Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Las Vegas, Nevada

February 07, 1984

Thank you very much for a very warm reception, although in my past I've had some warm receptions from principals. [Laughter]

I'm really taken aback. I'm glad there wasn't a knife; I wouldn't have known where to start with that first good-luck or good-wish slice of that cake. It's just magnificent, very beautiful.

And I must say, with regard to that honorary membership, you have now given me a new sense of guilt, because about 25 years after I left Eureka College, graduated from there, they gave me an honorary degree. And that only compounded a sense of guilt that I had nursed for some 25 years, because I thought that the first one they gave me was honorary. [Laughter]

But I'm delighted to join the National Association of Secondary School Principals here in Las Vegas for your 68th annual convention. Nothing is younger—or older than I am! [Laughter]

And a special welcome to the principals that I met with at the White House in September. It was a pleasure to be with you then and to give awards on behalf of your outstanding schools. But I have to admit, I have mixed emotions. When I was a boy going to see the principal meant I'd done something wrong. And today the principals are coming to see me. [Laughter] I don't know whether I can handle that or not. [Laughter]

By the way, did some of you have training as math teachers? Because on the way in, I thought I spied a few of you at the machines doing fieldwork in probability. [Laughter]

Before I say anything else, I'd like to recognize three outstanding gentlemen-Robert Howe, the president of this association, Dale Graham, your president-elect, and Scott Thomson, your executive director. Secretary Bell has told me how much assistance these men have given us as we've worked to improve our nation's schools. And I want to thank them and all of you for the help that you've already given and ask you to keep the help coming. It means a great deal to those of us in Washington, but more important, it means a great deal to America's sons and daughters.

You know, principals and Presidents have jobs that are very much alike. Both of us have to keep a lot of people happy. You have school boards; I have the Cabinet. You have the PTA; I have the voters. You have unruly children; well, I better not name any names. [Laughter]

But, if your fine Representatives and Senators won't mind—from Nevada here—let me put it this way: When Congress leaves town, it's no accident that we call it recess. [Laughter]

But I am honored to be with you today. Every man and woman in this room could rightly follow President Truman's example and keep a sign on his desk that says, "The Buck Stops Here." Education is one of the most important issues facing our country, and that makes you principals among the most important people in America.

All of us remember all too painfully the crisis our country faced just a few years ago. Big taxing and spending had led to soaring interest rates and inflation, and our defenses had grown weak. All over the world America had become known not for strength and resolve but for vacillation and self-doubt.

Our schools, too, showed unmistakable signs of crisis. From 1963 to 1981, scholastic aptitude test scores underwent a virtually unbroken decline. Science achievement scores of 17-year-olds showed a similar drop. And most shocking, the National Commission on Excellence in Education reports that more than one-tenth of our 17-year-olds can be considered functionally illiterate.

In the face of all this bad news, our free and hard-working people began for a time to feel almost helpless. It seemed as though our nation, her schools included, was undergoing a protracted and inevitable decline.

Well, on this Earth there's no such thing as inevitable; only men and women building our nation's destiny one day at a time. The American people decided to put a stop to that long decline, and in the past few years our country has seen a rebirth of energy and freedom—a great national renewal. And as I said in my State of the Union Address just 2 weeks ago, "America is back, standing tall, looking to the eighties with courage, confidence, and hope."

We've knocked inflation down, and we can keep it down. The prime rate is about half what it was when our administration took office. All across this vast land of ours, a powerful economic recovery is gaining strength. Morale in the military has soared. And once again America is respected throughout the world as a force for peace and freedom.

Just as our schools were in decline during the bad days, today they're playing their part in the national renewal. Since our administration put education at the top of the American agenda we've seen a grassroots revolution that promises to strengthen every school in the country. From Maine to California, parents, teachers, school administrators, State and local officeholders, and principals like you have begun vital work to improve the fundamentals—not fancy budget structures, not frills in the curriculum, but basic teaching and learning. In the words of Secretary Bell, "There is currently in progress the greatest, most far-reaching, most promising reform and renewal of education we have seen since the turn of the century."

When our administration took office only a handful of States had task forces on education. Today they all do. In addition, 44 States are increasing graduation requirements, 42 are studying improvements in teacher certification, and 13 are establishing master teacher programs. With school reform, as with so many other challenges again and again in our nation's history, the American people are showing it can be done.

