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Gerry House

Gerry House (Ed.D. '88) is president and chief executive officer of the Institute for Student Achievement in New York. ISA is a nonprofit organization that partners with public school districts to transform underperforming high schools into academically rigorous schools that graduate students prepared for success in college. Prior to joining ISA, House spent 15 years as school superintendent in Memphis, Tenn. and in Chapel Hill, N.C.

House presented the commencement address for the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education on May 7, 2011. Following is the text of her remarks.

Leading Across an Unknown Landscape

These past two days have proven that Thomas Wolfe was wrong.  You can, indeed, go home again -- at least for a little while.

It is wonderful being back on the Chapel Hill campus.  And from the perspectives of time and distance, I am remembering only the good moments -- the rich learning experiences, the incredible professors, and the meaningful relationships.

Now, before I am reminded of my statistics classes, holding down a full time job while working on a doctorate, and struggling to finish a dissertation that did not want to be written, I will be back in New York, reflecting on how much I enjoyed my time here at my Alma Mater, and, particularly, the pleasure of sharing this special occasion with each of you.

I will also remind myself that the commencement speaker can indeed be a fond part of the memory of this day, if she speaks for only a little while.  And since I truly want to be remembered as brief, if nothing else, I promise to take my seat before I become the one thing that you do not wish to remember about this day.

One of my very favorite things when I was growing up was for my family to all pile in the car and drive to Eden, North Carolina to visit my grandparents. It was really only 30 miles from our house to theirs, but in 1960 it seemed like going to a far-away land, and it seemed to take forever to get there. My sisters, my brothers and I knew every landmark from our door to our grandparents‟ door.

Many years later, I took that trip again -- from the house where I grew up to my grandparents’ former home. The magical trip that used to take forever, took about 20 minutes on the expressway.

One of our favorite landmarks in our youth was what we called “The White Fence.”  That was our name for acres of white-fenced farmland where beautiful horses grazed.  Surprisingly, a commemorative section of the white fence was still there; but the farmland and the horses had been replaced by modern subdivisions filled with McMansions.

When I finally arrived at their house, there was a For Sale sign on a vacant lot. I sat in the car for a few minutes feeling more and more disoriented.  All of the old landmarks and guide posts had been replaced with strange, unfamiliar ones. Even time itself seemed to have changed.  A trip that felt like it took forever in the past, in the present took no longer than a typical drive to the shopping mall.

It took me a while to accept that the entire landscape of a significant part of my life had changed. What had been would be no more.

And just as my personal journey revealed significant changes along the route to my grandparents’ home, as educators, you are embarking on a professional journey where many of the old landmarks that guided educators who came before you have changed, and, in some cases, disappeared altogether. You are beginning or enriching your careers at a time when the old education institution is rapidly being dismantled, and the new institution has not yet been completely designed.

When you leave here today, you will go to your classrooms, your schools, your districts, and your other pursuits better prepared to do your jobs well, to design and deliver better lessons, to run higher performing schools, to prepare better teachers, and to improve systems, policies and processes.  And as you go about this critically important work, please remember that you are really doing this and so much more. You are the cartographers and navigators of a new educational landscape.

You must show us how to create schools that prepare every child for a productive, prosperous future in a global society driven by technology.  This is obviously, not an easy task, but it is a necessary one.

The work on which you now embark is also sacred work. I am confident that each of you will do your jobs well, but the job that we are all counting on you to do is so much bigger, and nothing less than the future of our society is at stake.  Before I share with you some of my thoughts about how this can be done, let me take a moment and remind you that gifted, committed educators like you have done this before.

In a policy paper on U.S. education, the McGraw-Hill Research Foundation reminds us that we were the first country to offer every child the opportunity to obtain a free, public secondary education; and the nation, as a whole, reaped tremendous economic rewards for this policy decision at the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th centuries.  By the mid 1940s the U.S. could take pride in having the best educated workforce in the world. Because of the G.I. bill, we also led the world in the number of people earning post-secondary college and university degrees after World War II.  This fueled yet another period of economic growth in the 1950s and ’60s.  And in the late 1960s the Baby Boomers just assumed that they would go to college. By the end of the 1970s, a college degree was viewed as the single most important factor in obtaining -- not just a good job -- but a career and an economically secure life.

