The sun shone brightly on Princeton’s 264th Commencement as 1,206 undergraduates and 815 graduate students received degrees. In my remarks, I urged our graduates to address the pervasive failings of America’s K-12 educational system in the interests of social justice and national wellbeing, citing the example of Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp ’89 and other alumni who have embraced the challenge of transforming our nation’s public schools into engines of social mobility for all Americans. Here is what I said.—S.M.T.
It is a great pleasure for me to continue Princeton’s longstanding tradition of letting the president have the first words at Opening Exercises and the last words at Commencement. This year the last words must be “thank you”—for your decision to study at this University and contribute to making it such a lively and interesting place. I sometimes say that I have the best possible job in the world, for each year a new crop of more than 1,900 young men and women—undergraduates and graduate students—arrive to keep me challenged, entertained, and greatly impressed. From the last-second shot against Harvard that sent the men’s basketball team on to March Madness to the Triangle Club’s hilarious fall show; from a senior thesis that analyzed the factors that affect the fate of detainees in Guantanamo to one that created an astoundingly original play exploring the impact of Asperger’s syndrome on three families; from building community around the world as Engineers Without Borders to bringing children with Down syndrome and their parents to campus to play and learn; from graduate policy workshops on such issues as job creation in Haiti to brilliant doctoral dissertations on topics ranging from the Renaissance trade in classical antiquities to string theory, you have left your impressive imprint on this remarkable University.
Today you leave this privileged place as the beneficiaries of a world-class education—one that I hope has prepared you well for whatever comes next, including the unexpected. Without in any way diminishing the importance of your own hard work, you are among the lucky ones. Almost certainly each of you encountered along the way one or more teachers who encouraged you to excel, or raised your sights, or inspired in you a passion for learning—like the teachers we have honored this morning. I am here today because Lionel Orlikow, my history teacher at Kelvin High School in Winnipeg, Manitoba, sent a lightning bolt through my mind and opened my eyes to the world beyond my middle-class neighborhood. He recruited me into an after-school activity called the History Club, surely one of the least enticing names to attract a complacent 15-year-old. For three years we explored everything from the world’s religions to the political philosophies of Canada’s many political parties. He inspired me to aim high and be bold. So, like you, I am one of the lucky ones.
But today there are far too many children growing up in the United States, and in many places around the world, who will never encounter a Mr. Orlikow. I find it deeply paradoxical that the United States has without question the finest colleges and universities in the world, but a K-12 education system that is leaving vast numbers of students behind. As Secretary of Education Arne Duncan noted in his op-ed in The Daily Princetonian last month, one in four students drops out or fails to complete high school on time. That graduation rate puts us in 20th place among the 34 member countries of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD). Even among those who stay in school, American students perform at or below the average for OECD countries in reading, mathematics, and science. What is worrisome about these data, which have been replicated in study after study, is that the relative performance of U.S. students has been steadily declining over the past quarter century. What is downright distressing is the fact that a student’s chances of being in the bottom quartile and never finishing high school are almost entirely determined by his or her family circumstances. Just consider the fact that the best predictor of SAT score is family income.
Secretary Duncan calls the unequal access of students to an excellent education the civil rights issue of our time, and he is right. It raises fundamental questions of social justice and undermines the very premise on which this country was founded—that all men (and women, of course) are created equal and have certain unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Yet without good education available to all there cannot be equality, and the rights enshrined in the Declaration of Independence cannot be effectively pursued in the 21st century or any other century for that matter. As Horace Mann, often described as the father of the U.S. public education system, said in 1848, “Education [then,] beyond all other devices of human origin, is the great equalizer of the conditions of men, the balance-wheel of the social machinery.” Education has always been, and will continue to be, our most powerful engine for social mobility.
But even if you are not moved by arguments that invoke social justice, we as a nation have a compelling interest in ensuring that our fellow citizens are given every opportunity for a good education. As our economy moves from its historic agricultural and manufacturing base to what has been called a knowledge or information economy, it is going to become impossible to earn a living and raise a family without, at the very minimum, a good high school education. A permanent underclass that lives without opportunity or hope will be a chronic drag on the economy and a potential source of social unrest. The story of America, after all, is the story of parents working hard so that their children have access to a better life. Yet as John Kenneth Galbraith observed a few years ago, “… the normal upward movement which was for long the solvent for discontent has been arrested. The underclass has become a semi-permanent rather than a generational phenomenon.” He went on to propose that “We must have good, effective education that allows, encourages and qualifies for the upward movement that has been the source of tranquility in the past.”
