Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks During a Panel Discussion on the Tennessee Better Schools Program in Farragut

June 14, 1983

The President. I'm more used to having people ask me questions. [Laughter] And I don't know, with all of the facets of this subject that have been brought to the fore by the Commission [National Commission on Excellence in Education]—and I must say here in the presence of two members of the Commission, I am wholeheartedly in support of that Commission's report. It was a bipartisan commission and intended to be such. And the two here will attest that they didn't have any telephone calls or messages from the President urging them to find out this or that. I stayed completely hands-off and was—and as I say, I think that they've come in with a masterful report.

I was struck by a number of things in their report. One of them centered on this very thing. The Governor here, of course, was ahead of the Commission's report-hadn't waited for that—with his idea of better and fairer compensation for teachers. And, certainly, I think the chart up there illustrates the importance of that. And I'm glad that we're, all of us here, on that side in that subject.

There is one thing about education. I think there have been elements in our country over recent years that have thought of education and that it should become more and more national, a nationalized school system, if you will. I am unalterably opposed. I think that in the great diversity of this country we created the greatest public school system the world has ever seen, and we created it at a local level where there could be the intimate and close contact with education on the part of the parents of the children getting that education. I think we should continue, and that basically is where it lies.

I think, with the advent of the Federal Government in some funding for education-and most people are totally unaware of how little the Federal Government participates in that, about 8 percent at all levels of education is the government's share. I think, however, that in recent years, the Federal Government has sought to have far more control than 8 percent of the money would justify. And there's been a kind of image created of education in a vertical line: local, State, and, up here, the Federal Government. Where they really-these branches of government—belong in my view is horizontal. And that is: local, State, and the Federal Government, and divided as to what are the proper, the legitimate functions with regard to education of each level of government. And then, assess where the costs should be to each level based on what its particular interest is and what is necessary to guarantee that interest.

I'm making a speech instead of asking a question. I'm filibustering here, because I wanted to get down, in the questioning, to something that hasn't been mentioned here, now that we're all agreed on this one element.

I've been disturbed—and I would like to have—and I won't pick any one of you here; I'm not well acquainted enough to do that. But any one who could respond to this. I think there's something in what has happened in education in recent years-that we're all at fault. And by that I mean parents, within the school system, in our whole social structure. Maybe it came out of the Great Depression and the great war that followed. But maybe generations like my own had a feeling that we should do better by our children. But what we meant by doing better was that they shouldn't have it as hard as we had it, and maybe we made it too easy.

I question the abandonment of compulsory courses. I challenge in my mind that the average person entering high school, for example, is not qualified to determine what courses they would choose to take. They're not going to get the exposure they should get to all the other choices that are out there. I can recall a science class, and it didn't appeal to me at all. But I was forced to take it. And at the end of the year, it hadn't appealed to me at all. [Laughter] But, I guess I learned a little something in exercising my mind—of having to do it, because I had to do it if I wanted to play on the football team and if I wanted to get a diploma someday.

But I also saw others that didn't have any more knowledge of it than I did suddenly find themselves in what you could see was where they wanted to be. And this was true in other subjects. And this is part of what I think education could do. And I just wonder if someone would like to speak to this subject of—I know that, just since the Commission report came out, a number of Governors here in the country, a number of school districts, a number of cities, communities-amazing number—have suddenly jumped at the Commission's report and are going forward implementing. And the main thing they're implementing is a return to the idea of 3 or even 4 years of compulsory English, x number of years of compulsory math and science—these things that once used to be taken for granted in school.

And would someone like to comment on this?

Governor Alexander. Maybe Jay Sommer would.

The President. Jay, would you?

Mr. Sommer. 1 Well, I think it's long overdue that we should go back to a curriculum. I, as an immigrant to America, was very surprised that I had to do very little to get a high school diploma. It was as easy as apple pie. [Laughter] And I think that the results are showing now, unfortunately.

1National Teacher of the Year, 1981-1982, and a member of the National Commission on Excellence in Education.

And, Mr. President, you're absolutely right. We have to go back and believe that our students cannot make a choice in terms of what they are studying. And, indeed, we ought to tell them what we think is important, because we have that experience. And we shouldn't underestimate their ability. They can do a lot better than they have been doing in the recent years.

The President. Gee, I can't resist commenting. As Governor, every year I used to invite the exchange students from the other countries in California to come to the capital and meet with them. And I just have to tell you that every year I would ask one question of those foreign students: How does our schooling here compare with the schooling in your own land? Is it harder, is it easier? And every year the answer was exactly the same. They'd look out of the corners of their eyes at each other, and then they'd begin to smile, and then they'd begin to giggle, and pretty soon they were all laughing out loud. And the answer was we're just too soft and easy compared to what they had to do in their own lands.

