Ronald Reagan picture

Remarks to the National Governors' Association-Department of Education Conference in Columbia, Missouri

March 26, 1987

Bill, could I interject a comment here, because you've talked about something that's very dear to my heart. I think, back in California when I was Governor, that we were sort of in the forefront with regard to bilingual education. But my belief in the definition of that was it meant that—faced as we are there, particularly with the Hispanic group and language talked at home and not at school—that we were to provide, f we could, teachers adept in both languages, so that if a student was not getting what he should get, they could find out whether it was a language difficulty or not. And I met one young man who had graduated there in East Los Angeles from high school, top in his class. He had spent several years in a class for the mentally retarded because teachers had just decided that was what was wrong. And then along came—God bless her—a teacher who went a little deeper and found out it was the language problem.

But I have to say—and I think that the Federal Government has a part that is played in this, and not a good part—that we have come to the point where we're talking about teaching both languages and teaching students in their native language, instead of what the move should be if they're going to be in America: They have to learn our language in order to get along. And I will do anything that I can to help to get rid of any Federal interference that is trying to force local school districts to continue teaching students in their native tongue. Their job is to teach them English.

And could I just say one last thing? I'm taking too much time here. In East Los Angeles I met with a group of parents, Hispanic parents. And I asked them—a group of mothers—I said, well, why couldn't you take turns volunteering to sit in the class where there's a high percentage of these students, and if the teacher is confused, not aware that it's the language problem, you who speak both languages now, you could interject and find out if that is the problem with this student's lack of understanding. And they told me that there were regulations that prevented them from being able to sit in a classroom and do that, because they didn't have certificates to do such a thing. Well, I think it's time we started looking at the regulations and getting back to the main subject, which is, yes, let's get everybody to talk in our language.

[The President resumed speaking at 2:28 p.m.]

Governor Ashcroft and Governor Bangerter and Governor Campbell and Governor Sununu, Secretary Bennett, distinguished guests, before I begin my remarks, let me say a word of thanks to our hosts, Principal Kenneth Clark and the staff, the faculty, and students of Hickman High School. This school, Hickman High, is a special school with a long and proud tradition. The one thing I'm told—and I'm sure it's true—it's the only school in America that has as its team name the "Kewpies." With a name like "Kewpies," you've got to be good, and Hickman is. [Laughter]

As you can see just by looking at the trophy cases in the halls, over the years Hickman High has been an all-round champion in basketball, swimming, tennis, and football, as well as in areas like debate, dramatic speaking, music, and mathematics. And Hickman has excelled in one area that [, in particular, know something about. Every year 141 students from throughout :he Nation are named Presidential Scholars. This program began in 1964, and since then Hickman High has been home to six winners, putting it at the top 5 percent of all the schools in the Nation. And you can see why Hickman received the Department of Education's Secondary School Recognition Award. Hickman High is one of the best. Now, I'd better stop, or they'll make me an honorary "Kewpie." [Laughter]

When we talk about what works in education, we're really talking about preparing for America's future. Last month I said that it was time to begin a great American discussion about our future and how to prepare America for the world of the year 2000 and beyond. What kind of country will we pass on to our children? That challenge, preparing America for the 21st century, is as great an adventure as the one that faced settlers who, more than a century-and-a-half ago, started a town along the Flat Branch that they called Columbia. It includes being sure that we make the best use of our science and technology, so that when we're first to invent something, we're also first to bring it to market. It includes improving the climate for entrepreneurship and growth, so that the young people here in Columbia and around our nation can live in a world where the only limits on what they achieve are the limits of their own dreams and determination. The key here is lower tax rates and fewer needless regulations, and we've made great progress in both those areas. But the job won't be done until we get control of Federal spending, so that tax rates won't go up again. That's why it's time for Congress to cut the Federal budget and leave the family budget alone.

The challenge of preparing for the 21st century also includes working to build a fair, open, and expanding world economy. This is where the jobs and prosperity of our future will come from. And finally, it includes making sure our young people are ready for the jobs of the 21st century, making sure they're ready to lead a strong America in a strong and growing world economy. In short, making sure that American education is the best in the world. Yes, it's a challenge for every American, the challenge of preparing America for the next century.

