Ronald Ehrenberg Commencement Speech
Commencement Speech by Ronald Ehrenberg (May 2011)
"I am honored to be receiving an honorary degree later today from Penn State, one of our nation’s most outstanding universities. I must confess that my own university, Cornell, stopped awarding honorary degrees in 1872, a few years after its founding. Cornell’s first president felt the awarding of honorary degrees would diminish the importance of the degrees earned by Cornell’s students through their years of hard work at the university. This policy was reaffirmed by our faculty senate as recently as October 2007. So while I am grateful for the opportunity to speak to you, I want to stress that it is you, the Penn State College of Education’s graduating class of 2011, who we are truly honoring today.
I was born and bred to be an educator. My parents were New York City secondary school teachers at a time when the NYC school system was among the best in the nation. I was “programmed” by them to become a secondary school mathematics teacher, and my remarks today will emphasize how important I believe careers in elementary and secondary education are. However, the faculty at my undergraduate institution, Harpur College, which is now the undergraduate liberal arts college at Binghamton University, opened up my eyes to other possibilities and taught me that a student chooses his or her own path. I also learned from them that great professors come in many forms; some are captivating lecturers, some let students repeatedly know about their concern for them, some are comedians and use humor to keep students on their toes, some give students massive reading lists and scare them into working harder than they ever dreamed possible, some regularly interact with their students outside of the classroom, and some do all of these things. When I reflect on how I have evolved as a professor, I clearly see the influence of all of my undergraduate professors.
From these professors, and the ones that I later met as a Ph.D. student at Northwestern University, I learned the importance of role models and how professors influence students in ways that we can not even begin to imagine. I continue to be amazed when Cornell alumni return to campus and tell me how something I said to them many years ago altered their lives in important ways. As you receive your degrees today, I hope you will reflect on your experiences at Penn State and the impacts that your professors have had on you.
You are beginning your careers at a very important time. Our nation’s economic prosperity and improvements in its standards of living during the 20th century were driven largely by our leadership in education. During most of the century we led the world in terms of the share of our population with college degrees. However, in recent decades our educational performance has stagnated; while we continue to produce about the same proportion of college graduates as we did in the past, many other countries have improved their performance, and we have fallen to no better than 10th place in the world in terms of the share of our 25-to-34-year-old population with college degrees. Moreover, the groups in our population that are growing the most rapidly are the ones that have been historically underrepresented in higher education--African Americans, Hispanic Americans and Americans from lower income families.
All of this is occurring at a time when good paying jobs for high school graduates are rapidly going away and having education beyond high school is essential for a reasonable standard of living. While in 1980 the typical employed 25-to-34-year-old male college graduate earned only 19 percent more than his high school graduate counterpart, by 2008 the college graduate’s earnings advantage had grown to 71 percent. The change experienced by young females was similar. Moreover, during the period, the earnings level of high school graduates, adjusted for inflation, hardly grew at all. So to improve the economic well-being of our population will require us to reduce high school drop out rates and to insure that more high school graduates are prepared to undertake college study.
While what our schools do has never been more important, the pressure to improve their performance also has never been greater. The range of policies that have been enacted, or are being proposed, is mind boggling: No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, charter schools, incentive pay for teachers, changing seniority and tenure rules, limiting collective bargaining rights for teachers, to name but a few. It is hard to keep up with all of the reforms being proposed, and only gradually are we accumulating a body of empirical evidence about what policies work. However, sometimes personal observations can be as useful as statistical evidence, and I want to share one with you based upon my wife’s experiences.
I have been fortunate to be married for the last 44 years to an extraordinary educator. My wife Randy has taught and been a building and central administrator in the Evanston Illinois, Amherst Massachusetts, and Ithaca and North Colonie, NY, school systems. She has published papers on the teaching of English and on educational administration issues and has won awards for her accomplishments from the School District Administrators Association of New York, the New York State Association for Women in Educational Administration, and the New York State Council of School Superintendents.