Mr. Crosby. 2 Responding to that—and this may take a little bit longer for the answer, because I'd like to relate something in terms of your last comment—and that is, in regards to the curriculum and having a basic core curriculum. And I know even when we as a commission, the members, were looking at it, we also felt that 1 year of math at the ninth grade was not enough math to get a youngster through for the rest of his life. And I year of science—and I was amazed to find that there were many districts in this country that did not even require 1 year of science, even though we talked about 3—and when we start talking about our environment, when we start talking about the sciences as needed, our youngsters are just not prepared to move on.

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

I looked at something else. We do have a lot of youngsters who are coming in the country—a lot of them from Southeast Asia. And I was surprised, just this spring, to find out how many of these youngsters came into this country speaking no English at all. But they were so glad to have the opportunity to go to school, that within 4 years, they are now valedictorians of their classes. And I think New York was one example. Of the seven top prizes in science, six of them were won by students that had only been in this country about 4 years. We've just taken it so easy as Americans, and yet we have it there that we're not even preparing ourselves to move into the 21st century.

Unidentified speaker. Repeating one example of the kind of thing I think we ought to do, along the line of what you said earlier, I dare say you probably ask that question each year in English, and they were laughing because it was so easy here. I would say that if we took an average group of students from the United States, took them to Germany and had Helmut Kohl ask them that question in German, they'd be laughing too, but it'd be out of embarrassment, because they couldn't understand the question.

I think that sort of thing we have to do if we're going to live in a world in which most people do not speak English or speak it only for their own purposes. We need to learn their language. And no one is going to volunteer—very few, should I say, are going to voluntarily study language that first year. It's too hard. But you get beyond that.

The President. This is absolutely true and once before—I've mentioned this and didn't mention it this time. It struck me every time that every student, exchange student, knew our language. And I had to say, "I wonder if their American counterparts are talking through an interpreter in the countries where they're located."

And I—incidentally, I have called on the phone and congratulated some of those Asian students that have made the press by virtue of their becoming valedictorians of their class. And you had a very warm feeling after talking to them on the phone and their determination and, incidentally, their appreciation for this country of ours and what it has meant to them.

Governor Alexander. Mr. President, let me—we're about out of time. I have the unpleasant job of regulating that time. I wanted to ask Lieutenant Governor Wilder, who played a major role in the appointment of our legislature's Comprehensive Task Force on Education, which reported in January and which we're very proud, anticipated a number of the concerns of the national commission, if he had anything to add.

Lieutenant Governor Wilder. Thank you, Governor.

Mr. President, certainly the legislative branch of government is proud that you are here with us today, and, you know, education is 50 percent of our business. And it's been that way always. It's half of all that we do in State government. It's been our focal point of attention for years, and yet that attention has been sharpened recently by Governor Alexander and by the Comprehensive Task Force on Education. And it was encouraging to us when your commission on excellence came forward with the same kind of recommendations that we had.

I have a personal commitment. Coming out of the business world, I certainly am committed to merit—merit and production. I think that merit should be in the field of education. And I think we ought to have evaluation and review on a continuing basis. The legislature now has a commission that is looking at these issues, and we are trying to determine for sure that we will get implementation and continuity in implementation.

I believe with certification should be qualification. And we in the legislature have the responsibility to fund any new program, and we must fund it when we put it on.

And so, those are the philosophical concepts that I stand behind.

Governor Alexander. Thank you, Governor Wilder.

I want to hear from Mr. Speaker McWherter; but Jay Sommer had his hand up, and it's hard not to recognize the Teacher of the Year in the whole country when he has—Mr. Speaker—Jay.

Mr. Sommer. Well, after the war was over, I didn't want to return to my homeland, Czechoslovakia, because it was a graveyard. Indeed, it was. And I was thinking, "To what country shall I go to find a new home?" And someone said, "America would be a good place, because in America you find gold on the streets." And I figured, "That's marvelous. I definitely want to go to America."

But it's harder to come to America than one believes. And I did, by some great fortune, arrive to America. And I was looking on the streets for the gold. And I found it in Public School 149 in Brooklyn, and in Thomas Jefferson High School in Brooklyn, and at Brooklyn College in Brooklyn. That's where the proverbial gold was.

