Public Papers

Remarks to Students and Faculty of the Lewiston Comprehensive High School in Lewiston, Maine


Thank you so much for that welcome back. Thank you all very, very much. Oh, such a nice welcome. Thank you. And thank you, Governor McKernan, for that warm introduction. May I salute Maine's Senator, Senator Cohen, to whom I look for leadership and counsel on so many issues. And also to Congresswoman Olympia Snowe, your Congresswoman, our friend, Barbara's and mine, the wife of the Governor, a high achiever in her own right in the House of Representatives. It's a pleasure to be sharing the podium, the dais here, with both of them.

It's my pleasure to welcome all of you back to school. [Laughter] I know there are some mixed emotions about that, but nevertheless. [Laughter] I'm going back to Washington today, and I must say with mixed feelings because we've had a fantastic time over on the coast at Kennebunkport.

I'm especially pleased, though, to be here to help my good friend, my trusted friend Governor McKernan, kick off Maine 2000, which as he said, is our crusade for excellence in education. And also I'm very pleased to share the stage with other officials here, your mayor, the superintendent, the marvelous band. It's pretty hard to, on short notice, whip up ``Hail to the Chief'' and do it as well as this crowd did over here. And I'm very grateful to them. And I want to thank the superintendent and this morning's host, Principal Sykes of Lewiston Comprehensive High School and Principal Susan Martin of Farwell Elementary where we just came from.

This is familiar country for Barbara and me. You remember: I'm the one that gets needled from having so many homes in my past, in our past. It was in this city, in Lewiston, that we first learned that Franklin Delano Roosevelt had died back in 1945. And that's when I was living here briefly. That's when I was flying torpedo-bombers out of what was then the Lewiston-Auburn Naval Air Station. And so I say, it's nice to be back in one of my hometowns. Thank you very much.

Let me say to our very able Secretary of Education from whom you heard a minute ago, Lamar Alexander: I promise that I will keep up with my computer lessons, but I'll need a little more time to write my report on ``what I did on my summer vacation.'' [Laughter] And if you think mine's a tough assignment, how about President Gorbachev, what he did on his summer vacation. [Laughter]

Bar and I were talking on the way over here because we both remember our own kids going off to school many years ago. See, we were at the elementary school here and the kids coming in with their parents. And I asked the kids, ``Well, are you a little nervous?'' And some would say, ``Yes.'' Then there would be confident guy that, ``No, no, everything's under control.'' But it reminded us both of our own kids going off to school many years ago. Now, those kids are grown, and we watch the grandkids, 10 of them, start a new school year just like each of you behind me that are starting this school year.

And when you're growing up, the new year doesn't begin January 1st. It starts today. I saw that this morning at Farwell. And still, some or those kindergarteners seemed disappointed that I didn't bring along Arnold Schwarzenegger, the ``kindergarten cop'' -- [laughter] -- who I might say, parenthetically, as your teachers involve themselves in education, you've got some coaches out there that recognize the importance of physical fitness. And Arnold is doing a first-class job nationwide as head of our Council on Fitness. And as Lamar Alexander knows, these things go together. They go hand-in-hand.

Parents operate on a school calendar. Each new school year wipes the slate as clean as an unused blackboard. And we embrace the eternal hope that, this year, our children will come home with straight ``A's.''

Education and expectation: The two go hand-in-hand. And your world, the whole world, trembles with new possibilities. One day, we scratch out our thoughts with paper and pen; the next, it seems, we use computers and laser printers. One day, the Soviet Union, bellicose and threatening, stares at us from across the sea. But in a single dramatic week, we saw 70 years of history swept away. With the dizzying changes that surround us, history books and atlases seem to have a shorter shelf life than milk. [Laughter] This is our world, an exciting world. And if we are to thrive in it, we must understand history and geography, math and science, the great books and the great thoughts they contain. When challenges confront us, we must have what it takes to act.

I'm sure you all feel the opening-day jitters that come with each day, each school year, opening day in each school year. But it's not just the students. Everyone must retain that sense of expectation, that feeling that the school doors open a new world of possibility for all of us.

To put it in broad perspective, the battle for the future begins right here. Not in Washington, DC, not in Congress, right here. The ringing school bell sounds an alarm, a warning to all of us who care about the state of American education. Only if we educate our sons and daughters well, will they enjoy the blessings that we simply take for granted.

Every day brings new evidence of crisis. Last week, we learned that SAT scores have fallen again. Scores on the verbal SAT have tumbled to the lowest level ever. And these numbers tell us: Our schools are in trouble.

