I had the privilege last Thursday to give the address at the graduation ceremony for Raincross High School, the Riverside Virtual School, and Summit View Independent Study in Riverside School District. The three schools are competency-, or mastery-, based schools in which students progress once they master a concept, not based on a particular day in the calendar. The graduation ceremony was a moving one and also a reminder of the power of online learning to serve those who are literally not served by the traditional school system. What follows is a copy of my speech at the graduation ceremony.

Thank you so much.

To all of you who are graduating today, you may not have known this when you started at Raincross High School, the Riverside Virtual School or Summit View Independent Study, but you stand at the beginning of a revolution in education. It is an honor and a privilege for me to be a part of this special day in your lives, and I thank the Riverside School District for making it possible.

You’re all here for different reasons. Some of you made a concerted choice to follow a different path. You may be like Michael van Haaster, who is graduating today, and said, “We were looking for an alternative to the normal public school because my parents had been through [it] with my older brother, and they hadn’t liked it.”

Some had dreams of what your life could be, and traditional school got in the way. As Alec Parker, who is graduating today, said, the structured traditional school didn’t give him the time to pursue his passion of tennis when he was a freshman, and it wasn’t able to provide him with the software programming learning options he has enjoyed.

Still others of you needed a second chance. Many of you needed an option that fit your needs, gave you more flexibility, exposed you to more opportunities, and allowed you to move at your own pace. For most here, a combination of all of these things is true.

You are the ones driving this educational revolution. You went to one of these three schools because you needed to learn at the time, place, path, and pace that made sense for you so that you could be successful. These schools made those options the rule, not the exception.

Josh Goraleski, who is graduating today, said that some people see this as a “ghetto” last-chance school, but it’s not really like that. He didn’t see one fight, and he made some good friends.

So if someone tells you that you went to a ghetto school, just smile. After all, when you were born, if people said that one day you would be able to take pictures with a telephone, they would have been laughed at, but now that’s the norm. Although the number of schools that provide personalized learning options is tiny today, that number is growing—and fast. And it’s because of all of you: the pioneers who are making this the new way of schooling. So yes, smile at them, because you’re going to have the last laugh.

The reason this revolution is happening is that the education system our great nation has today is outdated. It was created in the early 1900s and was built to treat every student in the same way—like employees in a factory.

Now I don’t know if that’s ghetto, but it sure doesn’t sound fun, and it doesn’t make much sense either if we want to see every student succeed because none of us is the same. We all have different learning needs at different times. We all have different life circumstances. And, as a result, we need an education system that can personalize for those differences, which is what led you here. As Josh said, “[The school let’s you] work at your own pace. I finish [the material] a lot faster, and I actually learn it.”

What these schools do—employing what’s called competency-based, or mastery-based, learning—happens to be a better way of learning for everyone. You move on when you master something, not when the clock arbitrarily says you should. You don’t create gaps in your understanding; you stay motivated and learn to own your learning. It just makes sense.

Many of you used online learning—in the virtual school or in blended-learning settings—which is a key part of this revolution. Our research shows that in just 7 years from now, over half—50 percent—of all high school courses will be delivered online in some form or fashion. When I wrote the book Disrupting Class that made this prediction in 2008, I had schools like the ones from which you’re graduating today in mind. Many of you will be able to say that you were among the first to have this experience. And as Alec said, “the best part of the online courses is that you can learn on your own, which… is much more beneficial than someone telling you the answer. It’s harder but it makes a bigger impact.”

At the same time, some of you haven’t used online learning, and that’s just the point of these schools. The school should fit your needs; you should be able to learn in the way you best learn because there is no one-size-fits-all way of learning.

Now this is all sounding pretty innovative. I happen to know some of these folks up here—Dr. Haglund, Superintendent Miller—and one of them is even my friend on Facebook—and I’ll admit it, they are pretty innovative people.

But without all of you, this innovation wouldn’t have been possible. You are the resourceful ones who seized this opportunity to direct and own your high school educational experience. In this room is the first graduating class that started as freshmen with the virtual school. You all are the trailblazers.

And you did this because there is one thing that you all do have in common. You have dreams of your own, and you know that a high school degree is important—not for its own sake—but to realize those goals.

Many of you already have specific plans after graduation. Alec is going to study software engineering, Michael plans to be a mechanical engineer, and Josh aims to be an electrician. And some of you may have no idea what you want to do or you’re going to change your mind 15 more times, but you know that a high school degree and, for many of you, going on to college, will be the ticket to that better life. And that’s normal. When I was in school, I dreamed of being an astronaut—some people do say I must be from outer space. Then I dreamed of being president of the United States; you’ll have to give me a break, I grew up in Washington, DC. Then I dreamed of being a musician. And come to think of it, I dreamt of giving a speech at my high school graduation, so thank you for humoring me. But I never imagined that I’d write a book and start an organization dedicated to improving and transforming our country’s education system.

Which brings me back to the revolution that you are all leading. You stand today at the vanguard of the future of education. At most schools, teachers stand in front of their students and tell them that learning has no boundaries, yet there are four walls around their classroom. Having graduated from one of these three schools, you know that schools do not need walls because there are no limits to what you can accomplish. You know that school does not need a bell schedule because time is your friend, not your enemy. You know that teachers can be so much more—in the right setting, teachers like Mr. O’Rourke, Mrs. Hanes, Mrs. Lwanga, and yes, even Dr. Haglund, who in his own sense is graduating today, can be your coaches, your cheerleaders, your mentors, and your friends. What you’ve learned is that every student deserves a Mrs. Greenawalt, who every day can ask you, “When are you going to graduate? When are you going to graduate?”

What I’ve learned from several of you is that teachers at this school were here for you; they were there to answer your questions; they were there to spend the time working one-on-one with you—whatever it took. And you’ve learned how to talk with adults and ask them for help when you need it because you know how to own your learning now. As many of you have said, college won’t be as hard now because you had to learn how to manage your time, and this experience has prepared you for that far more than a traditional school would have. Not only that, but I would also add that you have learned one of the most important skills of all—how to be a lifelong learner. Don’t forget that one, because to be successful in the future, none of us will ever be able to stop learning.

What you’ve also learned is that, above all else, you can achieve anything you want. Every time you look at your diploma, remember that what you’ve learned is not that you can accomplish one thing, but that you can accomplish anything. You may not do it in the traditional way that everyone says it’s always been done, but that’s because you are an innovator. You know how to chart new paths and make things work. You’ve done it with your high school education, and you’ll do it again. You are an inspiration to me, your teachers, and your families and friends in the audience today who are so proud of you. And now please join me in thanking your family and friends who helped get you here by standing and giving them a round of applause.

By graduating with a high school diploma from Riverside School District today, one of the most innovative school districts in the nation, you show all of us—and you show yourself—that no dream you hold is outside of your reach. After all, graduating from high school is no small task. You put in the work, and today the world can see that you did it. My last piece of advice is to keep dreaming big, and keep accomplishing your dreams.

Distinguished guests, friends, and families, please join me in congratulating the members of the class of 2013!


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.