And, we know a college degree is still the greatest predictor of an economically secure life for today’s young people. The problem is that too many of them drop out before earning a high school diploma, and too few who do graduate are actually prepared to live and work productively over a lifetime in the new cyber society.

The breath, depth and speed of technology have had a huge impact on every aspect of our lives. We send text messages to the person sitting right next to us. (I bet some of you are guilty of doing so right now.)  LOL (Laugh out Loud) and OMG have been added to Webster’s dictionary. And it took Charlie Sheen only 25 hours and 17 minutes to establish the Guinness World Record for the fastest time to reach a million Twitter followers. (I suspect some of you find that as disturbing as I do.)

It is true that much progress has been made toward our young people becoming educated enough to be globally competitive. There are classrooms, schools, and even a few school systems where most, if not all, children are prepared for the 21st century. However, it is equally true that not one of these is an urban or rural system that serves children who live in poverty.

We have made a good start, but it falls to you to take our nation across the finish line, to make the promise of educational equity and excellence a reality for every child in every classroom in this country every day.

For the next few minutes, I would like to share my thoughts about how you, and we, must go about this vitally important work.

First, we must prepare all of our children for large futures, not small ones. According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, an estimated 85% of current jobs and almost 90% of the fastest growing and best-paying jobs require some postsecondary education, most requiring a bachelor’s degree or higher. Cultural anthropologist Jennifer James states that 80 percent of the jobs available in the future will be cerebral and only 20 percent manual, the exact opposite of the ratio in 1900.  There is simply no place in the new global economy for adults who cannot think critically and strategically, who lack problem solving skills, and who cannot create new products, goods, and services.

We have no idea how the next technological innovations will impact our lives, but today’s students must be able to thrive in that unknown world whatever it looks like; and you are the ones who have to prepare them for it. Many great minds predicted that we would one day place a man on the moon; however, not a single one predicted that much of the world would be watching this historic event on television.  Our world has changed beyond our wildest imagination.  The only major surviving institution that has not radically transformed itself in the last 30 years unfortunately is our education system.

In its policy paper comparing the performance of U.S. students with that of 35 other developed nations, McGraw-Hill reports that simply narrowing the achievement gap between the U.S. and the other participating nations -- by bringing all students to a level of minimal proficiency -- could result in Gross Domestic Product increases for our nation of $72 trillion. Talk about a plan to reduce the deficit!

Both the moral and economic imperatives to deliver a quality education to each child in this nation demand that every student graduates from high school with a solid foundation for postsecondary and career success.  Decades ago Franklin Roosevelt said, “We cannot always build the future for our youth, but we can build our youth for the future.” This is precisely your charge as this nation’s present and future educational leaders.

The second critical area on which we must focus to successfully create and navigate a new educational landscape is human capital.

I think we have finally come to understand that the quality of our education system is mostly dependent on the knowledge, talents, and commitment of the people who teach in and lead our schools.  When I began my career, my parents had to force themselves to contain their pride as they responded to the question: “What does your daughter do?”  They replied with understated joy, “She’s a teacher.

Now how often if you ask parents of young teachers what their children do for a living, they reply just as quietly,  but sometimes not as proudly, “Well,  right now she’s teaching.” The implication, of course, is clear -- until something better comes along.

I know that each guest here is rightfully proud of the hard work and accomplishments of their child, mother, father, grandchild, or spouse, but I wonder how many of you realize that your loved one is a hero; that the well-being of our nation rests in their hands; that just as we honor and support our brave men and women who fight for our freedom abroad, as a nation, we must honor and support our educators who are fighting to ensure that the future of our nation and its citizens is secure by preparing students who can effectively compete in a global market place.

