Remarks at a White House Ceremony for the Elementary School Recognition Program Honorees

September 12, 1986

The President. Secretary [of Education] Bennett and I welcome you to the White House. Please be seated. Yes, this is a chance. I have spent some rather unhappy moments in a principal's office from time to time. [Laughter]

But I think before we get into the brief remarks that I have here, in case you have been away from the news disseminating forces in this last hour or so, I should tell you that as of now our hostage in Moscow, Mr. Daniloff, has been transferred to the custody of our Ambassador and will be in the Embassy there. The Soviet spy in our custody will be transferred to the care -- pending his trial -- of his Ambassador here in the United States. But we are so relieved and happy that Mr. Daniloff is out of the 8- by 10-foot cell, which he was sharing with someone we think was an informant, and that he won't be subjected to 4 hours of interrogation every day.

But now we'll get back to, well, some good news that I want to mention before we get into the great job that your schools have been doing. Today there is every indication that our country's waking up to a problem that has been ignored and denied and buried away for too long. Last month a Gallup Poll found that for the first time Americans now consider drugs the number one problem in our schools. And in a recent survey conducted by Weekly Reader, elementary schoolchildren said the very same thing.

There are those who might be dismayed by these poll results. No one likes to hear about problems such as drug use. But what these polls suggest to me is that at long last we're ready to face a major challenge to our society. You know better than anyone else what drugs can do to our children's minds, bodies, and lives. Well, America is mobilizing and, together as a people, we're going to expel drugs from our schools and free our young people from this evil. In a couple of days, for example, the Department of Education will be issuing a handbook, ``Schools Without Drugs.'' It's designed to help teachers, principals, and parents, and anyone else interested in children, get and keep drugs out of the schools. The American people are ready to make a policy statement and make it stick: Drugs and education don't mix.

Sunday I'll be addressing the Nation on this issue. Nancy will be joining me and having some remarks to make. But today I'd like to take this opportunity to call on teachers across America to take the pledge to take no drugs themselves and to do the best they can to keep all drugs out of schools. We owe our children nothing less than a good example and a good environment. Education is too vital to our country's future to let it be corrupted by drugs, and it's also too important not to strive for the best. Fostering excellence in education, of course, is the purpose behind our school recognition program. Hearing about what you've accomplished is enough to give anyone confidence in the future; that's how significant the job you're doing is to America. And that's why the 1985 - 86 school year was declared the Year of the Elementary School.

By recognizing schools like yours, we're underscoring the critical nature of those first few years of a child's education. Elementary school is where the skills of reading and writing are learned and where children can gain a fundamental knowledge of our country and our common heritage. It was a great shock the other day to see that study that revealed how many high school juniors could not, on a map, point out where England, France, or Germany are. And it all begins with what you are doing -- and now doing so well. It's where they develop the habits and values and demeanor that will make them not only successful students but, eventually, successful mothers, fathers, workers, neighbors, and citizens.

Plato, who is one of Secretary Bennett's favorite philosophers -- [laughter] -- once said that ``the beginning is the most important part of the work,'' and that certainly applies to education. And that makes you in our elementary schools the most important players in the game. [Applause] Much attention -- [laughter] -- you're welcome. But much attention is given to other levels of education, but I'd suggest that, next to the family, elementary schools are the most influential institutions in our children's lives. Why is it that at this advanced point in my life, I can still remember pretty clearly that first grade at the school in Galesburg, Illinois, where I first started. And by that token, it would be hard to find a group of 272 institutions in this country that are more significant than the group that we're honoring here today.

As many of you are aware, Secretary Bennett last week issued a report he wrote called ``First Lessons.'' It's a report on the state of elementary education in America, and it's the first one we've had since 1953. He found that our elementary schools are, overall, in pretty good shape. By some measures, they're doing better now than they have in years, and I'd say that's terrific news. Some areas, though, need improvement. With television and movies so prevalent, it's difficult to teach reading. Yet every single child in this country needs this fundamental skill. A better job could be done in the teaching of science to our youngest children. Our Yankee ingenuity won't mean much in the future without a knowledge and appreciation of science and technology. And finally, a better job could be done in teaching our youngest children about history and geography and civics. By the time our students leave elementary school, they should know the essential facts, the central institutions, and the fundamental principles of the United States and Western civilization.

Now, I realize all of you are on the frontlines in the battle to accomplish the things I just spoke about. In fact, you're heroes in that battle. Every American, for example, can be proud of schools like the Futures Academy in Buffalo, where students have been preparing for citizenship by conducting trials and class elections; and Caloosa Elementary in Cape Coral, Florida, where students recently wrote books in English class and then bound them in art class; and Johnson Elementary in Bridgeport, West Virginia, where 90 percent of the students read at or above grade level and 99 percent are at or above grade level in math. We're proud of you, and we want the rest of the country, especially your peers, to know of your accomplishments. If every elementary school would just aim for the heights that you have already achieved, education in this country would be taking one giant step forward.

One thing more, before we get to your story. It is evident that if our youngest children are nurtured and educated, in our families and in our schools, then a great number of social ills can be averted before they arise. Having Washington usurp local authority or announcing a slew of Federal guidelines or edicts isn't going to accomplish anything. In fact, that approach has had a negative impact. If progress is to be made, parents, teachers, and the entire community must get together and get personally involved in education. If parents and teachers make certain a child can read and has a respect for hard work by the time he leaves elementary school, they've done more to ensure that child's future than any Federal program can ever hope to do. In the end, parents and schools are the heart and soul of the process by which we raise successful, responsible citizens. Nobody else can really replace you, and that's why this country salutes you today.

You know, sometimes when I've had an opportunity to speak to young people about reading and books, I've tried to tell them from my particular vantage point, age-wise, that you can never be lonely if you've got a book to read. My idea of the worst thing in the world that can happen to me is to be caught in a hotel room some night with nothing to read. [Laughter]

God bless you all, and thank you for what you're doing. Thank you again.

Reporter. Mr. President, how are you going to get Daniloff out of the Soviet Union? How are you going to get Daniloff out of the Soviet Union?

The President. The only news subject I'm touching on right now is the subject of good education.

Note: The President spoke at 1:15 p.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House to principals of the 270 schools that were recognized for excellence. In his opening remarks, the President referred to the arrest of U.S. News & World Report Moscow correspondent Nicholas Daniloff by the Soviets on August 30.