News and Events
Keynote Commencement Address
The Graduate School of Education and Psychology
by Rod Paige
July 12, 2003
The following is the keynote address given by Rod Paige, US Secretary of Education, to Pepperdine Graduate School of Eduation Psychology Students school's commencement ceremony on Saturday, July 12 at Pepperdine's Malibu campus.
President, thank you for those warm and kind words. And what a pleasure it is to be here today. This is a beautiful campus. Being here on this campus reminds me of my graduate school days at Indiana University. The campus is quite similar.
Minus the cold and sleet and snow. Not many palm trees or ocean vistas in Bloomington, either. But aside from that, it's a lot sort of like this.
This is a truly inspiring backdrop for learning from some of the most beautiful minds in America. The Board of Regents, President Benton, Chancellor Runnels, Dean Weber, distinguished faculty, families, friends, and the class of 2003, I'm honored to share this proud day with you. I know how much you've longed for it. I know how hard you've worked for these diplomas, paying the tuition bills, juggling classes and jobs and family responsibilities, risking lives and limbs on the freeway to get here.
This is your day. You've achieved an important goal. Congratulations.
Today marks the culmination—culmination of a personal journey for each of you, both of these groups. The graduates and the parents and the loved ones of the group deserve congratulations today.
All of us know that the spouses and family and loved ones, sons and daughters, all share in this. Parents, spouses, families, friends of graduates, your loved ones would not be here today without your love and your support and your belief in their hopes and dreams. So this day belongs to you as much as it does to them. So for you, too, congratulations. So, graduates, let's give them a round of applause.
Thank you. Now, for those of you who are still living at home, your parents asked me to remind you— [Laughter] —to remind you of what Bill Cosby once said: "Commencement means go forth, but go forth does not mean come back home."
They love you but they're tired. They need a break. They have their limits. And I know you have your limits as well, so I'm going to respect those limits and get right down to what I'm supposed to do.
I'm obligated—I'm obligated by tradition to offer a few words of encouragement and advice, and this I'll do so bear with me.
This graduation class is special for me. This opportunity is special for me. Of all the commencement opportunities I've had, this is the first one where every graduate is committed to the greater purpose of education. And this is very timely as well. Our President has called upon this nation to commit itself to a bold vision. He's called upon us to create in this nation an education system that educates all of our children, an education system which leaves no children behind. This is our goal. It is not to educate some of the children but to educate all of them well.
President Bush knows that ours is a great nation, but he knows also that it cannot sustain its greatness unless we drastically improve our public education system.
So last January, President Bush signed into law the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, and in so doing, established a bold national goal, one that no nation has ever accomplished, one that no nation has ever even attempted—that is, to educate every single child so that no child is left behind. This is not just a slogan of pious sentimentality. It is a goal and an expectation that we can achieve.
To be sure, we're doing some good things in education in our nation. There are many great schools in this country, and they're great because of the great teachers and the great people who populate them. But they are islands of excellence in an otherwise sea of mediocrity because we have for too long found it perfectly acceptable to educate just some of our children well while others flounder and fall through the cracks, so much so that today one of the greatest obstacles to our national greatness is the wide and in some places growing achievement gap between the ethnic minorities in this country and the majority population in this country.
This creates a wide division between Americans, just as in the South during my elementary and secondary days, the South was once divided into two worlds, a black world and a white world, separate and unequal. If we continue as we are now, we will be creating the same type of separateness, two worlds, but based this time not on race, based on the fact that some have a wonderful education and others that do not have a wonderful education, still separate and unequal.
This is where I need your help. This is where the President of the United States needs your help. Our nation needs your help. Our world and our well-being call on you. Our world is changing, and our education system must change as well. It was once okay to educate just some of the children. It is no longer so.
As we enter the third year of this new century, we are leaving behind the age where a strong back and a willing mind was sufficient for good lives in this country. This current revolution is already well launched. The marriage of ever faster computers with ever more reliable telecommunications has begun created systems that are already transforming our personal and public world into new horizons that were not even dreamed of just a few years ago.