As UNC graduates, you are among the best and the brightest, prepared for one of the most critical professions in our nation by one of its finest institutions.  But we need tens of thousands more just like you.

Our political leaders at every level must work together to adopt policies that encourage our best young minds to enter teaching; relieve them of the burden of crippling debt in return for their dedicated service; and support them on the pathway from novice teacher to master educator.

And we actually have to look no farther than our northern neighbor, Ontario, Canada to appreciate the value of raising the status of the teaching profession.  Their achievement levels have gone from the bottom to the top.  When asked how they accomplished this, one union leader said, “It’s because of the trust and respect the government gave us.  We care about the kids as much as anyone in the Ministry of Education. And once our professional standing improved we became protective of it.”

We say all the time that we will get exactly what we expect from our students.  Perhaps we should apply this same thinking to our teachers and school leaders.  Instead of only engaging in command and control strategies, maybe we should learn from the best and expect excellence instead of failure or mediocrity from our educators.

Finally, to successfully navigate today’s education landscape, we absolutely must close the achievement gap and guarantee educational excellence and equity for all students. If schools are to be what Horace Mann called them, the “great equalizers” that compensate for the inequalities of birth, then this is their challenge.

Do you realize he American labor force will be even more diverse in 2018 than it is today?  Over the next seven years, the number of Whites in the workforce is projected to increase by less than 6 percent; the number of African Americans will increase by 14 percent and the number of Hispanics by 33 percent. Yet, Hispanics and African Americans are the ones least well served by our school systems. Fewer than 17% of African American and Latino students finish high school and graduate from college. This disconnect between who is available to work in the near future and who is adequately prepared to engage in meaningful work must be resolved if our country is to remain economically viable.

Every educator must develop high levels of cultural competence to effectively navigate the 21st century education landscape. Each of you will leave this place today to work in schools and systems that are geographically, demographically, and socio-economically diverse from each other.  But I am willing to bet that every one of them has as part of its mission or major goals the education of all children at high levels.

If the American public education system is serious about destroying intellectual segregation for current and future generations of children, its leaders must take specific actions to deal with issues of inequity related to race, class, native language, and even geography once and for all.

Jamie Escalante, one of the nation’s most extraordinary teachers, when told that his poor Latino students could not learn calculus; that they would become frustrated; that it would be dangerous for their self-esteem, replied:  “When you are 16 or 17 growing up in the barrios of East Los Angeles, there are many things that are dangerous. But calculus certainly isn’t one of them.”

Escalante knew that to teach his students well, he had to first shift his perspective.  He had to look at them and see assets, where others had only seen deficits.  He had to accept them as whole beings with limit less potential, whose beliefs, values and behaviors were the reflection of a cultural orientation that has meaning, richness and coherence.  He understood that he had to see them fully before he could teach them well.

As teachers, counselors, speech pathologists; as principals and supervisors; as superintendents and central office administrators; as university faculty and staff, do you see your students fully? Do you know how to build the capacity of your staffs and colleagues so that they see culture as an asset rather than a deficit?

Cultural competence is not about holidays, ethnic food festivals, or making collages of people of color who have achieved success.

It is about first knowing ourselves as cultural beings whose beliefs, behaviors, and most cherished assumptions are the result of our own cultural upbringing.  Only then can we begin to see the cultural differences in our students and colleagues without judging them and finding them wanting.

Those of you whom we honor today are the ones who must not only become masterful at navigating this new educational landscape, but you are the ones who must complete its design and create the maps that those who come after you will use to guide them across this difficult, but richly promising terrain.

I want to end with a quote from Stephanie Pace Marshall that I am hopeful you will take with you in your hearts and minds as you leave here today:

When we change the story, we change the map.

When we change the map, we change the landscape.

When we change the landscape, we change our experiences and our choices.

When we change our experiences and choices, we can change our mind.

And when we change our mind, we can change the world.

Mind-shaping is world-shaping.

This is your work. Your students, your schools, your systems, your nation are counting on you.  We know that you will succeed. 

Good luck and Godspeed.