The National Education Association's
Friend of Education Award Presentation to the First Lady
First Lady Hillary Rodham Clinton's Acceptance Remarks
July 5, 1999
Thank you. I am so pleased to be here with all of you. And I am extraordinarily
honored to receive this very important and prestigious award from an organization
that stands for the best in education, and therefore stands for the best in
America. I am honored to be the 1999 Friend of Education, and I am honored to
be with so many of youthousands of you who prove every day that you are
friends of education and friends of the children of America. And there isn't
any better way to celebrate the 4th of July weekend than to be right here standing
up for public education and America's children.
This, your 137th annual convention, chose as its theme, Destination 2000:
Quality Public Education for All. That is not only the goal of the NEAthat
is and should be the goal for all Americans. I want to recognize your leadership
that is helping to chart the way towards your goal, starting with your president.
He has been an outspoken and passionate advocate for America's teachers,
and a tireless crusader for the school reforms that we know are so vital if
the goal of providing quality education for all is to be met. And so let me
publicly thank Bob Chase for all he has done on behalf of education.
I also want to mention that at the Mental Health Conference last month, Bob
came forward with a very innovative public/private partnership that combines
the resources and expertise of the NEA with EchoStar Communications Corporation,
the Dish Network, Future View, and the Learning First Alliance to provide 1,000
satellite TV dishes to schools and the education programming necessary to try
to help our schools and our children be safer. That's the kind of groundbreaking
work that we have come to expect from his leadership.
I also want to thank your vice president, Reg Weaver, and your secretary treasurer,
Dennis Van Roekel. I want to thank Sheridan Pearce, and I want to thank all
of you, starting with the Lamar County Education Association that nominated
me for this award, and all of you who every day serve on the front lines, caring
for our young people, giving them the skills and confidence they need to thrive
in the 21st Century and to fulfill their God-given potential.
I know that in your ranks you include classroom teachers, college faculty,
education support personnel, bus drivers, custodians, secretaries, counselors,
building and grounds keepers, psychologists, and even students preparing to
become teachers. All of you together hold the future of our children in your
hands. And I am grateful for what you do every day.
I also want to thank you for the conference that you held during this convention
that stressed the important and changing role of teachers in moving toward school
improvement and came up with ideas for collaboration, risk taking, and personal
responsibility. At every turn, you have been pushing the envelope of reform
and looking for ways to make the ideas that sound good in speeches, or appear
in papers, realities in classrooms across our nation.
So we may come here today from many different parts of America, but we understand
fully that as we mark this very important Independence Weekend, our greatest
task is to make sure that the American Dream stays alive and vibrant for every
American. And those of us who understand what it will take in the 21st Century
to make that dream live on, know we must do everything in our power to make
a quality public education a reality for every single American today.
I want to thank you for your partnership for the last six-and-a-half years
with the Administration. Through your hard work and the millions of people you
represent, we can claim numerous victories. We have opened the doors to college
wider than they have ever been before. Some of our most troubled public schools
at the beginning of this decade are now models of achievement and hope. Across
the board, achievement scores are up for reading, math, and science. And the
SAT scores are now at their highest level in two decades. And you, more than
anyone, know that we cannot rest on the accomplishments that we have seen come
to fruition because of the hard work of so many. We know that we cannot rest
until we close the achievement gap between the well-off and the poor. We cannot
rest when there are still too many schools failing our children and literally
falling apart before our eyes. We cannot rest when too many teachers still do
not have the support they need or the respect that they deserve.
So as you gather to set your priorities for this next year, I know that you
are asking the toughest possible questions that need to be asked about how we
chart our future for public education. How do we make sure that all students,
all teachers, all schools meet the highest possible standards? How do we ensure
that students receive educations that lift up their aspirations and ambitions?
How do we support the changes, the reforms, and the new practices that many
of you have pioneered?
I'd like to talk for just a few minutes about some of the ways that I
think all of us who are Friends of Education should be working to fulfill the
promise that you have established of providing that quality education. Let me
start by saying that I know there are some who believe that vouchers are the
way to improve our public schools; I believe they are dead wrong. There is simply
no evidence that vouchers improve student achievement. Now we've been experimenting
with vouchers in some jurisdictions, haven't we? And from those experimentsand
some have gone on for a couple of yearswe've found no evidence that
any objective analysis could prove that these have made any difference in student
achievement. But what they have done is to divert much-needed public funds for
the few and have weakened the entire system.
