The University of North Carolina at Greensboro
School of Education

Dr. Bill Harrison’s Commencement Address

Dr. Bill Harrison gave the keynote address at the 2013 UNCG School of Education Commencement Ceremony. Dr. Harrison received his BA from Methodist College, his MAEd and EdS from East Carolina and his EdD from Vanderbilt, and has been serving students in the North Carolina Public Schools since 1974.  Dr. Harrison began his career as an elementary school teacher, then became an elementary and high school principal and subsequently served 18 years as a superintendent in Hoke, Orange, and Cumberland Counties. In 2009, Governor Perdue appointed him as Chairman of the State Board of Education, a position he held until March 2013.


UNCG School of Education Commencement Address – May 10, 2013

Congratulations for that which you celebrate today – whether you are receiving a bachelor’s degree and entering this great profession, a master’s degree which has resulted in sharpening your skills or a credential to assume greater responsibilities, or a doctorate, which is indicative of your life-long commitment to learning – you have every reason to be proud (or relieved).  Thank you for your commitment to education.  Whether you are a teacher, a teacher of teachers, or a school administrator; you are or will be in a position of leadership and have the opportunity to have a positive impact on others.  You truly have the opportunity to shape the world in which we live.

It is truly an exciting time to be in education.  While we face unprecedented challenges, we are also in a time of incredible opportunity.  I believe those challenges create the opportunity to truly effect change.  Today we are in a position to reshape our schools to truly meet the demands of today’s learners and work force.

In this nation we are doing something that no other nation has even attempted.  We take children from every background, every race, creed, language, culture and economic status – all the children from all the people- and provide them with free public schooling.  And, we are doing better than we’ve ever done.  We are educating more students to a higher level than at any time in our history.  We are graduating more and sending more to higher education than ever.  In short, we are doing the best we have ever done at what we were designed to do.

But, therein rests our primary challenge.  We were created for a different day and economy.  We were built to educate some to a higher level.  As our economy evolved our challenge became to educate more and then as it continued to evolve, to educate most.  In today’s economy we must educate all to a higher level.  That is something we have not been asked to do.  It is an economic imperative that all students leave our schools with high levels of skills and possessing those 21st Century Skills of which we’ve heard so much. By the way, we are 13 plus years into the 21st century.  I would argue it is a moral imperative as well.  It is simply the right thing to do.  I truly believe that those of us who have accepted this responsibility, must do everything we can to ensure all children receive the same type of education we want our own children to receive.

Along with this unprecedented challenge, we have seen an emergence of more and more critics of public schools.  While we have always had our critics, I find much of the discourse becoming much more divisive and to me – that is troubling.  There seems to be considerable concern with the rights of the individual – our liberty rights which I too hold dear.  However, the common good seems to be absent from the conversation.

The State Board of Education spent roughly 18 months talking with hundreds of people during the process of articulating a vision.  What the Board ultimately adopted was a Vision of Public Education in North Carolina:  A Great Public Education System for a Great State.  The vision is a commitment to assuring a strong and coherent system that serves ALL students and that is geared toward the promotion of the public interest.  As today and tomorrow’s leaders, you will play a major role in making the vision a reality.

Public education has always been the foundation for our democratic institutions and economic prosperity.   We provide young people with access to their dreams.  To realize those dreams students must be equipped with the knowledge, skills and perspectives they need to maximize their potential and engage in the work of today as well as the skills to participate in reasoned and civil debate of public issues.  Students must leave our schools fully prepared for careers, postsecondary education, citizenship and lifelong learning.  We must foster within them both a spirit of individual freedom and a sense of common purpose and civic responsibility.

All students must be provided a high quality educational opportunity regardless of their background or where they live.  Oftentimes public schools are one of the few places where young people have the opportunity to learn, work and play with those whose backgrounds and perspectives differ from their own.  As such, the diversity of our population must be celebrated.

We have finally come to realize that one size does not fit all.  If we do indeed value a commitment to the broad purpose of public education as well as maximizing the opportunity for all students, we must become a coherent and flexible system.  We need to encourage diverse and innovative means of delivering education, recognizing the varied academic and career/technical needs and interests of our students through providing the opportunity for choices among a variety of schooling options.

Our schools must become places where children want to attend.  We all want to be where we are safe and know those with whom we interact care about us, we all want to be engaged in work that is meaningful, and we all want to experience success.   Children are no different than adults in this regard.  If those characteristics (being safe and cared for, being engaged, and having the , opportunity to be successful ) are present, students will be as well.  At one time students had to go to school to learn because that is where the information, the teachers and the “stuff” to learn resided.  Now, it resides everywhere and is instantly attainable.  There are over 31 billion searches on Google every month, Google did not exist  15 years ago.  We must give them reasons to come to school.  Why is it that the longer many are with us, the less they like us?  Have you ever seen a kindergartner not excited about school?  How about a 9th grader?  Marc Prenski writes “engage them or enrage them.”

I have been an educator since 1974 and not ready to pack it in yet.  I have loved and learned every minute of it; from my time as a teacher, as an elementary and high school principal, as a superintendent, and even during my time on the state board of education.  As you make your next career step I hope you enjoy your journey as much as I continue to enjoy mine.  And, I hope you will help make my dream a reality that one day, 1.7 million students across North Carolina will wake up and go to school; not because they have to, but because they want to.


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