ELEVEN months ago the bipartisan National Commission on Excellence in Education focused the nation's attention on the deterioration of our educational system which leaves America a ''Nation at Risk.'' Last December the Reagan administration conducted the National Forum on Excellence in Education.
Today state and local educators continue to conduct an intensive debate over lowered standards and expectations in the schools, inability to attract and retain outstanding teachers, declining student achievement test scores, and rising dropout rates. Congress has already held hearings on the damage that lack of discipline inflicts on our students, teachers, and the learning process.
President Reagan has performed a great public service by making improved discipline a part of the nation's education reform agenda. He has made us all aware of the seriousness of the problem.
Clearly, far too many children risk their physical safety when they go to school. The landmark Safe Schools Study by the National Institute of Education (NIE) found in 1978 that 282,000 students were attacked in America's secondary schools each month. So much violence drives children from the classroom. The NIE study confirmed that 800,000 high school students stay home each month because they fear for the safety of their persons or property.
School crime also puts teachers in jeopardy. Each month, thousands of teachers are threatened, robbed, or seriously assaulted in school. The American Federation of Teachers (AFT) has been a strong voice in favor of fairly enforced codes of student conduct, and in helping to focus national attention on the problem. An AFT survey found that teachers in California spend 30 to 80 percent of their time on discipline. The Oklahoma City Federation of Teachers discovered that 2 out of every 3 of the city's middle school teachers considered quitting because of verbal and physical abuse from students.
Nevertheless, progress has been made in some schools across the country. Common-sense measures are effectively changing schools that earlier experienced chronic violence and disruption. These successes do not depend on massive spending; they come instead from strong motivation and leadership to effect improvement.
All schools must firmly establish rules that students are to follow, and the consequences for disobeying them. School officials should not expect the impossible, but they must have high expectations of student conduct. In too many schools, any activity - no matter how rude or disruptive - is tolerated as long as it is not expressly illegal. Schools will never provide quality education if their teaching time is consumed by disruptive students.
Some schools, such as El Camino High School in Sacramento, Calif., have successfully implemented ''community compacts'' involving juvenile courts and local governments, as well as parents and school officials. Where such compacts have been adopted, discipline and achievement have dramatically improved. We must strive for the involvement and support of principals, teachers, and parents in the disciplinary process.
The Department of Education is a key participant in President Reagan's school discipline initiative. At the highest levels, we will focus research and public attention on the problems of school disorder. One of the NIE regional education research centers will study prevention of school violence. The department will continue its joint project with the National Institute of Justice to identify how local jurisdictions might better use their own resources to reduce school crime. I have directed my staff to make the record of schools in the area of discipline and crime a major criterion in the selection of winners in the Secondary School Recognition Program.
I am confident that as we restore discipline in our classrooms, other important education reforms will achieve real and lasting benefits.