Now since 1983, I have been a vigorous advocate of reforming and fixing schools
that do not work. And I have taken positions on behalf of improved accountability
and higher standards. And in those 16 years, I have seen that we do know how
to turn around failing schools. What we have too often lacked is the staying
power and the will to deliver on what we know would make a difference. But if
we are to make that difference, then we have to make a solemn vow never to abandon
our public schools or the children who attend them, but to instead redouble
our efforts to pursue strategies that we know can make a difference. Because
in every school district in America, you and I know, there are schools that
are working against the most amazing odds. They are taking children who are
poor and poorly prepared and are getting results.
We know a lot more today than we knew five or, certainly, 10 years ago about
what we need to do to marshal the resources to make every school that successful.
So let's build up our schoolsnot tear them down. And let's make
sure that everyone has the same goal in mindto make our public schools
and our public school students the best in the entire world.
Now how do we do that? Well, first and foremost, we have to expect every single
child to succeed and we have to hold every one of them to high academic standards.
There should be no exceptions, no excuses, to our solemn commitment that every
child can learn; every child deserves to be challenged, to have their imaginations
sparked. And yet we know that that is not just the task in our schools; it has
to start in our homes with parents and family members who value education. And
we need a culture that cares more about what a child learns than what kind of
sneakers he wears, and environments in which effort is rewarded and instant
gratification is put in its proper place.
Now in order to achieve our hope that every child can learn, we have to be
ready to provide the resources and the support to enable educators to help those
students reach those high expectations. And there isn't a more important
element than the quality of a child's teacher. As General John Stanford,
the late superintendent of the Seattle system that so many of us admiredwe
will miss him for years to comehe used to say that, The victory
is in the classroom. And he understood, as a retired military leader,
that that meant that the teachers in the classroom needed the power and authority
to lead and the resources to be able to give their children what they know they
I've been privileged in the last 16 years, first in Arkansas and then
throughout the country, to meet with and travel to countless schools and to
visit with, by now, thousands of teachers. And I know that the vast majority
of our teachers are dedicated and qualified professionals, but they are often
not given the support they need. How many of you have ever had to reach into
your own pocket to buy classroom supplies? So the second thing we've got
to do is make sure the teachers have the resources they need.
We're facing a critical teacher shortagewe're going to have
to recruit more teachers. But I agree with the NEA president that there's
not only a teacher shortage, there's a respect shortage and a salary shortage
as well. There is no way in today's complicated, information-overdrive
world that we're going to get and keep those of you in the teaching profession
to carry on the tradition of public education, unless you receive the salaries
that your important work deserves. From my perspective, we have to look for
ways of making sure the public understands that the task you are being asked
to carry forward is the most important way we can keep faith with the next generation.
Now we're going to have to recruit more teachers. I agree with the President's
proposal that we expand the already successful Troops to Teachers program. We
should also provide loan forgiveness to new teachers committed to teaching in
hard-to-serve areas. But we cannot lower the standards in this recruitment drive,
and I am very much in agreement with the proposal that states be required to
phase out emergency certification and improve state teacher certification systems.
But then once we get the teachers that we so desperately need, we can't
just open the door to the classroom, shut it and leave them there unprepared
for the challenges they face with nowhere to turn for help.
Too often, you know so well, the least experienced teachers are assigned to
the most difficult schools and the most difficult students. That's a disservice
to young teachers and their students. And therefore it should be no surprise
that one out of every three new teachers leaves the first year, and in some
urban areas it's one out of every two. We're going to have to help
our youngor maybe not so young but newly mintedteachers get their
footing. To do that we've got to make sure that they teach in fields that
they are prepared to teach in; that we not give, right off the bat, the toughest
assignments to such young teachers; that we improve and extend teacher preparation
programs and support mentoring, coaching, and peer assistancethings that
NEA has pioneered. We also have to provide quality, ongoing professional development,
not the one-day, one-shot workshops that are too often the case. I also think
that teachers need the time to prepare their courses, consult with their peers
about the strategies that work, and be recognized and rewarded for your knowledge
and your skills.
