April 21, 1999

I would bet that most Americans can name their favorite teacher or remember the day when she or he singled them out for praise -- or, worse, a scolding in front of the class.

When President Harry Truman handed out the first Teacher of the Year award in 1952, he said that, next to one's mother, a teacher has the greatest influence on what kind of citizen a child will grow up to be. This is not much of an exaggeration. For as many as eight hours a day, five days a week, nine months a year, teachers hold the future of America in their hands.

This week, my husband carried on the tradition of recognizing great teachers when he honored Andy Baumgartner of Augusta, Ga., as the new Teacher of the Year.

A former Marine, Andy is a bundle of energy. Whether he's using popcorn to teach counting or leading a solemn funeral for a departed pet tarantula, Andy's ability to rivet the attention of his kindergarten students is the envy of his colleagues.

When he accepted his award, Andy said, "Educational accountability is the shared responsibility of all Americans. We can no longer continue to make excuses for not providing optimal learning environments for our children, who deserve nothing less than the best."

He went on to list what he thinks makes a learning environment optimal: small classes with strong parental and community involvement, access to the latest technology, an end to disparities between rich and poor schools, and a highly qualified and professionally compensated teacher in every classroom.

I've cared deeply about these issues for many years. In the 1970s, when I worked with the Children's Defense Fund, I knocked on hundreds of doors to talk with parents about their children's schools. In 1983, when my husband asked me to chair a committee to make recommendations to improve Arkansas schools, I traveled the state, listening to teachers and parents about the challenges they faced.

What I learned is just what Andy said: We need smaller classes, strong community support and parental involvement. We must meet the needs of every student -- the disadvantaged and the disabled as well as the gifted and the privileged. And we must recruit, train and hold onto the most effective and dedicated men and women this country has to offer to teach our children.

Among my husband's proudest achievements in his first term was the enactment of the Goals 2000: Educate America Act and the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act. Together, they fundamentally changed the role of the federal government in our educational system by establishing standards and holding schools, teachers and students accountable for meeting them.

Now, as part of a second major revision of the ESEA, the President has laid out a comprehensive three-part strategy to continue the progress we have made. His plan targets funds to prepare disadvantaged students, promotes student, teacher and school accountability, and strives to recruit, prepare and retain the very best teachers.

The President wants every teacher to be fully certified in the subjects they teach and asks states to adopt performance examinations for them. Teachers, like their schools and their students, must meet high standards.

Next, the President would fund scholarships and other programs to attract more mid-career professionals to teaching and to lure more teachers to high-poverty and rural public schools.

One out of five teachers leaves the profession after only three years, so once we've attracted the best individuals to teaching, we have to make sure they want to stay there. We have to offer more peer assistance programs and team planning periods to help new teachers. And we have to offer every teacher ongoing opportunities for professional development.

A major goal of the President's initiative is to reduce class size, particularly in the elementary grades. A recent five-year study of the Milwaukee schools confirmed that students in smaller classrooms outperformed those in larger ones, including those who used vouchers to study outside the public school system. Congress has already funded about a third of the President's proposal to put 100,000 new teachers in the classroom. Now, he is asking lawmakers to finish the job.

Finally, experienced teachers ought to be paid what they are worth. As we raise standards, we ought to raise salaries as well.

Because of a growing student population and an anticipated wave of teacher retirement, this country will need to hire 2 million new teachers over the course of the next few years. Every one of them should be just as committed, competent and enthusiastic as Andy Baumgartner.

As we stand on the brink of the new century, making our public schools the best in the world will be more important than ever. It will take imagination and daring, commitment and perseverance, equity and resources. But we can do no less for our children and for our future.


April 29, 1997