget and I vetoed them 943 times, you could not get the same two-thirds majority in the legislature when that was exposed all by itself out there—not buried in the whole budget—you couldn't get twothirds of them to override my veto, not once.

So, those are some things that I'd like to go out and get on what I call the mashed potato circuit and—speaking and—because when you, the people— [laughter] —no, when you arouse yourself and— [laughter] -when you decide that there's something you want done, I think your two Congressmen over here— [laughter] —will tell you, they hear in Washington.

Invitation to Attend Graduation

Q. Mr. President, will you honor Oakton High School with your presence at graduation?

The President. There was some laughter between you and me before, and I didn't hear your question. [Laughter]

Q. Will you honor us with your presence at graduation?

The President. Was I—what? [Laughter]

Q. Will you honor us with your presence at graduation in June?

The President. Oh! [Laughter] Well, I don't know whether that's possible. You know, you've heard that the President is the most powerful man in the country, if not the world and so forth. I have to tell you something: Every day they hand me a piece of paper that tells me what I'm going to be doing that day— [laughter] —for every 15 minutes of that day. And long before graduation time, I'm sure that my schedule first, I suppose, I should ask you the date of your graduation.

Q. June 15th.

The President. June 15th. It is very possible that I will be in Canada at the economic summit that is held every June, every year. But I won't know that for a while yet. Audience Members. Awww!

The President. If it were possible, I would be most happy to join you.

Q. Okay, thank you.

Mr. Spillane. Mr. President, on behalf of the entire staff of this school and all of us in Fairfax County, we want you to have this remembrance of your visit here: a schoolhouse that plays "School Days." And we very much appreciate the opportunity to listen to you today, and thank you.

The President. Well, thank you very much.

Note: The President spoke at 2 p.m. in the Oakton High School auditorium. Ms. Laura Thomas, principal of the school, introduced the question-and-answer session.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks and a Question-and-Answer Session With Students and Faculty at Oakton High School in Vienna, Virginia Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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