But before we point fingers, assign blame, how many of us demand more of our children, ourselves, our schools? Survey after survey suggests too many parents and students remain unconcerned, unconvinced that the state of their own schools should worry them.

Sure they know something is wrong. Ask them to grade the Nation's schools, and not even one-fourth will give American schools an ``A'' or a ``B''. But you ask them to grade their own schools, and you get a very different answer. Three-fourths grade their schools as good, even excellent.

We seem to think the crisis in American education plagues some other city or State, or some other school across town, anywhere except our school. Some of us just don't want to ask tough questions and risk angering teachers and administrators. We seem to believe that while everything else in the world changes, our schools shouldn't. What was good enough for us should be good enough for our kids.

And the truth is, all our children are at risk. All of us share responsibility for the state of every school and each individual student -- here in Lewiston, and in a hundred thousand schools in cities and towns all across our great country. If our schools fail us, we can't blame Washington. We can't blame Augusta. We must blame ourselves for betraying our children.

If our own history and the recent events in the Communist world teach us anything, they teach us that competition breeds excellence. The same holds true for education. That's why I and a majority of the American people favor choice in education. If we want better schools, we should set off a competition for the best schools. Get everyone involved in the struggle, and every school will improve. For far too long, we've sheltered our schools from healthy competition, and our children have paid the price. There's another benefit of choice of course. Wealthy families already enjoy choice. Poor families do not. Now, if we want to extend opportunity and improve education, we should give parents the power to choose their children's schools, public or private, and watch our schools compete to be the very best.

Almost 2 years ago, this Nation's Governors, all the Governors, and I worked together at a fantastic meeting at Charlottesville. And we established six ambitious national education goals, goals posted today right here on the walls of this gym. In April, I announced America 2000, a national education strategy to move us forward, community by community, toward those goals.

By the year 2000, we pledged to raise this Nation's graduation rate to at least 90 percent. Right here your teachers and your superintendents and your principals have done a good job, because in the past 4 years, Lewiston High has cut its dropout rate in half. And you've earned the right to be proud. But before you get too relaxed about that and get too comfortable, keep in mind that even at last year's lower rate, 4 years from now, more than 60 of the freshmen seated behind me will not be walking across that Civic Center stage to get their diploma.

By the year 2000, we've challenged ourselves to become first in the world in math and science. And right now, we stand 12th in the world in math and science, dead last among the industrialized nations. Ranking first means more than engaging in some kind of intellectual Olympics. Where we rank in the world matters here, and it should matter to you. Look at Lewiston; for most of its history, Lewiston's been a mill town producing textiles and shoes. But times change: Mayor Howaniec tells me L.L. Bean has located its new telemarketing center in Lewiston. And today, the town's traditional industries account for only 7 percent of the local economy. Increasingly, the mothers and fathers of this freshman class here now work in new companies, employing new technologies. And some have even branched off, entrepreneurs, started small businesses of their own.

And still, we can't be content to educate our children with today's businesses in mind. By the time our kids graduate from high school or college or graduate school, new industries will have sprouted up. Our economy will demand new skills twinned with old-fashioned values of hard work and a determination to become the best that each of us can be.

This country was built by generations of Americans with strong backs and the will to work from sunup to sundown. As citizens of the next century, today's 9th graders will have to use their minds to push forward the technological revolution transforming the entire world. The pioneers of the next American century must blaze new sorts of trails. They must explore the far corners of a future governed as much by microwaves and lasers as by coal or steel. Our minds have become our greatest natural resource, and the key to our Nation's success in the global marketplace lies with that old treasure, Yankee ingenuity.

But let's face it, we won't make progress if we don't know where we stand. Maine has taken a leadership role on this one. But by the year 2000, we must call on students at grades 4, 8, and 12 to demonstrate their competence in five core subjects. We'll have the first of these American achievement tests in place for the year 1993 to '94, in that school year. Each State must develop its own means of measuring progress, its own report card, and share the results.

And that's crucial. We can't afford to treat our children's success or failure as if it were a State secret. Each student and every parent deserves to know whether they and their schools measure up to world-class standards.

School performance lags in part because we ask our teachers to do so much more than teach. We expect them to act as social workers and psychologists and family counselors.

I might add here, Barbara and I worry about the disintegration of the American family. Every kid ought to have somebody that knows his name, cares about him. But it often falls to the role of the teacher to love that kid, hug that kid. The teachers do an awful lot. At the same time, we ask too little of our students. We shy away from demanding excellence and accountability. As a Nation, we sometimes seem more worried about how our students feel than what they learn. And that's got to change. Graduation means more than a diploma. Our kids deserve an education.