And that reminds me of a story. When you get to be my age, everything reminds you of a story. [Laughter] This is the story of the old fella who picked up some creek land, some bottom land and along the creek. And it was rocky, and it was covered with brush. And he started in, hauling the rocks away and cleaning out the brush and then harrowing and fertilizing and planting. And he had a truly great garden spot there. And one day, one Sunday morning after church, he said to the minister, when the service was over, he'd kind of like to have him come out. He'd like to have him see what he'd been doing. Well, the minister came out on a Sunday afternoon, and he took him down there and showed him this. Well, the minister was impressed. He said, "I've never seen such melons. God has truly blessed this land." And he said, "Look at this corn; how high it is." He said, "The Lord—well, the Lord has been good." And he went on in that vein, and the old boy was getting more and more nettled about this. And finally he interrupted, and he said, "Preacher, I wish you could have seen this place when the Lord was doing it by himself." [Laughter]

This conference today is just one sign that in the area of education America is no longer just waiting for things to happen. We've come a long way from where we were 4 years ago, when our National Commission on Excellence in Education issued its report card on American schools called "A Nation at Risk." The Commission found that high school students were scoring lower on achievement tests than at any point in the past 25 years—that's 13 percent of all 17-year-olds were functionally illiterate—and the American students ranked last among industrial nations on 7 of 19 academic tests. "A Nation at Risk" galvanized a citizens' movement for educational reform.

This movement has gone ahead at every level, from local communities to statehouses to the Federal Government. And the Governors have been out in front in every State in trying to make the improvements that must be made. Our Governors have been among the most important leaders in this, including those Governors who are here today. This conference and the Governors' report, "Time for Results," grew out of that movement, a movement that has produced a broad consensus on what needs to be done. And part of that consensus has been that more money is not the key to higher quality. The sixties and seventies were decades of rising spending but falling SAT scores. And then it turned out that a number of States—for example, New Hampshire—spent only modestly on education, but had among the Nation's most effective schools. Another part of the consensus is that wealth and status in a community do not guarantee good schools or their absence mean schools will be bad. Inner-city schools in poor neighborhoods, like those in East Harlem District 4 in New York City and Charles Rice Elementary in Dallas, stand among America's best.

The secret to educational quality is not in the pocketbook; it's in the heart. It's in the simple dedication of teachers, administrators, parents, and students to the same basic, fundamental values that have always been the wellspring of success, both in education and life in our country. You don't need schools filled with high technology to give children a good education. You need schools that set high standards and pay attention to the basics of reading, math, science, language, and the meaning of our sacred national heritage. You need orderly schools that assign homework. You need schools with strong principals who have a sense of mission. You need committed teachers who lead students to do their best and keep regular tabs on progress. You need schools that teach a sense of right and wrong. And you need parents and communities that care.

Basic skills, standards, discipline, work, family support, ethical principles—this is the new American consensus on the secret to quality education. And forgive me for saying so, but the only surprise here is that it's new. Plato would have recognized such "secrets;" so would Confucius, Matthew Arnold, and Benjamin Franklin. And yet these so-called secrets were new in most places, but not in Columbia. Last week members of my staff came out here for a day. Columbia has a remarkable number of outstanding schools.

Again and again, I found out my staff was asking principals and administrators: "Why? What's made the schools here different over the years?" And one frequent answer was that Columbia never accepted the so-called reforms of the sixties and seventies. This system stuck to basics and kept high academic standards when others were turning to fads like minicourses, grade inflation, and abolishing basic requirements. And one of the worst of those so-called reforms was value-neutral instruction.

Yes, too often in the decades of declining achievement, we heard school officials say that teaching right and wrong was none of their business. A story about this appeared in the newspapers some time ago. A guidance counselor asked a class what they should do if they found a purse with $1000 in it. Well, the class decided that returning it with the money would be neither right nor wrong; it would be just dumb. And when they asked the counselor what he thought, he said he wouldn't force his values on them. "If I come from the position of what is right and what is wrong," he told the reporter, "then I'm not their counselor." Well, I'm not sure what he thought he was.

Now, let me say I don't believe the students in that class were typical of America's young people. We have the best young people today we've ever had. I have a hunch they want more attention given by schools to ethical standards, not less. After all, in an area related to values, drugs, they've been miles ahead of most adults. With many adults saying that taking drugs was a matter of doing your own thing, young people were telling us that drug abuse was the most serious problem facing their schools. A while back, a student in California asked Nancy what to do when drugs were offered, and she answered, "Just say no." Today there are more than 12,000 Just Say No clubs across the country, and there's one here at Hickman High. So, I believe young people do want to hear about values and standards of right and wrong, and they want to hear about them from adults.

Some adults ask: Well, what values would you teach? Well, how about the Judeo-Christian ethic? It's as simple as the Ten Commandments and as enduring as the Scriptures. And here are some samples: "Love thy neighbor as thyself. .... Honor thy father and thy mother." And, yes, "Thou shalt not steal." I've dwelt on values for a reason. Part of it is that standards of right and wrong are essential to any life that is lived well and should be a part of education. It's just this simple: Students with strong values do well in school. But also, a school is a community, and the Judeo-Christian ethic is a prescription for a happy and productive community, city, State, or nation. Getting back to values is part of getting back to basics. It's part of preparing our country for the 21st century. And it's basic to what every school should do for every child in every classroom in America.