Now, as part of the overall education proposals that the President and the
Administration are promoting, we are including a proposal that states and school
districts ensure that every child is taught by a fully qualified teacher and
that the federal government would expand the kind of resources that could be
available for high quality professional development opportunities, includingand
I would have to be in this category as wellincluding more specialized
training to use technology in the classrooms. There are so many of my friends
who are teachers that are the first to admit, like so many of us who are parents,
that we cannot keep up with the technology that our children are able to master.
And so our teachers need more support and opportunities to do that.
We should also allow teachers to pursue advanced certification through the
National Board of Professional Teaching Standards. I have worked with this issue
for more than a decade, and I am very pleased that the Administration is providing
for 100,000 more teachers over the next 10 years to become master teachers.
It's an important step in ensuring we have the highest quality professionalism
in the teaching profession that the public will recognize and reward.
Now we've been talking about teachers a lot in the national discussion,
but we're also going to have to take a hard look at student responsibility
as well. Because it is not just enough to try to move one part of the education
equation, we have to look at all the component parts, and our students are going
to have to be given a very strong message. It's the kind of message my
father gave my brothers and me when we were growing up, and that was that school
was our work. We were expected to do as well as we could. Yet somewhere we kind
of got a mixed message from our culture about the importance of education, both
generally and in certain of our ethnic and racial groups, and we need to start
with a very clear and unambiguous messagethat it is the job of children
to learn. It is not only something that they should be doing for themselves,
it is something they owe their families and their country. And if we send that
message, I think it will break through to families and it will break through
to students. And one of the ways we're ending that is by calling for an
end to social promotion.
Now I know that this is still controversial in some quarters. But I can only
state that it is so unfair, and we really do cheat our children if we continue
to promote them to the next grade if they don't have the necessary skills
and knowledge to do the work required. But we also do them a terrible disservice
if we do set that bar of achievement higher and then we don't provide the
help and resources needed to enable them to catch up. You know, when I came
in earlier, this year's National Teacher of the Year was addressing you,
and I particularly like the words that Andrew Baumgartner has said about the
joy he receives in teaching. He says it comes when I look into the face
of a young child and watch confusion turn to concentration, concentration to
surprise, and finally surprise into the pride of accomplishment. Well,
too often we stop at confusion, and we've got to do more to give every
child the chance to reach the pride of accomplishment.
That means we need extended learning time. That means we need after-school
and summer programs. That means we need smaller classroom sizes. I believe,
and I can see that many of you do as well, that reducing class size is one of
the most critical investments we can make, not only in our children's future,
but in our teachers' ability to succeed. Too many teachers have to spend
more time keeping order, dealing with personal problems, trying to understand
what one child out of 30 or 35 needs, than maintaining high academic standards
for the entire classroom. We also now have evidence. We have the evidence that
backs up our anecdotal or our intuitive feeling. Studies like the recent Project
Star in Tennessee confirm what parents and teachers have always knownthat
students do learn better in small class sizes with good teachers, particularly
in the early grades. They are more likely to graduate from high school, more
likely to excel academically and go on to college than their peers in overcrowded
classrooms. And we have also learned from these studies that minority students,
in particular, benefit from the greater personal attention they receive in smaller
classes. So I'm very pleased that the Congress voted last year to reduce
classroom sizes in the early grades and to begin to hire more teachers at the
end of this session. And now there are those who are challenging the funding
for the next installment to be sure that we get the teachers in the classroom.
So we have to be vigilant and we have to make sure that the idea of 100,000
new teachers is actually translated into the funding necessary to bring that
Now some people have said to me, when I argue strongly for smaller class size,
that they are well aware of classrooms here around the United States, and other
countries, where very large class sizes don't make any difference. Well,
that may be all well and true. But lots of us have firsthand experience that
our children are coming to school with a lot more problems than they had a generation
ago. We also know, as a friend of mine said, that with the advent of 24-hour
information, particularly with the television and the Internet, it is harder
to maintain a child's attention. One friend said that she stands in front
of that classroom and she looks at these children, and she can just see this
sort of mental remote control button being pushed as her students are looking
for more entertaining channels than learning math or conjugating sentences.