The time is already upon us where we can deliver satellites to the moon with the un-custom ease of paper boys that used to bring our newspapers to our front door.
This new world needs highly educated people. We need to educate all of our children so that no child is left behind. I did some checking on you, and I know that some of you are headed for leadership roles in education. Some of you are going into teaching. Some of you will carry what you've learned back to business and nonprofits. Others plan to do research. And many of you are answering the calling of our heart, and that is to teach. That's music to my ears, and to the President's ears as well.
We believe that Omar Bradley, the great World War II general, was correct when he said, "Teachers are the real soldiers of democracy. Others may defend it, but teachers create it."
We need more good teachers and more good educators. We need them today because, despite trillions of dollars, billions of dollars that we've invested in education over the past 30 years, we've not achieved what we'd like to achieve. Two out of three of our fourth graders can't read at grade level today. The number jumps to 88 percent when you measure African American progress and 85 percent for Hispanic progress. In math, 60 percent of white fourth graders are not proficient. But yet, again, that jumps to 95 percent for African American fourth graders and 90 percent for Hispanic fourth graders who can't do math proficiently.
These are not just cold statistics. They represent the toll of an education system that for too long has bowed down to bureaucratic protectors of the system and not to the child. The ramifications of this gap can be found in many of the problems that we have in our society today. And your mission and your calling is critical to our nation's future and to the future of children who are being left behind and growing up without a fair shot at the American dream.
Frederick Douglass once noted that, "No man can give freedom to another. Freedom in its highest and most enduring sense," he said, "every man must earn for himself."
Our public education system today deprives too many young Americans of the tools they need to earn freedom for themselves, the freedom that flows only from an educated mind. So to those who fear accountability for the success of every young mind entrusted in our public education system, let us say we as a nation can no longer tolerate guardians of mediocrity who block the schoolhouse door for those students who most need the education.
Can any of us look earnestly at this enduring achievement gap and feel a sense of urgency—and not feel a sense of urgency in saying that defenders of the status quo must step aside? We must do things differently. We must welcome good people like you, graduates, into our nation's classrooms where they're needed most.
Many people with valuable life experiences, who may not choose the traditional route to education, can also be welcomed into our classroom. They are also worthy of the title "teacher." The cause of freedom is too important to litter the paths of teaching with outdated bureaucratic notions of what makes a good teacher. Every child deserves a highly qualified teacher. But let us have the courage to acknowledge that quality of teachers is born in training, in experience, and wisdom, and not in bureaucratic ticket-punching. At a time when we desperately need strong teachers in our classroom, we should be doing all we can to attract and keep the best and brightest.
And so we thank this great university for its contribution. A good place to start is drawing from all of our nation's citizens, some of them in non-traditional sources. We have mechanisms for them, too, to join the teaching workforce, like Teach for America, Transition to Teaching, and Troops to Teaching. And many of you have come into the field from non-traditional fields. Among you is a lawyer who plans to open charter schools for English language learners. There is an accountant who plans to teach elementary school. There are also professionals from the public relations field and from the aerospace industry.
One among you is a 25-year veteran of industry who had risen to the top of his company, but decided that the big paychecks and fancy titles didn't satisfy him and he needed the simple joy of helping kids.
One long-time ESPN sportscaster traded his microphone in for a chalkboard. So did a Hallmark Card executive.
All Americans can join this noble calling that the President has for us. Like you, all these people were searching for more meaning in their lives. Few people have as much influence over our children's lives and our country's destiny as teachers. And few people have the chance to drastically change our nation for the better as teachers.
We're plowing historic new ground here, and I'm confident that we will succeed. If we do as we should and as we can, I truly believe that years from now people are going to look back on the compassionate vision of our President and say, "That was the tipping point. That was when we raised the bar and student achievement soared. That's when leadership triumphed over politics and no child was left behind. That's when we finally created great schools in our country that were worthy of a great nation."
Congratulations, graduates. May God bless you and may God continue to bless America.