Commencement Address at George Mason Graduate School of Education

George Mason Commencement Address by Daniel Domenech


My sincere congratulations to all of you for achieving yet another milestone in your education careers and my gratitude for your willingness to be leaders in our profession. Leadership is the theme of my address to you today. At a time when the quality of our educational systems seems to be under attack, endangering the future of public education, I look towards you with high hopes that you will lead us to make the changes that will transform education to meet the demands of the twenty-first century.

Let me say something that I am sure you have heard many times from your professors here at George Mason. There is a significant difference between managing and leading. I have no doubt that you have mastered the necessary skills and knowledge to effectively manage your classrooms, schools, and the departments you may now direct or will direct in the future. It is essential that every school administrator be an excellent manager and administrator. That is a given.

I am here, however, to exhort you to be more. I am here to beg you to be the leaders that will transform education as we know it today. To be the leaders that will see a student as something more than a score on a test. To be the leaders that understand that a child cannot learn if he or she comes to school hungry, or sick, or abused at home, or homeless or lacking any adult supervision. Or that the immigration police will arrest their parents and send them back to a country they have never known. Or children that fear that someone will walk into their school with a gun and shoot them. Be the leaders willing to provide all children with the safe and secure environment they are entitled to and with the opportunities they need to succeed.

I am here to ask you to consider the fact that there is no such thing as the average child. He or she does not exist. I want you to consider the fact that we still group our students in grade levels by age, an organizational pattern imported from Austria by Horace Mann in the 1800s, even though we know that children of the same age do not necessarily achieve at the same level and do have significant disparities. We certainly accept the fact that all eleven-year olds do not weigh the same, or are of the same height, gender, race, hair color, eye color. Yet we continue to group them by age and teach them the same things at the same time and expect them all to keep up with the pace. I know that you are aware of the personalized learning movement that is sweeping the country, where each student is individually taught at a level appropriate to his or her ability and given the time to master the lesson before moving on to the next activity. Personalized learning is the right education for the 21st century and I encourage you to lead us there. Be the leaders that will give children the opportunity to learn without limiting the time they need for mastery.

Believe me, I know it won’t be easy. I have attempted to personalize learning through my entire career, including my 27 years as a superintendent, and I know how difficult it is to change a system that goes  back to the 19th century, but here we are in the 21st century, and you know the old saying: “if we continue to do what we have always done we’ll continue to get what we have always gotten”.

Here are some of the challenges you will face. We still insist on evaluating the child, the teacher, the school, indeed the nation, on the basis of a test score. We must stop doing that. We disregard a child’s potential when we give a timed test and base achievement on the score. What if we allowed them to take as long as they need and see what they achieve then? Are we interested in truly knowing what a child can do or just in how fast they can get it done? Is the goal to finish the race or just that everyone finish it at the same time? Sal Khan of Khan Academy fame recently spoke at AASA’s National Conference in Nashville. I invited him because I had been impressed when I saw one of his Ted talks. He had said that when we construct a building the foundation is most important. If the foundation is not strong, it will never support the building on top of it. Yet, he said, when we teach our children we disregard the foundation. We force them to move on even though they have not gained mastery of a concept and then we wonder why children fail and are left behind.  Todd Rose, author of “The End of Average” also spoke at our conference and shared with us a research study wherein students were given a timed test and their results were noted. The students were then allowed to continue with the test and finish it with no time limit. The results were revealing. The student with the lowest score at the prescribed time wound up with the highest score when there was no time limit. Both Todd and Sal conclude that we are stifling student potential when we do not allow them to learn at their own pace.

Then there is the issue of equity. How many times have you heard that you don’t need to know the test scores to determine the achievement levels of a school? All you need to know is the zip code. There is a huge disparity in how our schools are funded. If a child lives in a wealthy neighborhood they will be attending a school with all the bells and whistles. They will have technology, smaller class sizes, the higher paid most experienced teachers, an environment conducive to learning. Parents who don’t live in the community will look for ways to sneak their students into those schools.