And so we have to do everything we can to get that personal attention that only
an adult with a group of children can hold if the numbers are small enough.
We also have to do more about the sizes of some of our schoolsthey have
gotten too big and there are too many children who feel anonymous from the start
of the school year to the end of it. I was recently Principal for a Day at a
school in Queens, New York. I was at a junior high school, and that school in
Ozone Park was built for 1,500 students, and today houses over 2,000 students.
And the day I visited they were putting in mobile classrooms so they could add
500 more by next September. Now these were youngsters of the junior high ageneed
I say any more? Not only that, they had 27 or 28 different languages, many were
first generation immigrants, many came from struggling homes, many the children
of single parents. These children I met were impressive and well spoken, but
there was just such a crush of them that the teachers I spoke with about what
it was like teaching there kept saying to me, I wish I had more time with
each of my students. So we need to do more to try bring down the size
of our schools, especially in areas where there are a lot of other problems
that have to be addressed. We need to do more with the schools within schools
idea to see what potential they hold. And we have to provide more funds to modernize
crumbling schools, and build more schools where schools are needed.
You know, this is a problem all across Americain cities, in suburbs,
and rural communities. And surely in this time of unprecedented prosperity in
America, we can build and modernize our schools for the next century. I'm
as delighted as every American when the DOW climbs, first over 10,000 and then
over 11,000. But we have too many schools that are not wired for computers;
we have too many others where the plaster on the ceiling is falling on the heads
of the children and teachers. Let's celebrate our prosperity by making
a commitment that our schools will be worthy of the children they serve now
and into the future.
And we'll need your help to make that happen. The President is going back
to Congress for the third year in a row to push for school construction legislation,
and I hope that we can persuade the Congress that this is an urgent priority.
And while we are creating safer conditions for learning, we also have to make
sure that our schools are safe. I want to thank the NEA and many of you for
the work you did in your schools and in your communities in the wake of the
tragedy of Littleton. You know all too well that too many children bring guns
to school, too many children believe that violence and aggression is the way
to solve problems, and we're going to have to take every possible effort
to make our schools safe. I know that you've really talked a lot about
that in your conference, and I want to thank you for your partnership with the
Administration, with private sector partners, and with othersbecause teachers
and principals need help. Everyone who works in a schoolfrom the custodians,
or the counselors, or the teacher's aidseveryone needs help in knowing
how to target those children who need extra help and make sure they get it;
to diffuse difficult situations; to provide cooling off periods; and to remove
from schools those students who are disruptive and are disrupting the learning
Our schools need more help from our parents and our communities, and we also
need more social workers and counselors who are trained to see the early warning
signs in the schools. I would also like to see nation-wide hotlines where students,
and even teachers, can make referrals, anonymously if necessary, to try to bring
attention to those students who are on the brink of homicidal or suicidal activity.
And then we have to do everything possible to keep guns out of the hands of
children, and we need to stand firm on behalf of the sensible gun control legislation
that passed the Senate and then was watered down in the House. It does not make
sense for us at this point in our history to turn our backs on the reality that
there are too many guns and too many children have access to those gunsand
we have to act to prevent that.
And let me also pledge my support to you in continuing an effort that I have
been involved in for many years to reach out to parents and other adults so
that they understand the importance of the early years of development and how
critical they are to successful learning later on. You know, a parent is a child's
first teacher, and we have to do more to get that message out to every parent.
It is incredibly important that every parent hereSecretary Riley has said
on many occasionsthat if family members would read to their children just
20 or 30 minutes a day, it would literally revolutionize American education.
So let me ask you to join in that effort to convince everyone you can reach
about the importance of reading. And let me also ask you to stand with me in
pushing for universal access to quality, affordable preschool programs for every
child. And that includes Head Start, home visitations, high quality child care,
early Head Startwhatever it takes to enable working parents to know that
their children are well-cared for and are being well-prepared for school.