For those who believe that Galbraith’s diagnosis of social stasis is overly pessimistic, there is yet another reason born of pure self-interest why each and every one of us needs to advocate on behalf of high quality K-12 education for all. The advent of the knowledge economy has inextricably linked America’s future economic competitiveness in the world to the creativity and nimbleness of its workforce. In what New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has called the “quiet crisis,” the flattening of the Earth brought about by the Internet has fundamentally changed the economic landscape and allowed large countries like China, India, and Brazil to rapidly compete in the marketplace of ideas. Like Friedman, I believe a flat world is a good thing because it has the potential to raise all boats, but it is going to require a renewed commitment in this country to promoting the educational achievements of everyone, not just the lucky ones. A recent study by the consulting firm McKinsey concluded that the current educational achievement gap “creates the equivalent of a permanent deep recession in terms of the gap between actual and potential output in the economy” and estimated that closing that gap could boost gross domestic product by as much as 16 percent. The future prosperity of everyone depends on the closure of that gap.
What, you may be asking yourself, can I do to help address an issue that is so complex and whose effects are so systemic? What gives me tremendous hope is that Princetonians of all stripes are taking part in what Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp ’89 has called an education revolution that is gaining momentum across the country. Wendy is now the stuff of Princeton legend, having incubated the idea for a teacher corps of young, educated, and highly motivated men and women in her senior thesis at Princeton some 20 years ago. This year 16 percent of the members of the Class of 2011 applied to join Teach for America and spend at least two years in some of the poorest performing schools in the nation— making teaching one of the most competitive things to do after graduation. Wendy started a revolution!
But so in her own way has Michelle Shearer ’95, this year’s National Teacher of the Year, who discovered her interest in teaching at Princeton while volunteering at the Marie Katzenbach School for the Deaf in Trenton. Today she combines her love of chemistry with a passion for teaching science to disadvantaged students who historically have not excelled in scientific fields. Former University Trustee Raj Vinnakota ’93 took a different path to education reform. He founded the SEED School, the nation’s first charter boarding school, in Washington, D.C. This school and a second one that is now flourishing in Baltimore cater to the poorest and most disadvantaged students with the intent of preparing them not just for high school but for college graduation. Another former trustee, John Scully ’66, began directing his philanthropy 20 years ago to an after-school tutoring and mentoring program for disadvantaged youth in Richmond, California, called Making Waves, which has grown to include a charter middle school and a new high school. After a highly successful career as an Internet entrepreneur, Jared Polis ’96 ran for the Colorado State Board of Education, where he strongly advocated for education reform. He also created a foundation and established two innovative charter schools designed to serve low-income students. Today he is representing the state of Colorado in the U.S. House of Representatives, where he is a powerful voice for the importance of public education.
Not all of you will become teachers like Michelle Shearer, or start a teacher corps like Wendy Kopp, or found schools like Raj Vinnakota, or have the philanthropic capacity of John Scully, or serve in public office like Jared Polis, or transform an entire community like our newest Princetonian and honorary degree recipient Geoffrey Canada. But all of you will be citizens of cities, suburbs, towns, and hamlets that will depend on their public schools for their future prosperity, and all of you will be able to find ways to devote some of your time and talents to raising both their sights and their levels of achievement. Your pledge today to demand that those schools serve all their students well, not just the lucky ones like you, could make all the difference in the world. The stakes have never been higher, nor the moment more urgent, for millions of young Americans and the nation as a whole.
So as you walk, skip, or run through the FitzRandolph Gates today, as educated citizens of this and many other nations, I hope you will carry forward the spirit of Princeton and all that it has sought to teach you. And I expect you to do as Mr. Orlikow directed me to do when I graduated from high school—to aim high and be bold!
My warmest wishes go with you all!