For The Record
Following are excerpts from President Reagan's remarks to the members of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, during a ceremony on April 26 at which the commission presented its final report.
Your commission was asked to assess the quality of teaching and learning in America compared with our own educational tradition and the rising competition from other industrial nations. You've taken a long, hard look at America's educational system and found that quality is lacking, but not because today's students are any less capable than their predecessors. You've found that our educational system is in the grip of a crisis caused by low standards, lack of purpose, ineffective use of resources, and a failure to challenge students to push performance to the boundaries of individual ability--and that is to strive for excellence.
When I first addressed this commission at its inaugural meeting in October of 1981, I pointed out that there are few areas of American life as important to our society and to our people and our parents and families as our schools and colleges. And I also noted a parallel between a decline in our education [system] and a decline in our economy. In both cases, serious problems had grown worse because of neglect and because too many people viewed the world the way they wanted it to be rather than the way it really is. Well, we described our economic--or economy--in realistic terms, we passed long-[overdue] reforms, and now the economy is growing again, but without double-digit inflation and record interest rates like before.
Today we're calling attention to the way things really are in education. And this year our country will spend $215 billion for education. We spent more on education at all levels than any other country in the world. But what have we bought with all that spending? I was interested to see that you noted the almost uninterrupted decline in student achievement in the scores during the past two decades--decades in which the federal presence in education grew and grew. Today's high-school graduates score almost 40 points below their 1963 counterparts on standard mathematic tests and 50 points lower on verbal tests. Last year's gain on [Scholastic Aptitude Test] scores will have to be repeated for more than a decade before we achieve the levels of the mid-60's again.
Your commission notes that our education policies have squandered the gains of the Sputnik era. The statistics I just cited underscore the decline in student achievement. Other indicators are more alarming. About 13 percent of our 17-year-olds are considered functionally illiterate. And for minority youth, the figure may be as high as 40 percent. In our public four-year colleges, remedial math courses now [comprise] one-fourth of all the math courses that are taught in our colleges. We can no longer afford to pass students who fail to learn from one grade to the next simply because they've come to the end of the year. We can't afford to waste the valuable resources of higher education to remedy problems that were ignored in our elementary and high schools. Four-fifths of our 17-year-olds can't write a persuasive essay. Two-thirds can't solve mathematical problems involving more than one step. And nearly 40 percent can't draw inferences from reading.
Despite record levels of educational spending, America's students came in last in seven of 19 academic tests compared to students of other industrialized nations. We never placed first or second. More than half of our country's gifted and talented students failed to match performance with their tested ability.
For eight years as Governor, every year I used to meet with exchange students in California from other countries and some of their American counterparts. And every year for eight years I asked the same question and got the same answer. After meeting all of them and talking a little bit, welcoming them to the United States, I would say, "Tell me, how [do] our high schools compare with your own schools in your own countries?" And the answer would always be, they would look at each other and then they would start to giggle and then they would break into laughter and I would find out. They were really having a vacation in our schools compared to what they were going through in their own schools. And it was that way for all the eight years that I asked the question.
Thomas Jefferson warned us, "If a nation expects to be ignorant and free, it expects what never was and never will be." It's not too much to say that what began as our unique vision--human progress through individual opportunity--will grind to a halt in America if we fail to meet our educational challenges in the 80's. I welcome your challenge to the parents of America to hold elected officials responsible for carrying out those reforms.
Your report emphasizes that the federal role in education should be limited to specific areas, and any assistance should be provided with a minimum of administrative burdens on our schools, colleges, and teachers.
Your call for an end to federal intrusion is consistent with our task of redefining the federal role in education. I believe that parents, not the government, have the primary responsibility for the education of their children. Parental authority is not a right conveyed by the state. Rather, parents delegate to their elected school-board representatives and state legislators the responsibility for their children's schooling.
In a 1982 Gallup poll, the majority of those surveyed thought Washington should exert less influence in determining the educational program of the public schols. So, we'll continue to work in the months ahead for passage of tuition tax credits, vouchers, educational savings accounts, voluntary school prayer, and abolishing the Department of Education.
Our agenda is to restore quality to education by increasing competition and by strengthening parental choice and local control. I'd like to ask all of you, as well as every citizen who considers this report's recommendations, to work together to restore excellence in America's schools.
We're entering a new era. And education holds the key. As "sunrise" industries grow, they bring us technological advances, offering opportunities and challenges. Rather than fear our future, let us embrace it and make it work for us by improving instruction in science and math, retraining our workers, encouraging their continued education, retooling our factories, and stimulating investment in new areas of growth.
On behalf of all concerned with excellence in education, I want to thank you for your work, your courage, and your vision. And for me to be standing here saying this, the situation must be desperate, because some years after I graduated from Eureka College, I returned to that school. And they gave me an honorary degree, which only compounded a sense of guilt I'd nursed for 25 years because I thought the first one they gave me was honorary.