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REMARKS BY AL GORE
COMMENCEMENT ADDRESS GRACELAND COLLEGE LAMONI, IOWA

Sunday, May 16, 1999

Al Gore delivering the commencement address at Graceland College in Lamoni, Iowa on May 16, 1999

President Clinefelter; faculty and staff; family and friends -- it is an honor to be with you to mark this special day. And congratulations to you, the distinguished Class of 1999.

In his invocation this morning, Dr. French shared these powerful words: "Train up a child in the way they should go, and when they are old, they shall not depart from it."

With a proud tradition of career-based education, I know your years at Graceland will strengthen your livelihoods. And I know quite a few of the parents here are happy about that.

Here at Graceland, you also understand that the education we provide is a profound expression of who we are as a people. This is more than a college; it is a community -- of faith, of family, and of shared purpose. As it is written, "to be learned is good if you harken unto the councils of God." And you do.

Today, I want to talk about how we can give millions more American families the extraordinary opportunity you have had: to obtain a world-class education, and the chance to reach for your dreams.

We've seen some positive changes in our schools in recent years: higher standards; tougher curricula; signs of improved academic performance; greater accountability; and local officials taking tough action to turn around their schools. We're fighting right now to raise standards higher still, and hold our schools accountable for real results, ending social promotion the right way.

I'm proud that President Clinton, Secretary Riley and I are helping to lead these changes. But our country's future depends on going farther -- much farther - in the new century ahead.

In order to stay first in the world economically, we must become first in the world educationally. Aren't the reasons obvious?

How long can we continue generating one-third of the world's economic output if one-third of our students continue to fail in meeting the most basic world reading level?

How long can we expect to continue to be number one in high technology jobs if we continue to be last in the percentage of bachelor's degrees and graduate degrees awarded in science?

How long can we stay first in making new discoveries if we stay dead last out of all countries surveyed in physics?

How long can we continue to lead the world in the number of cars and trucks produced if we continue to follow behind 18 other nations in 12th grade math?

The solution is obvious: to keep the best GDP, we need the best SAT's. And to strengthen our national character, our schools must insist on high standards that demand not just excellence in skills but also excellence in citizenship, morality, and character.

In order to meet our needs for a dynamic future, we need to shake up the status quo.

I make you this promise today: together, we will bring truly revolutionary change to America's schools. Let's make the next decade America's education decade.

I want to work with parents and teachers to change the whole way we approach learning in this country. Education should start earlier, last longer, and extend through college and throughout our lifetimes. Education should be more individualized, using new technology to match learning to the pace of each child. Education should connect parents to their children's schools and teachers. Education should teach basic skills, and also the good character and values we need for our families to be strong. Education should no longer be just a period in our lives, but a way of life in the 21st Century.

There are three reasons why this challenge is more important than ever before.

First, family life in America is changing. In seven out of ten households, both parents are at work all day. The average two-parent family works almost 500 more hours a year than they did a generation ago.

A generation ago, only seven percent of America's families were single-parent families; the number has almost quadrupled today, to 27 percent. Only about half of all families eat together every day - far less than two decades ago.

What these parents often lack is that most precious of all commodities: time with their children; time to teach them right from wrong; time to pass on their best values.

And even when there is time, challenges to the strength of the family remain. Too often, even when they are under the same roof, a television set or a video game comes between parent and child.

Lacking guidance from parents, some children fall prey to a culture of chaotic values - a culture with too much meanness, and not enough meaning.

It's not enough just to be in the same house. You have to talk -- a lot. A virtual dead-beat dad isn't much better than a real live dead-beat dad.

Of course, family and faith must be the primary answer. But our schools can be an important part of the solution. Our schools must make parents feel that they have a place and a role, and must make it easier, not harder, to raise safe and strong families.

There is a second reason we must revolutionize education: our economy is changing. We are in the early stages of an accelerating information revolution that is completely transforming the nature of work and the way we live our lives. Already, nearly 60 percent of companies say they are facing a shortage of the well-educated, skilled workers they need. Two in five manufacturing companies say they can't expand precisely because their workers don't have the right education and skills.

Last month, I met a businessman in Waterloo who was trying to hire new employees. He told me he needed people with technical degrees who could run computers and highly sophisticated machinery - and who could complete training courses in microbiology. I asked him: what do you make? And his answer was: pudding.

Pudding.