Since "A Nation at Risk" came out 4 years ago, Governors, as I said, have been leaders in the return to the fundamentals of what works in education. Many States have raised education standards. Almost every State has increased either promotion, high school graduation, or college entrance standards, or college exit requirements. Several States have increased them all. Many States have also worked to improve the quality of their teachers. Missouri has started a career ladder program and gives special scholarships and loans to encourage bright students to become teachers and, together with many other States, has given teachers raises. Utah also has begun a career ladder program, as we were told, and has pioneered the use of computer and satellite technology in teaching.

And States and school districts are experimenting, which is why we came here today: to hear about experiments in the 16 districts in the 8 States that are part of the National Governors' Association program for improving the quality of education. Here in Columbia, one test involves getting parents involved in early education of their preschool children. Oak Ridge, Tennessee, is working to broaden the professional experience of both teachers and administrators. And in the White Mountains Regional District of New Hampshire, they're using computers to analyze student progress as well as the strengths and weaknesses of curricula and textbooks.

Well, let me say a little bit about what we're doing in Washington. We've proposed restructuring some of our programs to give States and schools more flexibility and to make the programs more effective. But we know that 93 percent of the money for education comes from States and cities. The Federal Government provides less than 7 percent. So, the most important thing it can do is help the teachers, administrators, and parents. Reports like "What Works" and "Schools Without Drugs" are crucial; sound information is crucial. Education suffered when the Federal Government tried to give too much direction to local schools. Yes, the Federal Government tried to buy much too much for its less than 7 percent of funding. Some seem to think that education is best directed by administrators in Washington. Well, I say the American people know better than anyone in Washington how to fix their own schools.

A few themes run through all the many changes and experiments of the last 4 years, and those are the common-sense themes of getting good teachers and good principals, working with parents, focusing on the basics, and measuring the results. And these themes all add up to the simple goal of knowing where America wants education to be by the year 2000. Getting what America wants and needs—it's like the story of the three fellows who went into a restaurant. I wanted to tell you one last story before I finished. [Laughter] They were ordering their dinner, and one of them ordered a glass of milk. But he told the waitress that he'd been in there the week before, ordered a glass of milk, and he wanted a clean glass this time. Well, the other two also decided to order milk. When the waitress came back with the three glasses of milk, she said, "Now, which of you wanted the clean glass?" [Laughter]

By being clear about what we want and what works, we've stopped the slide in SAT scores. They're on the rise again. By 1990 let's reduce by one-quarter the 40 percent of 13-year-olds reading below skill level. By the year 2000 let's have everyone reading at their skill level. By 1990 let's resolve that SAT scores will have made up half the ground they've lost, and by the year 2000 let's have them exceed their 1963 record high, which still stands. And finally, by the year 2000 let's raise literacy levels so that every American can speak, read, and write English and fully participate in the opportunities of our great country. I brought Secretary Bennett along with me today. And, Bill, I'm going to give you a little homework assignment. In April 1988 it will be 5 years since we issued "A Nation at Risk," and that's when I'd like you to issue a new report telling us how far we've come and what still needs to be done, what reforms have worked, and what principles should guide us as we move ahead. We need milestones on our road to the 21st century, and in education this report will be the first.

You know, earlier today I visited Fairview Elementary School. It's another of the model schools in this district. I saw what a fine principal, like Fairview's principal Dr. James Wells, and a dedicated and talented staff can mean to children in the early years of learning. I wasn't too surprised that Fairview is a model school. You see, one of the teachers there and I go way back, and I know she's great. Miss Joy Underdown taught my son Ron when he was in nursery school and kindergarten a few years ago. You know it's a few years ago. [Laughter] But I saw how the children at Fairview are learning through the use of computers. I even had a few words to say to a sixth grade civics class. I'm a little better in civics than I am on computers. [Laughter] I haven't learned to use a pocket calculator yet. [Laughter] Wouldn't do any good with what Congress is doing. [Laughter]

Well, today I've talked about preparing America for the 21st century. Well, the kindergarten children I saw today at Fairview will graduate from high school in the year 1999. This year's high school graduates will spend most of their working lives in the 21st century. In the life of a man or a woman, or the life of a nation, the 21st century's but a short, short time away. If we begin to prepare for it now, it can be the beginning of America's greatest century, a time when Americans scale peaks of opportunity and achievement that we didn't dare dream of reaching before. Yes, we can set sail on new oceans of challenge and reach new continents of hope. You are the pathfinders. You are the navigators. So, today let's set our compasses by the fixed star of basic skills and enduring values, and start out the new century together.

Thank you, and God bless you.

Note: The President spoke at 2:20 p.m. in the auditorium of Hickman High School. In his opening remarks, the President referred to Secretary of Education William J. Bennett.

Ronald Reagan, Remarks to the National Governors' Association-Department of Education Conference in Columbia, Missouri Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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