Wilson said of Princeton: “The days of glad expansion are gone ... our resource for the future lies in careful thought, providence and a wise economy; and the school must be of the nation.”
The school must be “of the nation” — what did Wilson mean by that? You may have heard the expression before about General Motors that “as GM goes, so goes the nation.” I think President Wilson — ahead of his time — foresaw that one day, as the education system goes, so, too, would the fate of America. And that day has now arrived.
Too many of America’s schools are not making the grade. Overall, about one in four U.S. students drop out or fail to finish high school on time. And in high schools known as “dropout factories,” more than half the students never earn a diploma.
According to the Alliance for Excellent Education, if the United States could cut its dropout rate in half, those new graduates would likely earn as much as $7.6 billion more in an average year compared to their likely earnings without a high school diploma. That difference would translate into substantially more tax revenue, more homes purchased, more jobs created and fewer people straining the safety net.
Nations that out-educate us today will out-compete us tomorrow. America’s resource for the future lies in schools, colleges and universities that prepare this country’s students to succeed in our global economy.
In coining Princeton’s unofficial motto, Wilson was staking two claims. He was saying, first, that those with every educational advantage have an obligation to help those without educational opportunity. And second, he was arguing that there was an element of mutual self-interest in public service. He was suggesting that the fate of those less fortunate was, in fact, tightly tied our own well-being, not just as individuals but as a society.
Everyone has not only an economic imperative to educate America’s children but a moral obligation as well. More than a century ago, Horace Mann said that, in America, “education was the great equalizer.” That observation still holds today — education is the surest path out of poverty. It has the unique power to transcend differences of class, race, sex and ZIP code. And that is why education is the civil rights issue of our generation.
I am deeply grateful to Princeton for making good on the promise of service reflected in the school’s motto, which has been broadened since Wilson’s day to be “in the nation’s service and in the service of all nations.” A number of alumni are leaders in the education reform movement, most prominently Teach for America founder Wendy Kopp ’89. And on my visit to campus, I met with the next generation of education reform advocates. In particular, Students for Education Reform is contributing a critical student voice to this movement — now at 20 universities around the country.
But for all of Princeton’s contributions to education reform, I’d like to see the University do more to meet public education’s most fundamental challenge: finding 1.6 million great teachers in the next decade as the baby boom bubble of teachers retires.
Right now, Princeton’s teacher preparation program produces only about a dozen new teachers each year. They tend to remain in the profession longer than most, and they have deep training in their subjects, which is terrific — but there aren’t nearly enough of them. At a school with so much talent, every department on campus should be a “teacher preparation program” of sorts.
Maryland high school teacher Michelle Shearer ’95, a chemistry major who went through teacher prep at Princeton, is in the running to being named National Teacher of the Year. Just as your chemistry department trained Ms. Shearer, I challenge all of Princeton’s departments and programs to encourage and prepare more of their graduates to enter this essential profession.
The single-biggest impact we can have in education is to get America’s hardest-working and smartest people to pursue teaching. To be successful, we need to fully rethink the teaching profession and restore the honor and stature that teaching enjoyed back when President Wilson was professor Wilson.
The United States needs the talent of Princeton graduates and thousands of students at our best institutions across the nation to help lead the way. We need, in Woodrow Wilson’s words, to reach the day when this school — and every school — “must be of the nation.”
Arne Duncan is U.S. Secretary of Education. Visit TEACH.gov to learn more about the rewards and challenges of the teaching profession.