Remarks at a White House Ceremony Marking the First Anniversary of the Report of the National Commission on Excellence in Education

May 11, 1984

Well, ladies and gentlemen, Secretary Bell and Dr. David Gardner and distinguished guests and, most especially, distinguished students, 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. [Laughter]

We did a little checking the other day and found out that this is the 43d time that I have spoken on education in the past 3\1/2\ 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 central, 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 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.'' Well, 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 to 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 on 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 day, and seven 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, working 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 greater discipline to new incentives.

Now, you may have heard about one such case in Indiana. The local schoolboard 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 schoolboard has found that close to 200 students made perfect attendance records, and they'll have to come up with $20,000 before graduation day.

I've been watching our young students over there. They're looking like they think this is a pretty good idea. I hope I'm not contributing to a number of schoolboard bankruptcies with that story. [Laughter]

The point I'm making is that education is back on the agenda. All over this country, there has been a renaissance of interest in 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.

And now the high point of my day. One of the things we did this past year was start a new award for students who have strived to reach their potential and worked hard to learn, study, and get good marks. You remember that some years back, President Kennedy was concerned about the physical fitness of all Americans. And a few years later, President Johnson followed up that concern by creating the President's Physical Fitness Award. Well, this year, we instituted the President's Academic Fitness Award. And I am pleased to announce that more than 220,000 graduating high school seniors are recipients of the first awards.

And today, we have here around 60 representatives of all the winners from all the States, and I'm aware of how hard you worked for these awards. You are meeting your potential through your scholarly attainments. You are leaders, good students, and you've worked hard to learn and study. As a matter of fact, I happen to believe you're the most priceless asset this country has.

You are America's future. You've made us very proud. And I'm not only delighted to give these awards, I feel deeply honored to be the first President to do so.

And now, Secretary Bell, will you be so good as to help us begin, and I'll go over on my mark. [Laughter]

[As Secretary Bell read their names, the 60 students approached the platform and received their certificates from the President. After the last award was presented, he resumed speaking.]

I'll bring home one thing from our trip to China, and that is that after applause of that kind, I applaud you.

Thank you.

Note: The President spoke at 11:32 a.m. on the South Lawn of the White House. Prior to the ceremony, he met with Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell and members of the Commission in the Oval Office.