We've traveled far in improving our schools, but I don't believe there's one principal in this room who wouldn't agree that our journey has just begun.

Now, some insist there's only one reform that would make any real difference—more money. But that's been tried. Total expenditures in our nation's schools this year, according to the National Center for Educational Statistics, will total $230 billion. That's up almost 7 percent from last year, about double the rate of inflation, and more than double what we spent on education just 10 years ago.

So, if money alone were the answer the problem would have been shrinking, not growing. And those who constantly call for more money are the same people who presided over two decades of unbroken education decline.

James Coleman, a top education expert, argues in his recent book, "High School Achievement," that we need to focus on the factors that truly matter. He states, "Characteristics of schools [that] are related to achievement can be divided into two areas: academic demands and discipline."

Well, I think he's right, and I'd like to talk to you today about these two school characteristics—academic expectations and discipline.

On academic expectations, it's clear that we must expect our students to perform to higher standards. Our children need to do more work and better work, and that includes homework. Indeed, in her well-known study, Barbara Lerner found that the amount of homework assigned in a school is the single most reliable predictor of how well the students in that school will perform on national tests.

Now, none of this is a prescription for gloomy students. We've learned that when students know their parents and teachers have confidence in their abilities the students gain self-esteem, enjoy their work, and live up to those high expectations.

We must also expect our students to learn the basics. Too many are allowed to abandon vocational and college prep courses for general ones, so when they graduate, they're prepared for neither work nor higher education. Stories abound of students who leave school unable to read and write at an adult level. In 1980, 35 States required only 1 year of math for a high school diploma; 36 required only 1 year of science.

Compare that to the case in other industrialized countries. In Japan, specialized study in mathematics, biology, and physics starts in sixth grade. In the Soviet Union, students learn the basic concepts of algebra and geometry in elementary school. So, it's not surprising that Japan, with a population only about half the size of ours graduates from college more engineers than we do, while the Soviet Union graduates from college almost five times more engineering specialists than we do.

We cannot allow our children to continue falling behind. Instead, we must insist that all American students master the basics-math, science, history, reading, and writing-that have always formed the core of our civilization.

If I can interject, there is an article recently put out by Benjamin Stein. And it seems that he has made contact with a number of young, not only high school graduates, but now enrolled in some of our better universities—and has regular contact with them. And it was almost horrifying to read his article, when he found that most of those students—as high as juniors in universities—did not know when World War II was fought or who was the enemy whom we were fighting. There were other examples that were equally glaring of the lack of knowledge of our nation's history.

But no learning can take place without good order in the classroom, and that means restoring good old-fashioned discipline. In too many schools, teachers lack authority to make students take tests, hand in homework, or even quiet down in class. And in some schools, teachers suffer verbal and even physical abuse.

According to a 1978 report by the National Institute of Education, each month over 2 million secondary schoolchildren were victims of in-school crime. Not ordinary high jinks—crime. In 1981, during a 5-month period in California, there were at least 100,000 incidents of violence. A study of Boston high schools showed that during 1982 more than one-sixth of female students and more than one-third of male students carried weapons to school. And a 1983 survey of Michigan schools shows that one in five Michigan teachers has been struck by a student.

As long as one teacher is assaulted, one classroom is disrupted, or one student is attacked, then I must and will speak out to give you the support you need to enforce discipline in our schools. For too long, courts and others have concentrated on protecting the rights of the disruptive few. Well, it's high time we paid some attention to the rights of the well-behaved students who want to learn.

I can't say it too forcefully: To get learning back into our schools, we must get

crime and violence out. [Applause] Thank you.

Now, I'm not talking about establishing order only in our classrooms and hallways, but in our students' hearts and minds. We're training our children for life in a democracy, so we must teach them not only discipline but self-discipline. And if it's sometimes difficult to assert rightful adult authority, we must ask: "Who should correct the child's arithmetic? His math teacher? Or years later, his boss? Who should teach the child respect for rules? His principal? Or some day, law officers?"

We must teach our sons and daughters a proper respect for academic standards, for codes of civilized behavior, and for knowledge itself—not for the sake of those standards, not for the sake of those codes, not even for the sake of that knowledge, but for the sake of those young human beings.

Now, the Federal Government can support these reforms and do so without recycling still more tax dollars or imposing still more regulations. And our administration is doing just that. We're working to restore our nation's parents, State and local officials, teachers, school administrators, and principals to their rightful place in the educational process.

