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Peggy G. Carr, Ph.D.
Commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics
Commissioner's Commencement Address at Howard University's School of Education

Historically Black Colleges and Universities or HBCUs hold a unique position within our education system. They cultivate a scholarly and welcoming environment for students from diverse backgrounds, and historically have helped hundreds of thousands of students break down barriers to career and economic advancement. HBCU week celebrates the role HBCUs play in our country, advancing educational equity and excellence.

HBCUs not only provide an education — they also train new generations of professionals who will go on to become educators: teachers, principals, superintendents, and professors. In 2020–21, HBCUs awarded over 3,000 degrees in education1. This is critically important now, as schools all over the country tell us they are having trouble finding enough teachers.

I was honored to be chosen as the 2023 commencement speaker for the Howard University School of Education. As I told the new graduates, Howard provided me with a safe place to learn and grow; but we all should expect to be challenged when we ‘leave the nest.’ The good news is that HBCUs prepare you well for those challenges. As a tribute to HBCUs, I am delighted to share the transcript of my speech with you.

Good morning, President Frederick, Dean Williams, the Board of Trustees, distinguished School of Education faculty and alumni, family, friends, guests, and most importantly: Congratulations to the Class of 2023!

It's great to share this day with you, as Howard is also my academic home. Being back to deliver this address is an honor beyond my wildest dreams, because Howard is a magical place; it's home, and I love everything about it.

I've sat where you are today; twice, as I received my graduate degrees. As Bisons, we speak the same language—the Quad, Yard, Hilltop, and WHUR "Quiet Storm." We have a certain swagger about us. We share a special bond, and it does not matter from where you came—you are here now.

So, I feel like I have the license to be a bit more direct with my messages to you today.

Like you, when I was at Howard, I was protected, nurtured, and given a safe place in which to learn and grow. Not unlike all HBCUs, Howard provides a safety net for its up-and-coming scholars.

But, make no mistake about it, when you leave the nest, expect to be challenged, to have your values and principles questioned, and to shatter a glass ceiling or two if you want to change the world. Howard is a haven for people like you and me—the finest HBCU one could be blessed to attend in this magnificent country of ours. But, now that you have those diplomas in your hands, there's work to be done.

If your goal is to change the world, then expect some pushback. People toss around the words—equality, fairness, and justice—all the time, but their perspectives on how to get the work done does not always align to what we were taught here. Expect to be challenged.

As Howard scholars, we are guided by a passion for equality, equity, and justice. It is instilled in us while being trained and educated at this historic University—to turn over every rock, look under every hood, look behind every door, to tell the story of this country—the good and bad, the lows and highs, and our country's bright and dark spots.

I offer an example of how Howard University's story is intricately woven into the story of America. Consider me. I am the great-granddaughter of freed slaves. My story is an extension of the Howard University story. To this day, it is the only university of higher learning with its own congressional budget line item because of its historical relevance to Reconstruction.

Howard University was chartered by the U.S. Congress in 1867 to educate freed slaves. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), which I now lead, was also founded in the same year to monitor the condition of education following the Civil War.

In 2021, I became the first person of color, appointed by President Biden, to be the Commissioner of NCES and to report on the quality and condition of education in this country, about 150 years after Reconstruction.

My story is not unique. Since this institution was established to educate newly freed slaves, it has prepared the first African American Supreme Court Justice, Thurgood Marshall, the same justice who argued and won Brown v. Board of Education, giving African Americans the right to an equal education under the law.

And this great institution graduated the first African American Vice President of the United States of America, Kamala Harris.

So, I expect you to shatter some glass ceilings as you embark upon your new and exciting careers.

For the future teachers, principals, and superintendents of our K–12 education system in this class, enter your new careers as bold and defiant as Queen Esther, in the Book of Esther, as she bravely faced the king to save the lives of her people at her own peril. The children in underserved, underprivileged communities need the kind of help that only you can provide, as you truly understand what inequality, inequity, and injustice look like. You have a lot of work to do to help improve the quality of education in our K–12 system. But know that this institution has prepared you well.

For the future professors, researchers, and deans of colleges and universities in this class, enter your new careers thinking out-of-the-box, utilizing the emerging education ecosystem of data science, chatbots, and virtual teaching and learning. Then, go after those multi-million-dollar grants and research dollars that you so rightly deserve. We need you to conduct rigorous evidence-based studies to uncover the best practices, effective curriculum, and tests that have been proven to work with underserved and underprivileged children.

To all of the 2023 Graduating Class of the School of Education, I have two messages.

First, take risks, think out-of-the-box, and be prepared to fail and fail often. Life is not fair, and failure can be debilitating. It will not be easy. Still, I encourage you to take risks.

Michael Jordan was passed over by his high school junior varsity team. His mother told him to work harder. He went on to win six NBA championships.

So, find that seat at the table. Even better, seek to own the table or think big and set your sights on owning the whole building.

Second, if you want to change the world, to be successful, don't focus on how much money you can make. Focus on what you can do to help others with that money, fame, and fortune. You've never seen a U-Haul behind a hearse—because you can't take it with you.

Giving back is the joy in success. There will never be anything as fulfilling in your life as making a difference in somebody else's.

In conclusion, to all graduates of the School of Education: today, it's your turn. Being a Howard University alumnus makes you different—it's your superpower. People often say that Howard is the Harvard of HBCUs. I say that Howard stands alone, and no such comparison is necessary.

I challenge you to play to win in the game of life with the sense of purpose; racial and social justice grounding; and commitment to underserved students and transformational change that only your Howard University experience was able to give you.

As I look across this auditorium, I'm heartened and encouraged by what I see. I love what I see.

Congratulations to the Class of 2023!

Go forth and do great things. May God bless you and keep you. Thank you.

1 SOURCE: U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics, Integrated Postsecondary Education Data System (IPEDS), Completions component final data (2001-02 - 2019-20) and provisional data (2020-21).