Conversely, on the other side of the tracks, children attend schools that are run down, in need of repairs, with large class sizes and lacking the resources of the school on the other side. We dare wonder why there is a difference in performance?

You are all familiar with the NAEP scores – our nation’s report card. For years I have been using a graph that charts NAEP scores against the percentage of students in a school that are on free and reduced lunch. The results show consistently that the higher the percentage of students on free and reduced lunch, the lower the NAEP scores. The most interesting factor is that the students on free and reduced lunch in a school where they are a small percentage perform significantly better than when they make up the majority of the school’s population. In other words, when students in poverty attend wealthy schools, when they are given the opportunity to be exposed to a quality education, they do better than their counterparts in poor schools. It’s amazing how many of our policy makers and so-called school reformers insist that money does not manner, yet they all send their children to private schools or to the public schools in the ritzy part of town.

So, we know what’s needed to achieve equity. It’s called opportunity. And we know that no time soon will our system of school financing change. So, we must be champions for children by ensuring that poor children are granted the same opportunities as middle-class children. Allow them to learn at their own pace so that they can develop the foundation that will allow them to achieve. Let’s not place road blocks that will keep them out of gifted programs, honors programs, Advanced Placement classes, but allow them to participate and eliminate the time requirements so that they have the advantage of the best programs, but at their time and pace.

And while you’re at it, change the current college and career culture. A career is the goal, college is merely one pathway there. We have become obsessed with the notion that every child should graduate from high school and attend a four-year college when the reality is that less than forty percent of our students accomplish that. What happens to the other 60%? Many dropped out of high school or dropped out of college without attaining the skills needed to fill the thousands of jobs that are available, and that corporate America refers to as the skill gap.

Let’s provide our students with multiple pathways to careers. Youth Apprenticeship models are now developing in many of our high schools similar to the European models. Sixteen-year-old students and older can participate in corporate sponsored programs where they go to high school part time and then go to an apprenticeship that pays them a salary. High Schools and Community Colleges are forging partnerships and establishing dual enrollment programs that allow high school students to graduate with an Associate Degree. Many of those students then go on to a four-year college to get their Bachelor’s degree. Opportunities are being created for more high school students to explore pathways to a multitude of careers, many that do not require the four-year degree. This will not take away from the four-year institutions of higher learning but will provide more viable opportunities for that 60% of the population without the 4-year degree.

And let’s not forget about teaching as a career. There is a critical teacher shortage in America today. The pay is mediocre, witness the statewide teacher strikes that have taken place recently, and the criticism and attack on our public education system is merciless. We need to create pathways into the teaching profession at the high school level. We need you to begin to grow our own the minute a student enters high school. There are districts that have already forged partnerships with schools of education involving the high school students that have identified as wanting to be teachers.

My dear friends, as you can see, the challenges are many. The need to transform our educational system is critical. We need to redefine what we mean by success. It should not be just a score on a test. It should allow students to follow their passion and enjoy what they do. We need to honor the successful plumber as we honor the PhD. We should allow social emotional metrics to become part of our accountability systems. We need to provide the wrap-around services and safe environments conducive to learning.

You are the future of education in America. You are the Champions for Children and education that will close the equity gap, that will create alternative pathways for all our students and that will make education in America greater than it is today.

Let us remember that, despite our shortcomings, education today is the best that it has ever been. Our high school graduation rates are the highest, dropout rates are the lowest, college going rates are high, scores in NAEP’s reading and math tests are high, parents with children in school give their schools the highest ratings ever. We can be proud of what we have accomplished, but we can do more, and we can do better.

You are the future leaders of our school systems. I am proud to say that my daughter, Jillian, is among you today. Be the change agents that will continue to make our school system the cornerstone of democracy. That will keep America great. Be the champions for children by having the courage to provide opportunities for all.

Again, my sincere congratulations and gratitude for pursuing this most honorable and rewarding profession.


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