Exhorting Graduates to Aim High, Kirwan Outlines an Ambitious Education Agenda
Keynote Speaker – William “Brit” Kirwan, PhD
Dr. Willian “Brit” Kirwan, chancellor emeritus of the University System of Maryland, delivered the following remarks at the School of Education’s graduation ceremony on May 23, 2018.
Thank you, Dean Morphew, for that wonderful introduction. As I once heard someone say, it was an introduction that would have pleased my father but only my mother would have fully believed.
What an honor to be asked to be the commencement speaker at one of the nation’s and world’s top-ranked schools of education.
To all of you soon-to-be graduates, let me offer my heartfelt congratulations. To reach this point, you have passed all your final exams and paid all your library and parking fines. The only remaining hurdle standing between you and your degree is the ritual commencement address.
I’m told that a favorite trivia question at college reunions is, “Can you name our commencement speaker?” An even harder question is, “Can you recall anything the commencement speaker said?”
Believe it or not, I can actually recall something the commencement speaker said at my high school graduation some 62 years ago. He began with the line, “One year from now, you won’t remember my name. And the only thing you’ll remember about my address is that I said ‘You won’t remember anything else I say’.” And you know what, the man was absolutely correct!
So, with this dose of reality, and knowing that I stand between you and the real purpose of this day, I promise to be brief. However, I do have a few important things to say to you today. First, no graduates at commencements across the country this spring have chosen a more important profession for the future well-being of our nation than you and your peers who are entering the field of education.
Second, my generation owes yours a heartfelt apology. We benefitted from an education system that 50 years or so ago was a world leader in high school completion rates and in the proportion of high school graduates who went on to earn a college degree. In this sense, we were the best-educated nation in the world, which economists say is probably the largest single factor in the U.S. becoming the world’s economic superpower, with the highest standard of living. Tragically, we are at risk of losing both of these attributes, because we have allowed our PreK-12 education system to atrophy.
You’ve probably heard of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, or OECD. It collects data on all sorts of indicators for the world’s most advanced economies. According to a recent OCED report, the U.S. now ranks 17th in high school completion rates. Moreover, in the span of a few decades, we’ve dropped from the top rank in the percent of adults with at least a bachelor’s degree to second-tier status in this regard. According to Bureau of Labor Statistics data, in 1999—just 20 years ago—the U.S. had the world’s highest proportion of 24- to 65-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree and was tied with Norway for the highest proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with a four-year degree. Fast forward to today. The U.S. is tied for sixth with two others in the proportion of 25- to 64-year-olds with a bachelor’s degree, and tied for 12th with three others in the proportion of 25- to 34-year-olds with a four-year degree. What a dramatic drop in just two decades!
The data on 25- to 34-year-olds is especially alarming. It shows other nations are rapidly passing us by and strongly suggests that our standing in college degree completion is not likely to reverse in coming years, but instead, will continue to fall.
Clearly, we are on the verge of losing the competitive advantage we have enjoyed for decades because of our declining levels of education attainment. This places our nation at grave risk, especially in an economy dependent on brainpower and a well-educated and highly skilled workforce.
There is a second reason our declining education performance is of such grave concern and poses such a threat to our nation’s social well-being.
From its inception, our nation has been seen around the world as the shining city on a hill, the “land of opportunity.” Perhaps the most basic element of our national identity is the proposition that the economic stratum of a person’s birth does not determine his or her station at the end of life. Fundamental to our national values is the ingrained belief that ability and hard work are all that are needed in America to enjoy a successful career and a high quality of life. In today’s economy, however, with such a demand for a well-educated workforce, achieving the American dream most often requires a post-secondary credential.
So how well are we doing in ensuring low income students have equitable, or even somewhat equitable access to college degrees? The truth is not well at all.
The proportion of lowest quartile income students earning a college degree within six years of high school graduation has hardly moved over the past 40 years and is still under 10 percent, whereas at the top quartile of income the proportion has almost doubled and it is now close to 80 percent. The sharp difference in college attainment based on income is the driver of the growing income disparity in the U.S.
A child growing up in poverty 50 years ago without a college degree could find meaningful work and an income relatively in bounds with the more educated population. That is simply not possible, or at least highly unlikely, in today’s economy. In a recent column, Nicholas Kristof of the New York Times captured our present circumstances well. He wrote, “More children in America live in poverty now (22 percent at last count) than at the start of the financial crisis in 2008 (18 percent). They grow up not in a “land of opportunity,” but in the kind of socially rigid hierarchies that our ancestors fled, the kind of society in which your outcome is largely determined by your beginning.” That surely doesn’t describe the country we like to think we live in. And that’s why my generation owes yours such a sincere apology. We’ve allowed our competitive advantage—the quality of our education system—to become a national liability.
