Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks at the National Forum on Excellence in Education in Indianapolis, Indiana

December 08, 1983

Thank you, Secretary Bell, Governor Orr, the other Governors here, Mr. Mayor, other mayors, and the Members of Congress, the guests here on the dais, and you ladies and gentlemen. And a special greeting to the students who are with us here today from six Indiana junior and senior high schools.

Three days—I have an uncomfortable feeling that the spot I now occupy could result in just being an echo of what has probably been said several times already. But it's great to be back in Indianapolis, and great to be back with Hoosiers.

Just, oh, 10 minutes or so coming in here, east of here, the clouds broke, and suddenly down below you could see the fertile soil of your wonderful State and those orderly farms. And it was somewhat different from an old story about a farmer here in Indiana who took over a parcel of creekbottom land that had never been cleared. It was covered with rocks and brush, but he went to work. He cleared the brush, he hauled the rocks away, he cultivated, he fertilized, he planted, created a garden spot. And then one Sunday, proud of what ;he'd accomplished, he asked the reverend at the church if he wouldn't drop by after the service and see what he had done.

Well, the reverend came out, and he was impressed. He said, "That's the tallest corn I've ever seen. The Lord certainly has blessed this land." And he said, "Those melons, I've never seen anything big as that. Praise the Lord." And he went on that way about every crop; but he saw tomatoes, squash, beans, everything, praising the Lord for all that the Lord had done for that land. And the old farmer was getting pretty edgy and finally couldn't take it any longer. And he said, "Reverend, I wish you could have seen this place when the Lord was doing it by himself" [Laughter]

Well, maybe it's a little like that with education. God gives us sons and daughters with bright, eager minds, but it's up to us to cultivate and plant their seeds of knowledge.

For more than a century and a half, American schools did that job and did it well. Nearly 200 years ago, Massachusetts enacted the first comprehensive State school law in the new republic, and other States enacted similar laws. And soon America boasted the first public school system on Earth.

In the decades that followed, our rich network of public, church, and private schools performed a miracle. With the tide after tide of immigrants thronging to our shores, our schools taught the children of those new Americans skills to earn their livings, a new language, and a new way of life—democracy.

The motto of the United States is "E Pluribus Unum," from many, one. Well, more than any other institution, our schools built that one from the many.

And today our children need good schools more than ever. We stand on the verge of a new age, a computer age when medical breakthroughs will add years to our lives. Information retrieval systems will bring all the world's great literature, music, and drama into the family home. And advances in space travel will make the space shuttle Columbia look as old-fashioned as Lindbergh's plane, The Spirit of St. Louis. But if our children are to take their places as tomorrow's leaders we must teach them the skills they need.

If America is to offer greater economic opportunity to her citizens, if she's to defend our freedom, democracy, and keep the peace, then our children will need wisdom, courage, and strength—virtues beyond their reach without education. In the words of Thomas Jefferson: "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free . . . it expects what never was and never will be."

And yet, today, some of our schools aren't doing the job they should. Of course, there are many fine schools and thousands of dedicated superintendents, principals, and teachers. But from 1963 to 1980, Scholastic Aptitude Test scores showed a virtually unbroken decline. Science achievement scores of 17-year-olds have shown a steady fall. And, most shocking, today more than onetenth of our 17-year-olds are functionally illiterate.

Now, some insist there's only one answer: more money. But that's been tried. Total expenditures in our nation's schools this year, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, will total $230 billion. Now, that's up almost 7 percent from last year, about double the rate of inflation-more than 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.

American schools don't need vast new sums of money as much as they need a few fundamental reforms. I believe there are six that can and will turn our schools around.

First, we need to restore good old-fashioned discipline. In too many schools across the land, teachers can't teach because they lack the authority to make students take tests and hand in homework. Some don't even have the authority to quiet down their class. In some schools, teachers suffer verbal and physical abuse. I can't say it too forcefully: This must stop.

We need to write stricter discipline codes, then support our teachers when they enforce those codes. Back at the turn of the century, one education handbook told teachers that enforcing discipline—and I quote—"You have the law back of you. You have intelligent public sentiment back of you." We must make both those statements true once again.

