Bill Clinton photo

Remarks at Oak Bluffs School in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts

September 03, 1997

The President. Thank you very much, Dr. Cash, Mr. Binney, all the teachers who are here. I am delighted to have this chance to come by and visit with you. I know I'm on vacation, but when school starts, if I don't participate in some start-of-school event—[laughter]—I begin to have a nervous twitch, and I—[laughter]—and I was delighted to be invited to come by and spend a few moments with you.

Let me begin by saying, as you know, our family has been on vacation here now for a little over 2 weeks, and we have until the end of this week. This is the longest time we've been away together in a very long time, and it's been a wonderful opportunity for us. We love it here. And it's especially important this year because this is the last family vacation we'll have before our daughter begins her next big educational adventure. So it's been great.

You know, every start of a school year is special because, as you well know, teachers come together with a new sense of dedication and energy and students show up wide-eyed in anticipation and parents pour all their hopes into what they hope will come out of the next year, that they're all truly wonderful. And I think they reflect the central premise of what you do for a living, and that is that our most important common enterprise as a people is clearly education. It's necessary not only for young people to grow up and be able to earn a good living but, perhaps more importantly, to be good citizens and even beyond that to live their own lives to the fullest, with a high degree of selfawareness and an ability to learn and absorb and grow throughout a lifetime. So it's always important.

But this year I think it's especially important. For one thing, we have the largest class of students in America, ever. We finally now have a student body, in the whole, in America of over 52 million, bigger than the largest years of the baby boom, which is a great burden for all of us aging baby boomers to have on our shoulders. [Laughter]

For another, we have the most diverse student body we have ever had. We now have 5 school districts in America that have children from over 100 different racial and ethnic groups. And within a couple of years, we'll have a dozen school districts that have children—but as you know, here in Martha's Vineyard, we're also diverse in other ways. We have massively huge school districts and we have very, very small school districts. And somehow, someway, we expect you, all of you—you and your counterparts throughout the country—to work with our children and give them a world-class education and give them a shot to make the most of their own lives.

We also know that as we move closer and closer to the turn of the century and to the beginning of a whole new millennium, we're super-attuned to the fact that we're living increasingly in a global society as well as a global economy, where children in the smallest school on Martha's Vineyard, either now or someday soon, will be able to hook onto the Internet and do research in libraries in Australia or Asia, or talk to schoolchildren in Africa. And that's going to change the way we live and our perspective, and we have to be prepared for that.

It also means, frankly, that educational excellence at world-class standards is now more important than ever before. I can see a lot of very young teachers out there and then some of you who may be almost as old as I am, and those of you who have been teaching for a long time know very well that about 15 years ago, with the issuance of the "A Nation At Risk" report in 1983, our country began a serious national effort to reexamine the premises of public education and what needed to be done to make education better in our country.

And it's really been quite a moving thing for me both to observe and to participate in, even more when I was Governor than now as President, because the States of our country have constitutional responsibility for our public schools. But I have seen the recommendations of that report back in 1983 slowly but surely and steadily making their way into the lives of schools all across America. Our schools are offering broader and deeper curricula now; our students are taking more challenging courses now; our schools, by and large, are much better run now. There tends to be more participation and cooperation between principals and teachers. More of our school districts are pushing more and more educational decisions down to the school level, and our school districts tend to be better run now. And there's a whole different sense I get in school districts of all sizes as I go across America, and that's all very, very encouraging.

We also have begun to puncture some myths, and that is that you can't get an excellent education in a small school, or if you live in an urban setting in a difficult neighborhood, the kids really can't learn. We know that's not true either. We have seen all these sort of fears that people had about coming to grips with the idea that we could establish a real, uniform commitment to excellence in education basically evaporate with this school reform movement.

In 1989 I had the privilege of being one of the Governors to meet with then President Bush at the University of Virginia and—when we articulated six national education goals—and I was sort of the designated hitter for the Democrats, and we stayed up all night long drafting these goals which then all of the Governors voted for and the President embraced, which basically were a lot like what Dr. Cash said. We started with the premise that everybody ought to have an opportunity to have a good preschool experience, that we ought to have a very high and uniform requirement for a curriculum that encompassed all of the things that all children should study, that we ought to achieve international excellence in math and science, that everybody ought to have a chance to get education beyond high school, and that we ought to have a system of lifetime learning, that our schools all ought to be made safe and disciplined and drug-free.

There was another part to the national education goals that was often overlooked because it was either inconvenient or in some cases outright opposed, and that is there was a long section that I had stayed up half the night writing and, therefore, had been a little bit peeved to see ignored all these years—[laughter]—which basically said that one of the ways that we have to implement these goals is to set up a system of uniform national standards, not Federal Government standards but national standards, that reading and mathematics and basic science is the same in Montana as it is in Martha's Vineyard and that we should not pretend otherwise and that we should not be afraid to be held accountable.