The only way we can reverse this situation, recapture our national identity as “the land of opportunity,” is through major reforms in PreK-12 education. We need an infusion of new ideas and new energy. That’s why you and your peers entering the field of education are so vitally important to the future well being of our nation.
Dean Morphew mentioned that I chair the Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, appointed by the Governor and the General Assembly, with a charge including policy recommendations that would enable Maryland schools to perform at the level of the best performing school systems in the world. Incidentally, we are blessed to have David Steiner, one of this school’s faculty, on the commission. The charge to the Commission, while noble, is a very challenging goal because of where Maryland schools stand today. Based on the National Assessment of Student Progress, or NEAP results, Maryland students perform at or below the national median in most areas. That would be bad enough if, as a nation, U.S. students were top performing globally. Sadly, that’s not the case. As you are no doubt aware, on the PISA exam, which assesses the performance of 15-year-olds in science, math and reading, US students perform at or below the median in comparison to 15-year-olds from the world’s other advanced economies. So, the harsh reality is that at present, Maryland students perform, at a mediocre level in and nation that performs at a mediocre level globally.
The Commission has thought long and hard on what the state needs to do to make Maryland’s schools competitive with the best school systems in the world. We have benefitted from the work of the National Center for Education and the Economy, or NCEE, a think tank located in Washington D.C., which has spent the past 20 years doing research on the common elements of top performing school systems. Based on this research, NCEE has identified nine common building blocks of high-performing systems. Using these building blocks, the Commission has done a gap analysis, comparing Maryland to seven high-performing systems and, based on this analysis, we have developed five major policy recommendations. The first of these is a major investment in early childhood education, making full-day preschool available to all four-year-olds and all low-income three-year-olds. Incidentally, in a recent OECD report, the U.S. lags well behind most other advanced economies in providing access to pre-school. Secondly, we need to invest significantly more in schools serving high concentrations of poverty. This would include coordinators to bring needed social services into the school, as well after school and summer academic enrichment programs. A third recommendation is to develop a highly integrated PreK-12 curriculum, benchmarked against international standards, which makes much better use of the high school years through rigorous college- and career-ready pathways. Fourth, we believe it absolutely essential that our state, and by extension our nation, turn teaching into a high-status profession through more rigorous teacher preparation programs, like the one at this school; increased certification standards; career ladders to keep successful teachers in the classroom and salaries comparable to professions such as accounting, nursing and architecture requiring comparable levels of education. In addition, we must give teachers more time for collaboration with their colleagues to develop curricular and pedagogical innovations. Without exception, this is the nature of the teaching profession in all high-performing systems. And finally, we need a much stronger system of accountability. The U.S. already spends way more than other countries on education and gets only mediocre results. The Commission is very aware that in this era of accountability, our recommendations will “die on the vine” if the public doesn’t have confidence that new expenditures will be tied to improved results.
The Commission’s recommendations lay out a very ambitious, multi-year agenda for Maryland. Full implementation will require a decade or more of dedicated and persistent effort. My dream is that our final report, to be issued this fall, will be broadly supported and perhaps even serve as a model for the rest of the nation.
But recommendations are empty without the human resources to put them into practice and that’s where you come in. While I easily become depressed in thinking about how much talent our nation has squandered, the generational poverty that has crept into our society, all because of nation’s failure to recognize and address its education crisis, my spirits are lifted when I think about you and your generation. My generation is handing you a broken baton. But, I see in you the capacity to overcome our failings. I see in you a restored sense of selfless purpose, a genuine desire to address our nation’s social ills, a willingness to work collaboratively for the common good. My parents’ generation has been called the Greatest Generation because of the sacrifices they willingly made to preserve our nation and its values during World War II and then to rebuild it once peace came. I believe you are destined to be the next great generation. Your arrival, like a glorious June day after a long, cold hard winter, could not be more welcome or timely. I leave you with one of my favorite quotes. It comes from a great educator, Benjamin Mays, who once said:
“It must be borne in mind that the tragedy of life doesn’t lie in not reaching your goal. The tragedy lies in having no goal to reach. It isn’t a calamity to die with dreams unfulfilled, but it is a calamity not to dream. It is not a disaster to be unable to capture your ideal, but it is a disaster to have no ideal to capture. It is not a disgrace not to reach the stars, but it is a disgrace to have no stars to reach for. Not failure, but low aim is sin.”
Aim high, graduates. Our nation needs you, and you have the stuff to make a real difference. Congratulations, good wishes and Godspeed.