You ladies and gentlemen, who are so instrumental to provide American children with this great gift of education, please be very generous. Help the Governor to bring about a better educational system, because America has to be better educated than it is. The burdens of the world are on our shoulders. We have to make peace in the Middle East. We have to make peace in Europe. We have to make sure that tyranny doesn't rise to the Hitler proportions. So, please, most importantly—whatever details you are going to have to work out, I am sure you'll find a way—but be sure that you are very generous with American children.

Governor Alexander. Mr. Speaker McWherter.

Mr. McWherter. Thank you, Governor and Mr. President.

I think it would be appropriate for me to say that we Tennesseeans are very proud of our public school system. And my seatmate, making the references, I recall having the opportunity last year to spend a month in the Soviet Union visiting many republics far down in Asia. And I want to say to those here as well as the President and the Governor and my colleagues that we should not only be proud of our system; we should be thankful, and emphasize the public education system after reviewing the Soviet system that I had an opportunity to see being practiced.

We have many problems. I think I can speak for the members of the House and, hopefully, the Senate, the Lieutenant Governor. We members of the General Assembly are dedicated to improving education in Tennessee. I personally am committed to a merit pay concept, because that's the American system.

We're glad you're here, Mr. President.

The President. Thank you.

Governor Alexander. Thank you, Mr. Speaker.

Mr. President?

The President. Well, here in the auditorium of Farragut High School, Washington may seem like a far-distant bureaucracy. But let me reassure you that Washington is not too far away for some of us to hear the voices of the people of Tennessee.

Here, the talents and the problems of every child are very real to you, and that is obvious. And you're not waiting for handouts or bailouts or directives from Washington. You've made it obvious—and that's why I'm here—that you're taking action to educate every child so that he or she can compete with anyone anywhere else in the world.

Your Governor, many of your State legislators, parents, and the teachers are calling national attention to the sorry state of America's educational system, a system that was once the finest in all the world. So, I've come here to listen and to learn. Farragut High School and the Knox County school system are shining examples of public education at its best. And it's here that the idea for the basic skills—the first section of Governor Alexander's Better Schools program-started.

Last year your school board was named the Tennessee School Board of the Year. Under the leadership of Lieutenant Governor Wilder and Speaker McWherter, the legislature has established an education task force whose report anticipated many of the findings of the National Commission on Excellence in Education. Your State slogan is, "America at Its Best." And that certainly holds true for Tennessee's schoolrooms.

What better place for a President to take a few lessons for the country on quality education? Tomorrow I will be addressing the national convention of the Parent-Teachers Association, and I will go better armed than when I came here.

I'm particularly intrigued by the meritpay-for-teachers idea that you've been discussing here, and Governor Alexander's proposal for a Master Teacher program. If we want to achieve excellence, we must reward it. And it is the American way.

It's a simple American philosophy that dominates nearly every other profession, so why not this one? There are plenty of outstanding teachers in Tennessee and in every other State. What we must do is find them, promote them, hold them up as role models, not just for other teachers but for our children.

I've learned a lot listening to your discussion here today; and I know there are disagreements, but it's important for me to hear those as well. I'll use what I've heard today as we frame our national agenda for excellence in education.

There are many important jobs in American life, but I can't think of any that's more important than teaching our children. William Ellery Channing, an early American clergyman, once said that "it's a greater work to educate a child than to rule a state." What he said was right then as America set her first priorities, and it is still true today as we return to them. With the help and guidance of the people of Tennessee, all those millions of other Americans who agree with you, we will restore America's ability to educate all her children to the highest standards that we know.

And I thank you for a very informative session and for the teachers who are present. I know sometimes it must get very hard—and the cartoons and the jokes every June portray you as leaping and running across the schoolyard yelling you're free. [Laughter] But, on the other hand, I think you all have something of what one teacher in my life had.

There came a moment between us in which he said to me, "It isn't very important to me what you think of me now." He said, "It is important what you may think of me 15 years from now." And I had the experience, 15 years later, the rewarding experience of being able to face him and tell him what I thought of him 15 years later. And it was far different than it would have been at that angry moment— [laughter] —15 years earlier.

Thank you all very much for letting me be here.

Note: The President spoke at 2:20 p.m. in the mini-auditorium of Farragut High School. His remarks and the general discussion followed several briefings by panel members on the Tennessee school program.

Earlier, following his arrival at the high school, the President had lunch with several high school teachers and Governor Lamar Alexander who moderated the panel discussion.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks During a Panel Discussion on the Tennessee Better Schools Program in Farragut Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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