Good Teachers Create the Future

The following remarks were delivered on May 19, 2012, at the commencement ceremony of Lesley University's Graduate School of Education:

Today, and for each of the next several Saturdays, graduates at universities all over the country are donning hoods and updating their email auto-signatures with new letters like M.A., M.S.W., Ph.D. In some cases, they are also sorting though big-ticket offers from fancy firms that are fighting among one another to hire them at exorbitant salaries.

These include the M.B.A.s, who will earn an average of $95,000 per year, the accountants who will earn upwards of $90,000, the engineers who will take home $100,000, the economists who will draw $101,000, and the pharmacists who will yield an average of $107,000. And we won't even talk about the starting salaries for lawyers and "consultants."

Then, of course, there is you. On the positive side of the ledger, unemployment rates for people with graduate degrees in education are less than 2 percent; in counseling psychology/social work, it's around 3 percent -- which is about half the unemployment rates in business and engineering. But the starting salaries your degrees net are about half of theirs, too.

Let me tell you, though, what those other graduates won't get.

They won't get the enormous satisfaction that comes when Jamal or Garrett makes that breakthrough in reading, or the sense of accomplishment that comes from watching Maria blossom from extremely limited English skills to a confident young girl with full command of two languages.

They won't experience how good it feels to watch Josie explore a much broader world through books, even as she fights for space in a crammed, noisy, multi-family apartment. Nor will they understand the way you counselors and social workers feel when you watch the students you helped through family crisis after family crisis become the first in their families to graduate from high school.

Moreover, what they won't ever stop to think about -- on their way to pick up that fat paycheck or purchase that shiny new car, or that McMansion -- is that if you were paid even a small fraction of the intellectual, moral and economic wealth you create, you would be far better compensated than they are.

Just across town, a couple of economists at Harvard put together some numbers calculating the contributions of top teachers. You were probably too busy studying to notice. The bottom line, however, was stunning. One year with a strong teacher produces about $700,000 in additional lifetime earnings per classroom. Even for those who don't care a lot about earnings, though, there were significant impacts on other things that matter: those students were more likely to go to college and less likely to get pregnant as teenagers, too.

Now, even the economists know what you know: good teachers create the future. Good teachers -- and counselors and social workers and school principals -- matter. They matter a lot to kids of all sorts. But they especially matter to kids of color and kids who are growing up in poverty.

I want to talk with you especially about them. Because their dreams are in danger of imploding and you, frankly, are the only people who can help.

I certainly don't need to tell anybody in this audience that for decades we've told each other -- and the world -- two stories about who we are as Americans. First, that we are the land of opportunity. Whether your parents were born in a village in India or a holler in Kentucky, if you work hard, you can become anything you want to be. And by working hard, each generation of American parents can assure a better education and a better life for their children.

These stories are powerful. They are pervasive. But, sadly, they are no longer true.

Over the past three decades, earnings among lower-income Americans have fallen while those at the top have seen their income grow exponentially. Instead of being the most equal nation on earth, we are now the third most unequal.

And it's not just income inequality that's getting worse, but social mobility, as well.

There have always been some Americans who didn't get the same opportunities as everybody else. But for decades, we kept getting better -- that is, until 1980, when things turned around radically. Since then, it has gotten harder and harder for young people from families of limited means to get a foothold on the ladder leading up. Sadly, among all developed countries worldwide, we are now tied with the United Kingdom as the country where it is least possible for young people to work their way to a better life than their parents.

At the macro level, better and more equal schools aren't the only things we have to do to turn this pattern around. There are a lot of other things that enlightened public policy can do.

But at the individual level, quality education really is the only avenue up. As generations of African-American parents have taught their children: "Your education is literally the only thing that nobody can ever take away from you. They can foreclose on your house, but they can't foreclose on your brain."

So, what does this mean for you?

It means that what you have chosen to do matters. It matters hugely to the children you serve. But it also matters hugely to our nation's future.

And that is truest for those of you who are choosing to work in schools serving poor children. They, more than anybody, need you. What you teach them -- and the expectations you have for them -- will literally make the difference between living lives on the margin or lives that soar into the mainstream. Good teaching, coupled with an unshakable belief in their capacity, is that powerful. Indeed, nobody is more important to our country's future than those of you who will serve in our poorest communities.

Thank you for what you have chosen to do with your lives.

Thank you for not becoming bankers.