In the 21st Century, you need more education to make pudding competitively.

Need any more proof? It's in the pudding.

There is a third urgent reason for change in education. Because of all the new students, the needs of our schools are growing dramatically.

I'm a part of the Baby Boom generation - known as the largest generation in American history. When we flooded into America's schools a half-century ago, there were portable classrooms - Quonset huts left over from World War Two. And there was a shortage of well-trained teachers.

But for the returning veterans, sacrifice did not end on the sands of battle. After winning the war, they came back home and won the peace. After saving Private Ryan, they saved public education. They built new schools and hired new teachers in record numbers. They passed the G.I. Bill. They made the Baby Boomers not just the biggest, but the best-educated generation ever, and we've been reaping the benefits ever since.

But guess what? Last summer, we learned from the Census Bureau that the generation of young people moving through our schools has just passed the Baby Boom; they are now the largest generation in history. The record they set last fall will be shattered every fall for the next ten years. And once again, American students are crammed into overcrowded classrooms, like sardines in a can. Teachers are overburdened. Textbooks are out of date and in short supply. Facilities are falling down.

So now it's our turn to accept responsibility. Will we do it?

We must. Together, as a nation, let us again make the necessary sacrifices to make the largest generation in history the best-prepared and best-educated in our history.

Today, I want to present seven ideas to meet this challenge - to revolutionize American education for the 21st Century.

First, we must begin at the beginning - by making high-quality pre-school fully available to every family, for every child, in every community in America.

We now know that the early years of life are critical to a child's development, and have a lifelong impact on a child's well-being. Research also shows us that the right kind of start - through quality pre-school -- can lead to higher IQ's, higher reading and achievement levels, higher graduation rates and greater success in the workplace. I am proposing to enable every state in America to develop and expand the voluntary pre-school programs working families need.

Of course, parents are the first and best teachers. And we should say to families across America -- including every middle class family: we will help you insure that your child gets the right start toward a bright future.

Second, in the 21st Century, we must improve teacher quality and elevate the teaching profession, by setting high standards for teachers and giving them the intensive support they need to succeed. And then we need to reward them for excellence.

This whole process must begin with more respect, honor, and appreciation for America's teachers. Teachers have one of the hardest jobs in America. When I see politicians bash our teachers, I have to wonder: how long would they last in a classroom with twenty-five 14-year-olds?

We need to attract a new generation of teachers to the profession. Let's put America's brightest and most dedicated young people to work changing the lives of the children who need it most. Today, I propose the creation of a new 21st Century Teachers Corps - open to talented young people across the country. Under this plan, if you agree to spend four years teaching in a school that needs your help - and if you pass a rigorous exam before you set foot in the classroom - we'll give you up to $10,000 to pay for college. And for those willing to switch careers for teaching, we'll give you a $10,000 bonus and pay for the training you need to get into the classroom.

We should give all teachers the smaller classes, modern school buildings, good working conditions, and the real role in decision-making they need. But the best teachers will tell you: we must also raise standards for teachers. We should treat teachers like professionals - we should pay them like professionals - and we should hold them to high professional standards.

You had to pass tests to be here today; every new teacher should also have to pass a rigorous test before they set foot in the classroom - a test that also measures their knowledge of the subject they will teach.

Every new teacher should have the mentors and professional support he or she needs to make the transition into teaching. And all teachers should have access to regular training and professional development and visits to the classrooms of master teachers.

Every new teacher should be required to meet tough standards before becoming licensed or tenured - with evaluations by teams of accomplished teachers and administrators to make sure they know their subject well, and can teach it well. The granting of a teaching license should be followed by rigorous but fair performance evaluations. And every five years, those evaluations should be used to determine whether a license is renewed.

No teaching license should be a lifetime job guarantee - but we should give all our teachers the support and training they need to succeed.

I urge faster but fair ways to identify, improve - and when necessary - remove low-performing teachers. While we know the vast majority of teachers are doing a good job, we know there are some teachers who aren't. And they need to be removed -- fairly, but quickly.

And if teaching is to be a true profession, we must reward good teaching. We should provide bonuses to master teachers, and those who become certified by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. We should provide bonuses to all teachers in schools where students have made significant gains consistently measured over time. And we should help teachers, administrators, and others test new ways of rewarding individual teachers, and groups of teachers, whose students make significant gains, based on valid measures and objective criteria.