Second, we must end the drug and alcohol abuse that plagues hundreds of thousands of our children. Chemical abuse by young people not only damages the lives of individual users; it can create a drug culture at school. We need to teach our sons and daughters the dangers of drug and alcohol abuse, enforce the law, and rehabilitate the users. Whatever it takes, we must make certain that America's schools are temples of learning, and not drug dens.

Third, we must raise academic standards. Today, 35 States require only 1 year of math for a high school diploma; 36 require only 1 year of science. Many exchange students from foreign countries—Japan, West Germany, and others—are quick to point out that our academic standards are not as tough as theirs.

They used to visit the capitol in Sacramento every once in—well, every year. And I would have the exchange students in. And as Governor, I had one question I would always ask them. And I would flinch a little, because I knew the answer. I would ask them how our schools compared to theirs. And it would always be the same. There'd be kind of some sly exchanges of smiles, and then they'd begin to giggle, and then they would inform me how hard school was back where they came from and what a vacation this had been being here.

Our sons and daughters need to do more work, to do better work, and to spend more time in school. Now, that's not a prescription for gloomy students. Instead, educators have found again and again that when students know their parents and teachers believe them capable of a great deal and expect them to perform accordingly, students gain self-confidence, enjoy their work, and live up to those high expectations.

Fourth, we must encourage good teaching. Teachers should be paid and promoted on the basis of their competence and merit. Hard-earned tax dollars should encourage the best. They have no business rewarding mediocrity.

Fifth, we must restore parents and State and local governments to their rightful place in the educational process. Decisions about discipline, curriculum, and academic standards, the factors that make a school good or bad, shouldn't be made by people in Washington. They should be made at the grassroots, by parents, teachers, and administrators in their communities.

And sixth and last, we must teach the basics. Too many of our students are allowed to abandon vocational and college prep courses for general ones. So, when they graduate from high school they're prepared for neither work nor higher education. And compared to other industrialized countries, we're slipping far behind in such basic areas as in the sciences and math. 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, 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.

But it isn't just basic subjects that need to be taught; it's also basic values. I believe that unless we educate our children all that we are—the great devotions, the crucial writings, and the technical knowledge that have permitted millions to live in abundance and freedom—then all these successes are in jeopardy. If we fail to instruct our children in justice, religion, and liberty, we will be condemning them to a world without virtue. They'll live in a twilight of civilization where great truths were forgotten.

In schools across the country, students are being taught the dangers of nuclear weapons and the burdens of national defense. Well, let's make certain they understand not only the price of defending America but the price of failing to. As students from St. George's University School of Medicine learned in Grenada, freedom is not free. It can be easily lost, but is worth sticking up for.

One other idea at the core of our basic values. I just have to believe that the loving God who has blessed this land should never have been expelled from America's classrooms. When we open ourselves to Him, we gain not only moral courage but intellectual strength. If the Members of Congress can start each day with a moment for prayer and meditation, so can our children in their schools.

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've taken 29 narrow categorical education programs and replaced them with a block grant to give State and local education officials greater freedom. 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 have proposed education vouchers and tuition tax credits, concepts that the polls show the American people support overwhelmingly. And we're going to keep pressing until they're passed.

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. Here in Indianapolis, for example, a program managed by the Chamber of Commerce has brought 13 companies together with 9 schools at all grade levels. The companies are helping out with everything from teaching practical job skills to providing tutors in math and science.

I've asked government workers to join the Partnerships in Education effort, and we at the White House have formed a partnership with Congress Heights Elementary School in Washington, in probably the poorest district of that city.

I've directed the Departments of Justice and Education to find ways that we can help teachers and administrators enforce discipline. And this afternoon, I'm delighted to announce a new program to recognize outstanding students, the President's Academic Fitness Awards. These awards will be modeled on the Presidential Physical Fitness Awards begun under President Johnson. I'll be appointing a Commission on Academic Fitness to work out the details of the program with our nation's educators, and I look forward to presenting the first awards at the White House.

But despite these Federal efforts, the main responsibility for education rests with our States, and they're moving forward. Since our administration placed education at the top of the national agenda, we've been seeing a grassroots revolution that promises to strengthen every school in the country. From Maine to California, parents, teachers, school officials, and State and local officeholders have begun vigorous work to improve the fundamentals—not fancy budget structures, not frills in the curriculum, but teaching and learning. In the words of Secretary Bell, "There is currently in progress the greatest, most far-reaching, the most promising reform and renewal of education we have seen since the turn of the century."

