Westport Schools Superintendent Elliott Landon reflected on his tenure and outlined his vision for the future of the town's schools in a speech Tuesday to the Westport Rotary Club.

Speaking at the Inn at Longshore, Landon highlighted a number of key changes that have been implemented since he became superintendent in 1999. During the past decade, he said the town's educational system has been transformed by innovations such as new math programs, foreign language instruction in Spanish and Mandarin, and construction of the new Bedford Middle School.

Landon also presented the criteria he said were essential for Westport students to thrive academically and professionally in the future. "Are we giving kids the ability to critically think and problem-solve through our instruction?" he asked.

The superintendent concluded his remarks by stressing to the audience the inevitable importance of funding for the town's schools.

"We can't build and maintain a school system that equips children with critical skills unless and until we have a financial commitment and support in the community that enables us to do that," he said.

After his speech, Landon spoke with the Westport News about some of the key issues facing Westport Public Schools and the American educational system in general.

What are your expectations for funding with next year's town budget?

We're going to have to wait and see. If we continue to get the very limited increases that we've gotten in the last few years, I think we're going to be in deep trouble in trying to maintain what we have.

How important is funding to education?

I think the major factor is to have a workplace where people [such as teachers and administrators] believe they're making a difference, and that they're productive. Now if money makes that happen -- good.

But there are other issues. There's the length of the school day, the length of the school year. The big summer breaks hurt the kids most in need because there's no continuity in instruction. And the length of the school day is probably too short.

What do you think of merit pay for teachers?

I think it has merit, but it has to be done right. There has to be a way to objectively analyze it. There're so many variables that go into educating a kid.

A teacher could have incredible results one year, and just by the nature or mix of kids the following year, the same teacher could have less exceptional results.

There has to be a way to take a look at what a teacher is doing and what techniques are effective.

In the future, will students in Westport and throughout the U.S. have the necessary skills to compete with their peers in other countries?

I think that our kids [in Westport] will be very successful. I think that the problem is not here, but the problem is in the country as a whole. And that doesn't mean just the urban centers, but also the rural areas of the South.

I think until this country makes a commitment -- like it did with getting a man on the moon -- to make sure it fixes the educational system, we are very susceptible to becoming a second-rate power because we don't have the educated population to thrust us forward.

It [education] is equally important as national defense. It is a part of national defense. If we don't have a well-educated population that can compete globally with India, China, and Japan, and all these rising nations, we're going to have a problem.