Consider this: the new student boom means that we will hire 2.2 million new teachers in the next decade. If we set a national goal that every one of those teachers will be tested, trained, skilled in the newest technology, and willing to make teaching a career, we could dramatically improve our schools right away.

Third, we need a renewed focus on discipline, character, the right values, and safety -- and we need more parental involvement in our schools.

My heart, and that of America, aches for the families of Columbine High School. We've all searched our souls in the aftermath of this tragedy. And unfortunately, as we know, it was not an isolated incident. In an average year, up to 6,000 American students are expelled for bringing a gun to school.

Obviously, we need to do more to make our schools safe. So today, I propose the creation of second-chance schools - where kids headed for trouble, and those caught with guns, can receive the strict discipline and intensive services they need. For all schools, there should be a simple policy toward guns: zero tolerance, period. All schools should be gun-free, drug-free, and safe and secure.

We should increase our commitment to after-school care this year, so children have a place to learn in those afternoon hours when most juvenile crime, teen pregnancy, alcohol and drug use occur.

In many schools, teachers feel that discipline has eroded in part because of a lack of support and understanding from parents, and poor communication between parents and teachers about what standards are appropriate and how they should be enforced.

So today I want to propose that we try something new: parents, teachers, and students should all meet together at the beginning of the year, on the first day of school, to agree upon and sign a strict, fair discipline code. Employers should be required to give time-off for these meetings. All parents, teachers, and students should know all the rules -- and the punishment for breaking those rules. That first meeting can also be a chance to encourage regular trips to the school all year long - and I believe attendance at that first meeting should be a requirement.

If we want parents to be more involved, we must help them have the time to do it. We should extend the Family Leave law, so parents can take time off work to attend not only the beginning-of-the-year meeting, but all parent-teacher conferences - without fear of losing their jobs. Either we're serious about this or we're not.

Then let's get a commitment from schools to add civic and character education courses -- to teach students that the same values they learn in good homes apply in our schools and in our society.

Fourth, we should commit ourselves to fundamentally changing the American high school. I envision a new American high school - with smaller classes, smaller schools, and principals with the power to lead.

We've done some things wrong in education, and here's one of them: herding all students in a 25-square-mile area into overcrowded, factory-style high schools. When teachers and principals must practice crowd control, it becomes impossible to spot the early warning signs of violence, depression, or academic failure - and it becomes even harder to do something about it.

We should provide incentives to create smaller high schools. And for those that have already gotten too big, let's break them down by creating smaller "schools within schools."

Classes are also way too big. Teachers need fewer students in each classroom so they can pay close attention to each one. We should begin with a national commitment to reduce class size to an average of 18 students in the early grades -- and then aim at average class sizes of twenty students or less across all grades. This will be a major commitment, but it will be worth it, because it will give all our students the individual attention they need to succeed.

And we should empower principals, advised by teams of teachers, to hire their own staffs, regardless of seniority, and manage their own budgets. This would enable schools to choose teachers that fit the mission and approach of the school, including teachers who have entered the profession through high-quality alternative certification pathways. It is time to focus on results, not just process -- on measured competency, not check marks from gatekeepers.

Fifth, we need an aggressive plan to turn around every failing school in America. Most schools are doing pretty well, and we know how they can improve. But there are too many school districts in America where less than half the students graduate, and where those who do graduate aren't ready for college or good jobs. And that should be recognized for what it is: a national emergency.

Every state and every school district should be required to identify failing schools, and work to turn them around - with strict accountability for results, and strong incentives for success. And if these failing schools don't improve quickly, they should be shut down fairly and fast, and when needed, reopened under a new principal with a full peer evaluation of every teacher, intensive training for those who need it, and fair ways to improve or remove low-performing teachers.

We need to make summer school much more widely available, to give extra help to kids who need it - and I urge serious consideration of the model set by Mayor Rich Daley, the President of Chicago's Board of Education, Gery Chico, and Chicago schools chief Paul Vallas. We need to follow the leadership of the late John Stanford of Seattle and affirm that every child can learn -- and will learn.

Parents should have more choice in their children's public schools - especially those whose children are stuck in low-performing schools. We need more public school choice, and more competition - to apply the pressure that will improve all schools. And of course we must reject the false promise of siphoning public school funding away to private schools. That would only make things much worse.