I also hope that you will continue to stand behind the charter school/public
school movement, because I believe that parents do deserve greater choice within
the public school system to meet the unique needs of their children. I recently,
a few years ago, gave a commencement at a school in Washington, D.C., that has
very selective admissions criteria. And the students there know that when they
go there they are going to have to take much harder classes, they are going
to have to study Latin, and they really are going to have to apply themselves.
And every year the school system and the application process had hundreds more
students applying than they could possibly accommodate in that one school. And
I said to the people in the school and in the school system, Why don't
you start another school like that? Because clearly these students and
their parents want to be held accountable for this higher curricular standard.
Well, slowly but surely, we're beginning to create schooling opportunities
through the public school charter system that are providing those kinds of options
for parents and studentsraising academic standards, empowering educators.
And I invite educators to be at the forefront of this. Because I know that the
NEA has already helped to create a number of charter schools. And I'm very
pleased that you have done this, because I think when we look back on the 1990s,
we will see that the charter school movement led by experienced, committed,
expert educators will be one of the ways we will have turned around the entire
public school system.
I also want to commend you for your partnerships with businesses and other
private sector employers, because I know how important their critical role is
in supporting our public schools. The kind of support that businesses should
give goes to the very heart of knowing that this is where their future workforce
will come from, and this is where they have to be playing an important role.
I also hope that we will continue to do all that we can to help families to
balance their work and family/parenting responsibilities. We still have too
many families that have to make the wrong choice between caring for their children
and bringing in that income, they don't even get to come to the parent/teacher
conferences. And then there becomes a kind of cycle of indifference that sets
in; they can't participate, therefore they withdrawal, therefore they seem
like they don't care. We need businesses to understand that they need to
support parents in supporting their children's schools and teachers.
So there's a lot ahead of us that you'll be voting on and considering
and talking about at this conference, and already have during the last several
days. But I am very optimistic about the future of public education, because
I think that word is finally beginning to spreadthat we have the best
schools, the smartest kids that you can find anywhere in the world. What we
haven't done is to make sure that that is available to all of our children.
That is your goal; that is your mission. And as we close this 4th of July weekend,
there isn't any more important mission, in terms of its critical role in
creating the America that will be here a hundred years from now.
Just imagine, a hundred years from now as we close the 21st Century, the NEA
will be meeting somewhere, maybe in Cyberspace, and you'll be thinking
both about the future challenges you face and you'll be looking back and
thinking about what the past century looked like . I am very hopeful that not
just at that very long date ahead of us, but in the years to come, the commitment
to public education that marks the United States as unique will be reinvigorated,
will be better supported, and will produce results for our children in every
corner of our land. I will do all that I can, working with you to make that
happen. And I will do all that I can, speaking on your behalf to the broader
public, to make sure that everyone in America understands that we have a stake
in the success of public education.
Some of you have been very interested in the work that the President has done
and that I and others have tried to help him with, and the peace process in
Northern Ireland. But I will never forget, on one of my trips to Belfast, meeting
with a group of citizens and hearing about their difficulties, being told that
it was the first time there had been any convening of people from both communities
in a single room sitting down and talking about the issues that all of us worry
about around our kitchen tables. It was important for the Catholic and Protestant
women there to hear that each of them would often say a silent prayer when their
husband or their son went off to work or out the door to play. It was important
for each of them to see each other with human eyes unveiled by centuries of
distrust. And one of the participants said, But you know, Mrs. Clinton,
our biggest obstacle is that our children have never gone to school together.
They've always been separate systems. They've never learned to play
together, to learn together, to work together, to build a better future together.
And she went on to say, You know, one of the great gifts that America
has is that you've educated everybody together.
I believe that what she said should be heard by every American. Because sometimes
our debates about reforming our schools and our public education system lose
sight of that fundamental realitythat undergirding our democracy is public
educationan idea that America has invested in and nurtured, and which
does very well in most places for most children. One only has to look at how
well the United States is positioned today. Our economy is booming, we are demonstrating
to the worldfrom Belfast to Pristina, the Middle East to Africawhat
it takes for a very diverse society to be successful. And, yes, we still have
problems and we have flaws, but there is no place I'd rather be than right
here thanking you for what you've done to help make America as great as
it is and will be.
Thank you all very much.