Since 1980 more than half of our 16,000 school districts have increased the number of credits they require in such basic subjects as English, science, and math. Almost 40 percent are set to raise their standards by 1985. Today, all 50 States have task forces on education; 44 are increasing graduation requirements; 42 are studying improvements in teacher certification; and 13 are establishing master teacher programs.

State by State, success stories are mounting. In Mississippi last December, the legislature passed a bill to improve teachers' pay and, for the first time since the fifties, implement compulsory school attendance. In Iowa, where only 1,560 high school students took calculus last year, the State is putting together a program of incentives for students who take upper-level math and science courses. In Tennessee, Governor Lamar Alexander has proposed a Better Schools Program that would beef up teaching in math and science and provide pay incentives for excellent teachers.

In New Jersey, Governor Tom Kean has a proposal that deserves wide support. Under his plan, the New Jersey board of education would allow successful mathematicians, scientists, linguists, and journalists to pass a competency test in their subjects and then go into classrooms as paid teaching interns. If they performed well, they would be issued permanent teaching certificates at the end of a year. And right here in Indiana, under the superb leadership of Governor Robert Orr, you've initiated Project Prime Time, a basic skills program for early grades. And you've increased high school graduation requirements for the first time in half a century.

The 50 States taking action to solve problems with efficiency and imagination—this is federalism in action. You—our Nation's Governors, legislators, school board members, school administrators, and teachers-are meeting America's educational needs with common sense, vigor, and prudent use of taxpayers' dollars that Washington could never match. On behalf of the American people, I thank you.

I wish I could tell you all the success stories that I've heard about individual schools—the 152 that received Secondary School Recognition Awards, so many others. Lincoln Park High, for example, used to be one of the worst schools in the city of Chicago. And then, District Superintendent Margaret Harrigan came along and turned it into one of the best schools in the State of Illinois. Today, Lincoln Park High boasts a school of science that offers a college-level course in biochemistry, a school of languages that offers French, German, Italian, and Spanish, and a tough 2-year international baccalaureate program that last year had 200 applicants for 30 places.

In my home State of California, El Camino High, in Sacramento, used to suffer from all the ills that plague so many schools—drug and alcohol abuse, poor attendance, declining enrollment, low achievement. And then, El Camino principal, Dr. Joe Petterle, and the board of education put together a program designed to stress the fundamentals.

One measure required applicants and their parents to sign a form stating in part, "(We) understand that El Camino High School will stress the basics, require homework, not have a smoking area, be a closed campus, require reasonable standards of dress, and have well-defined and enforced discipline and attendance policies." Today, achievement at El Camino is climbing. The daily student absence rate has dropped from 14 percent to under 4 percent, and the school has its maximum enrollment of 1,700 students and a waiting list of almost 400.

A few moments ago, I spoke about the superb education American schools gave to immigrants in decades past. Well, I would like to close by reading an essay by a modern-day immigrant, a student who went to El Camino High. His name: Trong Bui.

And he wrote: "As a Vietnamese refugee, I immigrated to America . . . with my family in search of freedom .... During this difficult stage of adjustments in my life, faculty members and students at El Camino .... were especially important to me for without their invaluable help, I could not have progressed .... When I first came to El Camino, the only English word that I knew was 'hello,' and I needed an interpreter to communicate with my counselor. But . . . this year I will graduate from El Camino High School with honors .... I have also been admitted to the California State University of Sacramento with honors.

"With the invaluable knowledge that I obtained from going to El Camino High School, I will be able to face the world with great confidence, knowing that I am well prepared to meet any challenge in my future and that I will not die the way I was born, nameless."

An education that trains the mind and fills the heart with hope—that's the treasure American schools used to give their students. And if all of us—officeholders, school officials, teachers, and parents—provide our schools with the support they need, I'm confident that in coming years American schools will give our sons and daughters richer treasure than ever before.

I thank all of you for the part that you're playing in rebuilding America's schools. I thank you for inviting me back to this great State, and God bless you all.

Note: The President spoke at 3:47 p.m. in Hall B of the Indianapolis Convention Center. He was introduced by Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell

Following his remarks the President met at the convention center with Indiana Republican leaders and then returned to Washington, D. C

Ronald Reagan, Remarks at the National Forum on Excellence in Education in Indianapolis, Indiana Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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