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Public Papers - 1991

Remarks to Recipients of the Presidential Elementary Award for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching


Please be seated. Late for class, I apologize, I apologize. [Laughter] But you might be interested in this. I was just meeting with the duly elected, democratically elected President of Haiti, who, as you know, has been overthrown. And we're very concerned, obviously, about democracy in that country. And so I hope you'll forgive me for being late for this event.

But I'm delighted to be here with Dr. Bromley, my science adviser, who is doing a superb job as we focus the nation's attentions on math and science and the need to be competitive in these areas, indeed, retain our leadership in the areas that you're so involved in.

And, of course, the same for Jim Watkins, our Secretary of Energy, who, not only does he have responsibilities as Secretary of Energy and gives me valuable advice in that field, and then based on his former role as Chief of Naval Operations, judgment on all of that, but he's never lost his abiding interest in education, something that he has been very prominent in before assuming these responsibilities. And he keeps up that interest. So, you've got two of our very best here.

I understand that we have teachers from all 50 States, DC, Puerto Rico, the U.S. territories and then our Department of Defense Dependent Schools; from West Germany to Fairmont, West Virginia, and from Austin, Texas, to Alpha, Illinois. So thank you for coming and congratulations to all of you.

Speaking of Illinois, I just was told the story about a school in Illinois that was named after Jack Benny. And every year, Benny made a point of going to the school and visiting the children. And one year he was speaking to a group of 12-year-olds and he asked if there were any questions. And a kid put up his hand. ``Mr. Benny,'' he said, ``why did they name you after our school?'' [Laughter] That's really apropos of nothing here, but I kind of liked it.

But no matter where the school is or who it's named after, I believe that our math and science teachers are blessed with a gift for inspiration. And they possess the same drive that motivates their students to construct skyscrapers, or crack DNA codes, or craft race cars, or create new computer models, or climb aboard a spaceship. Not only are you adventurers, but you inspire your students to take their first steps in the adventure of their lives, the adventure of becoming educated men and women.

Some teachers with us today, each one a winner, arrived here at the White House from Indian reservations and inner cities, volcanic islands. And while the journey may have been long for some, it's been incredible for all, because along the way you have ignited the spark of understanding, the power of curiosity and the wonderful potential that lies latent in every child.

A teacher of young people and a student of man, the late -- and he was a friend of mine and I know some of you must have known him -- the former President of Yale University as well as Commissioner of Baseball Bart Giamatti once observed, ``Teaching is an instinctual art, mindful of potential, craving of realizations.'' I think that's a true observation today, for now we're relying on each of you to practice the art of realizing potential.

No one said it would be easy. Two years ago, we met with the Nation's Governors. As you know, I did. We agreed to establish an ambitious set of educational goals to be met by the turn of the century, including first in the world in math and science. And some people say, ``We can't do it.'' And I expect like most of you, I think we can. Math and science education is one of our top priorities. In fact, we've requested .9 billion of Federal spending on math and science education for Fiscal Year 1992, which translates into a 92-percent increase at the precollege level since the start of this administration. But it takes more than just money, it takes a commitment to world-class standards community by community, all across America.

And just this week, we learned some important information on the math and science front, some of which seems to surprise Americans.

First, it appears that today's students know about as much math and science as their parents did 20 years ago when they were children. Rather than declining in skills, as most people have assumed, students are reversing that downward trend.

And secondly, however, five out of six eighth graders do not know what you math teachers think that they ought to know about math. This presents a tremendous challenge. For while our students' achievement is holding steady, the level of skills and knowledge required of them is skyrocketing.

There is encouraging news in all of this. We're working together to set world-class standards for national assessments in math, science, English, history and geography, to develop a better and clearer picture of where our strengths and weaknesses lie.

Our math teachers have already developed world-class curriculum standards. And just this month, the Department of Education granted half a million dollars to the National Academy of Science to do the very same thing with our science curriculum. Math teachers already work side-by-side with Governors and Members of Congress in taking steps towards the American Achievement Test. And I've asked that the first phase of this American Achievement Test be ready for use by the 1993 - 94 school year.

And finally, if we are committed to raising math and science standards to world-class levels, we must help our educators prepare themselves to teach those schools. And therefore, I have proposed to the Congress that we immediately establish Governors academies for teachers of math and science as well as teachers in the other core subjects in every State in the Nation.

And this week's goals report shows us how far we have still to go. But to get there, we must revolutionize American education: Not just school by school, but beyond, and community by community, certainly in family by family. In fact, in just a couple of hours -- there's a reason Lamar is not here, our Secretary of Education -- I'm going up to meet him and the board of directors of the New American Schools Development Corporation at Camp David. And they're seeking nothing less than to reinvent American education. And they're working to provide us a substantial amount of money so we can get that started.

And that's what, in essence, the overall America 2000 strategy is all about. And that's where we really need your help. We all agree that we want to teach kids to think straight, to appreciate the past, and look to the future to serve others and the community. But you hold the key to instilling intellectual excellence in your students and your colleagues. And your vigor, tolerance, your academic discipline, will stretch young minds. But your example will also build know-how for other teachers. In your classrooms and labs, you can really begin the revolution in American education.

An educator and teacher, the man who taught me a lot about the real business of living, a man named Claude Fuess, said a very interesting thing. He was the headmaster at Phillips Academy. A very interesting thing the day he retired after 40 years of teaching, he said, ``I was still learning when I taught my last class.''

As we face the daunting task of redefining American education, let's remember, the best teachers never stop learning. And the best ones learn constantly to think anew. And that sense of innovation is the key to creating a new generation of American schools. If we're to make a difference in the schools, we must break the mold and see what works. We need to keep learning new ways. We need to keep trying new ideas.

You won these awards because you experiment with new ideas, you're not afraid to experiment with new teaching methods. And for that, you have your country's heartfelt thanks and best wishes. And what's even better, you have the gratitude and admiration of the most important people in the world, and that is your students.

So thank you all. Congratulations. Thank you very, very much for being with us on this beautiful day in the Rose Garden. And keep up that fantastic leadership.

Thank you all.

Note: The President spoke at 10:10 a.m. in the Rose Garden at the White House. In his remarks he referred to: President Jean-Bertrand Aristide of Haiti; Dr. D. Allan Bromley, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology; Secretary of Energy James D. Watkins; former commissioner of baseball A. Bartlett Giamatti; and Secretary of Education Lamar Alexander. A tape was not available for verification of the content of these remarks.

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