Let us realize that education is the greatest anti-poverty program, the most powerful anti-discrimination strategy we could ever have. Every child in America must have full opportunity - regardless of race, creed, or national origin.

We should be proud that the gap in high school completion between blacks and whites has now been virtually eliminated. But the drop-out rate among Hispanic Americans is far higher -- with barely half finishing high school, and far fewer going on to college. We need to continue our aggressive plan to reduce the Hispanic drop-out rate. And we should challenge every state and school district to cut in half the achievement gap between rich and poor, and between racial and ethnic groups in the next decade.

Sixth, we should realize that the technological revolution makes possible an instructional revolution - where we can replace standardized textbook learning with individualized learning matched to every child's pace and potential, and learning style.

For the first time, 21st Century technology will soon free us from the search for one curriculum that fits all. In the high technology school of the future, the ultimate class size will be one - because even if there are eighteen or twenty others in that room, there will be an unprecedented, until now impossible, degree of individual attention. If we use it right, higher technology can mean the same basic knowledge for all, but higher individual achievement for every child.

The power of computer technology is now doubling every 18 months. The cost reductions - 30 percent a year - are startling, and they will continue. Let's put that power to work for our children's education. For example, costs for special education have been rising dramatically; we can use technology to manage those costs, while providing a better education for every child with special needs, and doing a better job of helping states bear the burden.

But when we talk about technology in education, let's remember: teachers can't take advantage of it unless they have training in how to use the technology. And when we talk about individualizing education, let's remember that teachers need less paperwork, not more. We should focus on results, not process and documentation. We have to expand teacher training in how to use the power of the Internet and the newest and best educational software - and make sure it is available to every school, rich or poor.

So we must quickly finish the job of wiring every classroom and library in America to the Information Superhighway, and teach kids how to use it safely and well. America was the pioneer of universal education; now America must become the pioneer of universal computer literacy. Let us set a goal that every child will be computer literate by the eighth grade. But let us also always remember that technology is worse than worthless unless it is coupled with he right values.

I also propose today that we establish a program of home e-tutors, by creating a nationwide army of volunteer on-line tutors and mentors, carefully screened for safety and qualifications.

Seventh, we must give every family the ability to save and pay for their children's college education, and to continue their own education throughout their lifetimes. We have made progress, but much more is needed.

We help people save for retirement tax-free, and help them pay their mortgages tax-free. Now we must help them save tax-free for one of the biggest expenses most families will ever face in life - sending a child to college.

We must start by helping families meet the costs of tomorrow by saving today. I propose a National Tuition Savings program, bringing together programs in more than thirty states, and helping the other twenty states to create them for the very first time. Many of these programs let families invest their money in special accounts, which grow tax-free. We should increase access to these programs, allow each parent's savings to be used in any participating state, and use incentives to encourage states that do not have the programs to create them. Under this plan, if you make small, regular contributions to the program after your child's birth, you'll be able to afford college tuition - with protection from taxes, inflation, and rising college costs. This program will also be available to grandparents who make contributions after the birth of a grandchild. Tipper and I are expecting our first grandchild at the end of next month - and we would love to participate in this program.

Next, we should encourage employers to help employees save tax-free for college and job training. In the coming months, I will lay out my plan to create new 401 (j) accounts that let you save for job training, education, and lifelong learning, and let those savings grow tax-free. You could use this account for yourself, your spouse, even your child's college tuition. This will be a powerful new tool to help people save for learning.

These are my ideas for revolutionary change in our schools. It is an agenda that is ambitious, but responsible. Every one of these proposals will be fully paid for, within a balanced budget. They will bring about revolutionary progress. Some say that there is no national role in helping communities improve their schools. I say that education is our number-one national priority for investing in the future. And we must take dramatic steps to help states and communities provide a quaility education for their children.

I want our nation to act on the wisdom you understand so well here at Graceland: that the quality of American education is a powerful, if unspoken, expression of our values. As such, our schools must be orderly and disciplined, modern and in good repair, and committed to excellence.

In the education decade to come, let us strengthen our schools, to strengthen our families. Let us renew education, to renew opportunity. It will not be easy; the steps I have outlined are just the beginning. But this much I know: if it is a decade shaped by your experience, sustained by your faith, built on the hard lessons you have learned at Graceland, it will be the best decade this nation has ever known, and a great beginning for the 21st Century.

Congratulations, and Godspeed as you begin your wonderful journey.

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