For The Record

May 23, 1984 7 min read

The following are remarks made by President Reagan at a White House ceremony on May 11 honoring 60 recipients of the Administration’s newly created “academic-fitness” awards.

I want to thank all of you for coming here today on this beautiful day. We arranged this just particularly. We always like to plan nice weather for these things so you can have a good time while you’re cutting school.

We did a little checking the other day and found out that this is the 43rd time I have spoken on education in the past three and a half years. And that doesn’t include such things as White House meetings on education and talks with reporters. And I’ve given education so much time and used the--what Teddy Roosevelt said was the “bully pulpit” of this office to discuss this issue for a very clear and simple reason: It’s because we in this administration view education as central to American life.

It is central as the family is cen-tral, as the towns we live in are central and as our churches are central. If a modern de Tocqueville came searching for the heart of this country today, I would tell him to go to those junctions where family, church, town, and school meet, for that’s where America is.

We came to Washington believing that education was the key to the American comeback that we wanted to bring about. And one of the first things we did was appoint a National Commission on Excellence in Education. And I asked them to study our schools, define their problems, and come up, if they could, with solutions. And I can say “you” because the commission is right here--you did just that.

Last spring in your report, you documented 20 years of decline, 20 years of declining academic standards and declining discipline. And you were very blunt. You said, “If a foreign nation had done to our schools what we ourselves have done to them, we would be justified in calling it an act of war.” You don’t get much blunter than that.

But you spoke of hope, too. You outlined the reforms needed to put us back on the path of excellence. And you gave us old but enduring advice: Get back to basics. And the public response--your report was electrifying. There is a huge and growing public mandate for change. And it’s not overstating things at all to say that your report changed our history by changing the way we look at education and putting it back in the American agenda. Virtually every major national organization in this country has supported some aspect of the reform movement. State leadership has been clear and strong. In this past year alone, 35 states raised high school graduation requirements. Twenty-one states are reviewing steps to make textbooks more challenging. Eight states have lengthened the school year.

Many legislatures are carefully--or currently, I should say--developing workable and fair merit pay plans, and 47 states are studying improvements in teacher certification.

The private sector, too, is doing its part. We have new partnerships between community businesses and community schools. Some businesses are adopting local schools,el5lworking with students and teachers to make education more rewarding and more exciting.

The federal government is doing its part. We’re taking a new look at violence in the schools and how to restore the peace and order without which no teacher can instruct and no student can learn. We’re taking a new look at the national dropout rate. Estimates show that we’re losing roughly a million students a year in the high schools. Now, that will surely erode our ability to compete in business and it could lead to a permanent underclass of unskilled new workers who don’t have much hope in the job market.

We’re taking a new look at truancy. And across the country there are efforts to cut back on it by using everything from discipline to new incentives.

Now, you may have heard about one such case in Indiana. The local school board wanted to encourage better high-school attendance so they offered a $100 reward for any student who graduated with a perfect attendance record their senior year. Well, word got around and the kids stopped cutting classes. And now the school board has found that close to 200 students made perfect attendance records, and they’ll have to come up with $20,000 before graduation day.

The point I’m making is that education is back on the agenda. All over this country, there has been a renaissance of interest and involvement with the schools. And so much of the spirit of this renewal is directly traceable to your report last year.

And Dr. Gardner, as head of the National Commission on Excellence in Education, I just want to say thank you on behalf of your country and on behalf of the generations that will benefit from your great work.

The following is the text of a radio address to the nation by Mr. Reagan on May 12.

My fellow Americans, I want to talk to you today about a wonderful thing that’s happening in our country. It began a year ago, so it’s only just begun. But already it’s changing our country and I think it may change it forever. I’m talking about the recent progress made in our schools.

You may remember the day a year ago when the National Commission on Excellence in Education came out with its report on what was wrong with the nation’s schools. The commission documented 20 solid years of decline, decline in academic standards and discipline, decline in authority and in scholastic results. The commission said a rising tide of mediocrity was wiping out America’s reputation for the best education system in the world. That report was electrifying and its current swept the country.

Parents and teachers got together, marshaled their resources, and began to turn the situation around. So now, one year later, we can report that together we have met the rising tide of mediocrity with a tidal wave of school reforms.

Those reforms reflect the commission’s advice; get back to basics, tighten the standards, heighten academic requirements, and remember discipline in the classroom is vital. In short, make sure that Johnny and Mary can read and write, and make sure their school is allowed the peace without which no student can learn and no teacher can instruct.

I want you to listen to some of the things that have happened since the commission made its recommendations. Thirty-five states have raised high-school graduation requirements. Twenty-one states have lengthened the school day. Seven have lengthened the year. And every state in the union has put together a task force to improve its educational system. School districts aross the country are moving toward requiring four years of English in high school and three solid years each of math and science. Many legislatures are currently developing workable and fair merit-pay plans. Many states have increased teachers’ salaries.

The private sector, too, is playing a big part in the reforms. Local businesses are adopting local schools, sending in their executives and employees to work with students and teachers to make education more exciting and more pertinent to the 1980’s.

We’re seeing a willingness to reconsider what our schools should be teaching. In the state of Maryland, a commission concluded that students aren’t being taught enough about the American traditions of freedom and liberty. A bipartisan panel came up with a plan to teach students the most basic of democratic arts, the art of citizenship.

In New Jersey, Gov. Tom Kean had another creative idea--give scientists and mathematicians in private industry a form of teaching accreditation so that they can go into the schools and teach what they know.

Last year, as part of our program to encourage academic excellence, we began the President’s Academic Fitness Awards, a scholastic version of the Physical Fitness Awards. Well, participation in the program exceeded our estimates by 400 percent.

This month 220,000 high-school seniors, who had maintained high marks and achieved high scores on scholastic aptitude tests, won the Academic Fitness Awards. And yesterday on the South Lawn of the White House, I personally gave the awards to 60 students from around the country. Just seeing their proud faces spoke a world of words about the importance of education to our country’s future and the spirit of renewal that’s underway.

This entire reform movement proves how wrong the people are who always insist money is the only answer to the problems of our schools. Well, leaving aside the fact that the 20 years they kept shoveling money in was the same 20 years in which the schools deteriorated, I think it’s fair to say they missed the essential point: Money was never the problem. Leadership was. Leadership in getting the schools back to basic values, basic traditions, and basic good sense.

With the leadership of plain American citizens, we’re getting back on the track. Much remains to be done. Our Administration will go forward with our efforts to control school crime, pass tuition tax credits and vouchers as well. And, once again, I’ll continue working for the restoration of voluntary school prayer. For nothing is as basic as acknowledging the God from whom all knowledge springs.

But we can be proud of the progress we’re making. And I think this is only the first chapter of a marvelous story about how people of America came together to recreate a school system that was once the envy of the world.

Let’s all write the next chapter together.

A version of this article appeared in the May 23, 1984 edition of Education Week as For The Record