And the only way that this will happen is if all of us, all of us, teachers, students, parents, and communities, join in this national crusade for excellence in education. Fundamentally, that's what America 2000, Maine 2000 is all about.

Our first three goals raise expectations and measure results. Our last three goals complete the challenge. By the year 2000, every American child should start school ready to learn. Every American adult should be literate, and every American school must be free from drugs and violence.

I saw a bus as we drove over to the elementary school advocating Head Start. And here in Lewiston, some of today's new freshmen participated in Head Start, a proven program that I've urged Congress to open up to thousands more preschool children. In the battle against illegal drugs, Lewiston schools have taken the lead. I can't tell you how exciting it was to see the D.A.R.E., D-A-R-E, kids out there at the elementary school. And there are other drug prevention programs, beginning in elementary school. You've taken the lead. And tonight, I'm told that right here at Lewiston High, a new school year begins for adults learning how to read, studying for their GED, living proof that it is never too late to learn.

So far, I've spoken about our schools, about the revolution in American education that must take place within these walls. But the revolution can neither begin nor end here. Let me use a ``word problem'' to show you why. Assume that a child goes to school from kindergarten to 12th grade, and never misses a day. Subtract summers and weekends, all the hours before and after school. How much time do our children spend in classrooms?

The answer may surprise you. It is 9 percent; one-eleventh of their time. They spend the rest of their lives elsewhere, at home, playing with friends, or in some shopping mall.

But what happens in that 91 percent makes all the difference in the world. We cannot blame the schools alone for that dismal decline in SAT verbal scores. Your teachers are working hard. The drop shows that we haven't taken the time to read to our kids, to talk with them, to teach them the art of communication, how to think, how to write, how to speak clearly.

What happens at home really matters. And when our kids come home from school, do they pick up a book or do they sit glued to the tube watching music videos? Parents: Don't make the mistake of thinking your kids only learn from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. You are, and always will be, their first teachers.

Here's another shocking number. Children in one study said the average parent spends just 15 minutes a day, 15 minutes, in conversation with them. Most people spend that much time on coffee break.

The freshmen here today may think they're a bit old to have their homework checked. And maybe as parents, certainly this President will admit, we can't keep up with the latest in computer technology. But that doesn't mean we can't help. The Class of '95 is old enough to sit down, to watch the evening news, talk with their parents about what's going on in the world, to take interests, opinions, and ideas seriously.

But the future of American education depends on more than what happens in the classroom or around the kitchen table. Ask yourselves, ``In our communities, do we value education and intellect? In the working world, do we reward employees who go back to school, who learn new skills?'' Every member of the community must play a role in this revolution.

And so parents, don't be a stranger to your child's school. Visit the classroom. Talk to the principal. Get to know those teachers. Make it your business to find out whether your child's school is drug-free. And talk to your school board about school choice, about the curriculum, about ways to put your schools to use year round. But you don't have to have kids in school to have a stake in what happens in the classroom. For the older folks among us, don't complain about ``kids today'' or that the neighborhood ``isn't what it used to be.'' Get active in the community. Go into your schools. See what you can do to help some kid or help your community.

And the same goes for local business leaders. Get involved, not just in word but in deed. Think of it as community service, giving something back to this wonderful community, to the community your company calls home. Or, think of it in terms of just plain, sound business cultivating the kind of future employees your company needs in order to keep ahead. But above all, act. Do something. Enlist in this great crusade. And that really is the idea behind what we call America 2000 communities, States, cities, and towns that recognize the school as the living center of the community.

Today, the revolution has begun, in Colorado, Oregon, in Tulsa and in Memphis. And today I'm proud to say, right here in Lewiston and in every corner of the State of Maine, it's begun. Together, we must ignite a renaissance in American education, a revolution that will make this Nation every bit the leader in the century ahead that it has been since 1776.

Once again, my heartfelt thanks to you for this warm welcome, as all across this country we begin another school year. And may God bless the United States of America.

Thank you very, very much.

Note: The President spoke at 9:50 a.m. in the gymnasium of Lewiston Comprehensive High School. In his remarks, he referred to Governor John McKernan of Maine; Senator William S. Cohen; Representative Olympia J. Snowe; Mayor James Howaniec; Robert Conners, superintendent of schools; Richard Sykes, principal of Lewiston Comprehensive High School; Susan Martin, principal of Farwell Elementary School; Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander; and Arnold Schwarzenegger, Chairman of the President's Council on Physical Fitness. Prior to his remarks, the President met with students and faculty of the Farwell Elementary School.