These posts are the opinions of the writers and do not necessarily reflect the views of A+ Denver.
In May, my oldest daughter will graduate from college debt free. Our last payment will will be in two weeks when I will be lifting a glass in celebration. She will have the gift of a BA from a good college, unburdened by loan payments so that she might pursue the career of her choice. More than 70% of American college students graduate with some debt and the average debt is now $30,000 (the down payment for a house in most parts of the U.S.). Not only do these liabilities make it a challenge to enter the middle class, but it means that graduates are pressured to take jobs to pay the loans rather than those to find their passions.
I come from a family that for the last three generations, has focused on access to college and has been fortunate to have the resources to make that happen. After her birth, our daughter had a college savings account within her first year. Like most families that immigrated to America, it didn’t start that way. My Great Grandfather traveled to Ohio from Northern Ireland to escape poverty like many of today’s immigrants from Central America. He had the good fortune to be a manservant for a physician, Dr. Dudley (my grandfather and my namesake). Luckily for my family, Dr. Dudley believed deeply in the power of education. He encouraged my great grandparents to get their kids on track for college and provided financial support for my grandfather to go to Cornell University.
My family jumped from struggling working-class Irish, to being the subject of John Cheever’s writings with other struggles. Cleveland poverty to Westchester privilege in one generation. Education has always been a great leveler, and it is even more true today with income gaps by education level growing faster than ever.
According to the US Department of Labor, the average college graduate will make about $51,000 per year compared to $28,000 for a high school graduate, and $21,000 for a high school dropout. On top of that, unemployment rates are almost four times higher for dropouts than college graduates and employment rate gaps between college graduates and dropouts have grown in recent years (or decades) as jobs become globally competitive and require more skills. Not to mention current job projections which suggest that over 70% of new jobs in the next five years will require a post-secondary certificate or degree. This means that the majority of students in underperforming urban systems are being prepared for a life of poverty.
I was thinking of the impact of Dr. Dudley on my family when on a recent visit to Oakland, CA to catch up on the latest efforts to improve this city’s public education system. Oakland, like Denver Metro districts, continues to struggle to prepare most students to earn a living wage. Only 1 in 10 low-income students of color receive a college degree in Oakland, Denver, and Aurora.
To take on this challenge, the City of Oakland has just launched a bold new initiative, Oakland’s Promise, which provides a $500 college savings account for every child born in Oakland. It’s an effort that has learned from the other 30 plus promise initiatives including Kalamazoo Promise which provides scaled tuition assistance based on the number of years a student attends school in the district.
Oakland Promise is a multifaceted initiative. It includes the college savings account that could grow from this $500 seed to cover a significant portion of cost of college. In addition, it includes scholarships and future centers. Oakland’s future centers, like those in Denver high schools, provide guidance around college matches for students and partnerships with local colleges that allow for intensive support for first generation college students. Oakland Promise offers families robust support along the entire continuum from birth to college graduation. The program has been thoughtfully designed by the City of Oakland with strong ties to the school district, local non-profits and colleges. While Oakland’s Promise is far from perfect (there needs to be a more ambitious effort to improve Oakland’s schools), it will be interesting to follow.
Denver could learn much from Oakland. They started their “promise” with a college fund from private sources and significant university commitments before going to voters for a public commitment to plug a hole largely created by Colorado’s lack of support for higher education. With all the recent talk of social venture impact bonds in Colorado, Oakland’s promise program provides one of the better designs for a significant return on a public investment in terms of savings from social welfare programs and prisons. Colorado policy makers would be wise to investigate how a Colorado college promise that included a college fund for low-income families might save public funds and drive further economic development. And more importantly dramatically changing the trajectories of families as a caring physician did for my family one hundred years ago.
Another View #141 Peter Huidekoper,Jr. Continue Reading...
Last week, I had the of privilege being flown by a C-2 Greyhound from San Diego’s Naval Air Station to the USS John Stennis, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, to spend 24 hours learning about the US Navy’s training and operations with a small group of educators and business leaders. The Stennis is one of ten Nimitz class carriers. It is longer than three football fields and houses about 5,000 sailors. It’s a floating airport at the center of a carrier strike force composed of nearly a dozen ships, the most powerful unit ever built.
Upon our abrupt landing (capture by the deck wire), we were welcomed on the Stennis by the ship’s XO, Captain Hakimzadeh. Interestingly, he immigrated to Mississippi from Iran right after the revolution as a kid. Captain “Hak” studied electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon on a NROTC and went on to become a naval aviator with over 800 carrier landings. I have no doubt that John Stennis who represented the great state of Mississippi for over 40 years in the US Senate (if alive today) would be proud to have such a remarkable fellow Mississippian in command of the carrier named after him.