For years the Governors tried to do something about that, but the effort sort of fizzled out because there were all kinds of people who were opposed to it. Now, we fast-forward: The Congress has just passed a budget which will bring our budget into balance for the first time since 1969 but also has the biggest increased investment in education from the Federal level since 1965, everything from Head Start to access to college. It has the biggest increase in aid to people that go on to get a college education, people of all ages, including people that go back and get graduate education which could benefit many of you in this room today, since the GI bill was passed in 1945. It is an astonishing educational document. And that leaves out, therefore, in my view, the one major thing that we've been sort of skirting since the national education goals were issued in 1989, and that is the whole question of national standards in measuring our children by them.

In the State of the Union Address in January, I challenged all of the States to adopt standards that were national and indeed international in terms of their quality, and then to participate voluntarily in reading tests for fourth graders and math tests for eighth graders to measure these standards in 1999. The national education goals actually call for 4th, 8th, and 12th or 11th grade exams at the choice of the schools in a whole range of subjects.

But I thought we ought to begin here. And the response has been quite encouraging. I made clear that this was voluntary; nobody was going to be required to do it, that the Federal Government would not develop or administer the test but would only help to pay for it, and that the test should not be misused but neither should we pretend that it's not needed. Almost every school in every State has a lot of tests that children are given. But some of the State tests really do measure national standards, and some don't. A lot of the individual achievement tests tell you where you rank on a percentile, but that's really not relevant. If we have national standards, 100 percent of the children ought to clear the bar. And if nobody clears the bar, the child who made the highest grade shouldn't be considered to have done enough. That is the difference.

There are certain basic things that all of our children should know. I've been very heartened at—a large number of States, the Defense Department schools, which educate a lot of children around the country and around the world, and something that would have been unheard of even in 1989—15 big-city school districts have come forward and said, "We want our children to be a part of this even if our States don't join," including the school districts in six of the seven biggest cities in America have said, "We are tired of being told our children can't learn. We are tired of being told we can't overcome our obstacles. We expect to be held accountable, and our kids, if anything, need a good education more than anybody else, not less, and we don't want to make any excuses anymore."

To me, this has been an overwhelming thing, especially in light of the long effort we've had since 1989 in trying to get this off the ground. That's the good news. And it is very good news, indeed. But now there are some people in Congress and in the country who don't want this to happen. They either say we've got enough tests already or the Federal Government's making a power grab or they're afraid that the tests won't be fair to people who don't do well on it.

I would just like to reemphasize, number one, these tests are voluntary; number two, the results are not to be misused, but it's helpful to know whether the children, individually or in a class or in a school or in a school district, do or do not perform at acceptable levels in reading and mathematics at the very least.

Today, we have basically two tests that measure us—our kids by national and international standards. One is the so-called National Assessment of Educational Progress, the NAEP test, which I'm sure a lot of you are familiar with; over 40 States participate in that. But only representative samples of the students do it, and the scores are given by school district, so they don't really address how the children are doing.

The other is the third international math and science tests, the so-called TIMSS test, which is only given to a few thousand students every year. But it should be very encouraging to us. This year for the very first time since those tests have been given, our fourth graders scored well above the international average in math and science, and the few thousand kids who take it are representative by race, by region, by income of the American student body, once again demonstrating that if you set a high standard and go after it, you can achieve it.

Now, also, to make full disclosure, our eighth graders are still below the international average, but that's, I think, because in large measure so many of the worst problems in our society hit kids when they reach adolescence. And in bigger school districts, so many of our middle schools are still organized around the family and community structures that existed in the 1950's and the early sixties, when in fact they probably ought to be as small as a lot of grade schools are today to really meet the needs and the challenges these kids are facing.

But the bottom line is, we know from this example that we can make it. And I think it would be a terrible mistake for people who are afraid our children can't measure up or who have a misguided notion that somehow the Federal Government is trying to take over the direction of education in America to persuade Members of Congress not to fund the tests. And that's basically an issue we're going to be fighting out over the next few weeks.

We have agreed and feel strongly that a nonpartisan board which has been established by Congress for over 20 years now should be in charge of the development of the exam. All we will not be nearly as good as the students' or the staff's, but I'll give it my best shot.

Thank you.

NOTE: The President spoke at 11:53 a.m. in the library. In his remarks, he referred to Dr. Kriner Cash, superintendent, Martha's Vineyard Schools; and Laury Binney, principal, Oak Bluffs School. The President also referred to the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS).

William J. Clinton, Remarks at Oak Bluffs School in Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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