Riley Calls for Fresh Fight on Illiteracy
Secretary of Education Richard W. Riley, delivering his third annual "state of American education address," called last week for a renewed fight against illiteracy, and said that debate over public education has grown too divisive.
He built the 50-minute speech, delivered at Maplewood-Richmond Heights High School in St. Louis, around seven education "challenges," echoing the challenges facing the nation that President Clinton outlined in his State of the Union Address in January.
They are: improving literacy, supporting parents, making schools safe, setting higher standards, increasing access to technology, preparing youths for careers, lowering college costs, and making education a national priority.
Addressing the first challenge, Mr. Riley announced a new national reading and writing program to be run through a partnership between the Department of Education and more than 35 business and nonprofit groups. Details are to be released in coming weeks.
"You can't cruise or use the Internet if you don't know how to read," Mr. Riley said. "That is our most urgent task--teaching our children good reading habits, getting America serious about reading."
The audience applauded after Mr. Riley said critics of public schools are "too quick to tear down rather than build up."
And in noting that record school enrollments are expected next fall, he added: "If ever there was a time in the history of this great nation when we needed to come together for the good of all our children, it is now."
Mr. Riley also defended the concept of standards-driven reform, which the Clinton administration strongly supports. Despite early opposition to the voluntary national history standards, Mr. Riley said, "the standards movement is alive and well."
"Every state is going to have to decide what works best for its students," he said. "But please aim high."
The secretary also hit themes popular with conservative critics of public schools' performance. While denouncing those who "make a living out of bashing teachers," he went on to call for greater teacher accountability.
"We need to find ways to keep the best teachers in the classroom, to weed out teachers who just can't cut it," he said. He urged teachers and their professional organizations to make this happen.
Mr. Riley added that schools are not "religion-free zones" and claimed that the administration's guidelines on religion in schools, issued last summer, have prompted a decline in legal confrontations over the issue.
The secretary also said that a variety of reform ideas must be considered, such as exit exams, school report cards, charter schools, student uniforms, and tough standards for certification of teachers and principals.
But he denounced proposals to give parents publicly funded vouchers to pay private school tuition as a "retreat from the democratic purpose of public education."