I’ve been on a number of remarkable learning experiences all over the world but nothing compares to being given a physics lesson by a 22-year-old junior grade petty officer while we stood on the carrier deck watching a pilot take off in her F-18. Even more impressive than watching an F-18 land on a moving ship in pitch black night, were the remarkable sailors on the ship. The group is remarkably diverse with an average age of 21. All ethnicities, religions, and even many nations (first and second generation immigrants) are represented on the ship. More than 20% of the sailors are women, a growing number of whom are piloting the impressive F-18’s. All of the ship’s command officers talked of the benefit of this diversity to their mission, and of the need to have more women represented in every job on the carrier.
I often write (and advocate) for all sorts of quality schools and the need for all students, particularly low-income students to have access to college, but I (and many of my ed reform colleagues) do not spend enough time learning about other education pathways to a successful career. The military, and in particular the Navy, offer a number of pathways to college and a post-Navy career: through NROTC, through the GI Bill after sailors enlist and gain experience, or just through the extensive training provided by the Navy to develop skills that are relevant for both military and civilian life. There was a reason that senior HR people from FedEx were on the trip with me.
It was clear to me in dozens of conversations on my trip from junior enlisted, chiefs, all the way up to the admiral in charge of the strike force that education and training are paramount to the Navy’s readiness. They get it. According to RAND, the Navy invests about $245,000 in the average average sailor’s master’s degree. The technology on the carrier, while remarkable, is totally dependent upon thoughtful, well-trained people at every level who are able to make split second decisions.
In observing sailors at work (and talking to many), leadership and problem solving are at the core of their training. Yes, of course there are tons of technical things to master, but everyone seemed to be engaged in continuous learning with a focus on leadership. There were systems and habits in place where sailors received feedback, not just from their superiors but from those lower in rank. For example, the top gun pilots not only received feedback on every flight from their commander and other pilots, but also from the enlisted folks in charge of the landing logistics. I saw a number of junior enlisted men and women acting as chiefs in the flight control room or on the bridge as senior officers observed and gave feedback. I would not have guessed that a recent high school graduate could be directing a dozen $80 million dollar fighter jets in the sky, a hundred miles off of San Diego in the middle of several international commercial flyways. It is a key component of their training, schools and school districts could learn much from them.
The much-too-long list of recent terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris, Syria, Egypt, and Mali are a scary reminder that the men and women I met on aircraft carrier are likely going to be called upon to engage in the Middle East or North Africa. We need our sailors to have not only the skills to operate an aircraft carrier but to have the knowledge to understand the complex history of the Middle East or other parts of the world. A recent report from the Council on Foreign Relations showed that more than 75% of our high school graduates are not qualified for the military (even fewer in Denver and Aurora are qualified). More than 60% of jobs in aerospace, life science, and defense face shortages of qualified applicants according to the same report. Nuclear carriers are among the most complex machines ever devised by man, and I’d like to know we have a deep pool of educated American engineers to run them.
Whether you believe that a quality education is essential for our economy, democracy, or our national security, it requires us to have more effective schools. None of our institutions can be safe in an increasingly unstable world without more of the population pursuing higher levels of learning. This experience served as a reminder that there are multiple pathways to this learning, and we as an education community need to better understand and open opportunities for our children. We also need to share practice across these pathways. We need the Stennis sailors ready to do their job and protect us, while on the home front we do more to prepare our children for living in a complex and sometimes dangerous world.
Thanksgiving couldn’t come at a better time this year. With conflict and violence on the rise around the globe, it provides a rare time to bring family, neighbors and friends together to cook, talk and hang out. And there are no gifts! It’s my favorite holiday.
We will gather part of our tribe in Los Angeles where we will share turkey, Mama Stamberg’s cranberry relish, tahdig (Persian rice) and a dozen other dishes. Our Thanksgiving menu is reflective of our family and neighbors which includes recent immigrants from Iran, India, and others from Ireland and Greece several generations back. It’s a very American table, some traditional dishes made better with foods from distant lands.
While the food at Thanksgiving is critical, it’s the people and conversations that make for a great day. Catching up with those we have not seen for some time, welcoming new folks to the table, all combined with a few debates (maybe some heated over politics or family). It’s about a series of engaging conversations that include lots of listening, questions, and making connections to culture, politics, and our lives. And yes have an argument or two, maybe some angst with your brother and some good gossip.
For me, a great Thanksgiving is what a great school should be—a place where kids and adults of all ages gather to joyfully (most of the time) learn from one another through questions and reflection. I look forward to the discussions we will have on ecology with my birding father, and on the complex politics of Iran with my brother in-law's family.
Too often our schools are dingy prison-like buildings with industrial food where adults and kids march through uninspired classes with little or no time to go deeply into anything. We spend far too little time getting to know kids, teachers, or families, or have deeper conversations about those things that matter to kids and adults.
Maybe in addition to Common Core, PARCC, and “Teaching like a Champion,” we should apply some lessons from a great Thanksgiving to take time to know students and their families better, and to engage them in meaningful conversations which have consequence. Have a great Thanksgiving, and may your conversation be as rich as the pecan pie (though I prefer pumpkin).