Our administration has replaced 29 narrow categorical education programs with one broad block grant to give State and local officials greater freedom. And in the budget I submitted to Congress last week I called for that grant to be increased by $250 million. We've instituted major regulatory reforms to dig educators out from under mountains of red tape. And because parents should have the right to choose the schools they know are best for their children, we've proposed education vouchers and tuition tax credits—concepts the American people support overwhelmingly.

In October 1 signed a proclamation that named this school year the National Year of Partnerships in Education. The proclamation urged businesses, labor unions, and other groups of working people to form partnerships with schools in their communities. Since then, partnerships in education have increased around the country dramatically. And in December, I announced a new program to recognize outstanding students-the President's Academic Fitness Awards.

To promote good order in our schools, the Department of Education is studying ways to combat school violence, and the Department is continuing its joint project with the National Institute of Justice to find better ways for localities to use their resources to prevent school crime.

The Department of Justice is establishing a National School Safety Center to inform teachers and other officials of their legal rights and to provide a computerized national clearinghouse for school safety resources. In addition, the Justice Department will file friend-of-court briefs in appropriate cases to support the rights of school administrators to enforce discipline. And right now, the Department of Justice is studying possible amendments of Federal law that would help principals and others reestablish good order in our schools.

Now there's one more effort that we're making at the Federal level that I want to mention, and I'm absolutely determined to see it through even though it may be sneered at in some supposedly sophisticated circles. The God who blessed us with life, gave us knowledge, and made us a good and caring people should never have been expelled from America's schools. [Applause]

You don't know how happy I am to hear that from you.

As we struggle to teach our children the fundamental values we hold so dear, we dare not forget that our civilization was built by men and women who placed their faith in a loving God. If the Congress can begin each day with a moment of prayer and meditation, so then can our sons and daughters.

I'll try hard now not to be tempted to tell the story of the father and son in the gallery of the Congress one day, and the son asked who that was. And it was the chaplain. And the father explained. And the boy said, "He's praying for the Congress?" And he said, "No, he's praying for the people." [Laughter]

Despite the importance of these initiatives at the national level, the main responsibility for education rests with our States and communities, and they're moving ahead. State by State, the success stories are mounting.

Indiana has increased high school graduation requirements and initiated a basic skills program for early grades. In Iowa the State is putting together a program of incentives for students who take upper-level math and science courses. States from Tennessee to Florida have begun work on pay incentives for instructors because they know that to promote good teaching we must reward good teachers. And polls show that merit pay for teachers has the support of 61 percent of the NEA teachers, 62 percent of the AFT teachers, and 70 percent of independent teachers.

At the local level parents have begun to give schools new support in ways that range from helping out on field trips to raising money for special projects. School boards have begun to write stricter discipline codes and rewrite curriculums to stress the basics. And in community after community, principals have turned schools around.

I don't have time to tell you all the stories I've heard about principals who've made a critical difference, but there is one that I want to share. Just 5 years ago, George Washington High School suffered from all the ills that afflict so many inner-city schools—drugs, violence, gangs. The school had a 28-percent absentee rate and one of the lowest academic ratings in Los Angeles County. Then George McKenna became principal.

He designed this compact for both applicants and their parents to sign. It states in part: "Defiance of the authority of school personnel, either by behavior, verbal abuse, or gestures, is not permitted. Homework is given every day, and students are expected and required to complete all assignments. Parents are expected to participate in workshops, conferences, meetings, and cooperate with the school in supporting specific activities."

Today the absenteeism rate at Washington High School has been cut to 11 percent, and enrollment has risen froth 1,700 to 2,600 plus a waiting list. Five years ago, 42 percent of Washington High's students said they might go on to college. Last year 80 percent did go on to college. And all this because of one determined principal, a hero with faith in the commonsense values which have never failed us when we've had the courage to live up to them.

As principals you have an enormous responsibility. Perhaps more than any other Americans, you hold our nation's future in your hands. I know that you're determined to go on with the great work of making certain our schools give our sons and daughters the quality education they deserve. And I'm convinced that with your help America's future will be bright beyond our dreams.

Thank you, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 10:53 a.m. in the Rotunda at the Las Vegas Convention Center. He was introduced by Robert Howe, president of the association.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the Annual Convention of the National Association of Secondary School Principals in Las Vegas, Nevada Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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