Randy retired in August after spending the last nine years of her career as superintendent of North Colonie, an award-winning district in the Albany, N.Y. area. Standard & Poors selected North Colonie as one of the forty-seven highest performing school districts, out of almost 700, in NYS, because its students’ academic achievement significantly exceeds that of other districts’ that have comparable socioeconomic characteristics, It has virtually no disparities in educational attainment by family income or race and ethnicity, and it has extraordinarily high success rates for its special education students. It also spends less per student than any other suburban district in the Albany area. The district was wonderful before my wife got there, and she made it even better.
While there are many characteristics of the district that led to its success, most important was that long before the passage of “No Child Left Behind," the district adopted the principle that the success of each student is the responsibility of the school system as a whole and no student should be permitted to fail. Put simply, students know that the district and its teachers want them to succeed and will help them to do that.
The attitude that each student can and will succeed is important for all teachers to adopt, but teachers do not uniformly do so. This point was recently reemphasized to my wife while she was volunteering at Cornell’s Art Museum. When a local 5th-grade class visited to do a crafts project, she noticed a boy walking away from the rest of the class to use the bathroom. As she followed him to make sure he was looked after, the class’s teacher said to her 'he is always a problem.'
Randy has always believed that every child can succeed, so she was determined to help this young man complete his project. She was furious that the teacher had “labeled” him as a “problem.” Working with the young man, she helped him become one of the few in the class to successfully complete the project. The message she conveyed to me with this tale is that teachers should not have their views of students colored by others; always start with the assumption that each student can and will succeed.
Graduation speeches usually conclude with the speaker offering the graduates some lessons about life and I would be remiss if I did not provide you with three that I have learned. First, no one sails through life without facing major problems. My wife and I have had to cope with many. Most certainly our most difficult challenge was the health problems faced by our older son who developed a malignant brain tumor in 1991 when he was a 19-year-old college junior that left him with a number of serious disabilities. He suffered a recurrence in 2004 and sadly died in 2008.
Despite the challenges that our son faced from the effects of his illness and treatments, he was able to complete college, attend and graduate from law school, get married, have a daughter (and a son who was born after he died), work as an attorney at the U.S. Department of Labor, and participate in an improv comedy group that did shows at hospitals and senior centers. If you are to remain happy and optimistic during your lives, as our son did, it is important for you to develop the ability to cope with the major problems you will inevitably face and to understand that for most people problems increase with age. The happiest people are not necessarily the people who are lucky enough to avoid problems, but rather the ones whose ability to cope increases at a more rapid rate than their problems do.
Second, many of the graduate students who I work with have a hard time believing the early insecurities that I tell them that I felt, the “dry” periods that I tell that I still experience, and the fears that I had early in my career that I would never generate another idea. They look at my long publication record and the list of honors I have received, including today’s, and question whether I am lying to them. But I repeatedly tell them these stories to emphasize that their “heroes” are mortals and that the fears that they themselves are facing as they embark on their careers are not unique. In academia, as in many other professions, individuals are never supposed to display weaknesses and insecurities to colleagues. However, I believe that those of us who have achieved great success have an obligation to discuss these matters with people such as you who are beginning your careers and I hope you will find mentors who will be as equally open and honest with you as I have been.
Finally, I have learned what I should have always known, namely that family and friends mean much more in the long run than all of the professional success that one may achieve. So do not become so obsessed with your careers that you ignore what really is important in life.
My wife graduated from college in three years at the age of 19 so that we could get married. She gave up tenured teaching positions twice early in her career to allow me to accept positions at different universities. She has been my best friend, as well as the love of my life, and without each other neither of us could have coped with our son’s long illness and then his death. Her experiences as teacher and school administrator also have been the source of numerous research ideas for me and over the years we have written papers together.
During the nine years that Randy was superintendent of schools in North Colonie, which is three hours from Ithaca by car during the few months of the year when it is not snowing, we had a commuter marriage. Adjusting to a commuter marriage after 34 years of marriage, and being apart three to four nights a week, was not easy for me, especially since I did virtually all of the commuting. But the happiness that comes from seeing one’s partner achieve professional success equivalent to one’s own is extraordinary; Randy’s years at North Colonie meant as much to her as my years at Cornell have meant to me.
Congratulations again to all of you on the degrees that you have earned and are receiving today and on the important careers upon which you are about to embark. I hope that each of you will find professional success and meaning in your life’s work and be as fortunate as I have been in finding a lifelong partner."