Arne Duncan on education — and inequity, and injustice

Arne Duncan
Arne Duncan

Arne Duncan sounds like a man who is ready to get out of Washington.

At a recent Commonwealth Club of California program moderated by EdSource editor-at-large John Fensterwald, Duncan spoke briefly about educational gains made during his seven year term as U.S. Secretary of Education – but repeatedly and at length about the inequities and injustices that remain across the country. His frustration is palpable.

All those debates about Common Core, testing, over-testing? Sideline arguments. “All we can do at the federal level,” Duncan says, “is fight for equity, excellence and innovation. Take politics out of it. Figure out how to get better faster. The school-to-prison pipeline is real; suspensions and expulsions lead to crime.” And don’t even get Arne Duncan started on gun violence.

“The arc of the moral universe is long,” the Secretary quoted Martin Luther King Jr. as saying, “but it bends toward justice.”

Duncan clearly believes justice is not happening. “It doesn’t bend by itself,” he says, “or fast enough. The fight is not just about education. It’s about increasing social mobility, about keeping good jobs in our economy. From the standpoint of social justice, it’s about economics, and about keeping kids alive.”

Where is the arc not bending? “With early childhood education. The average child living in poverty starts kindergarten one year behind.” With gun violence, which Duncan repeatedly spoke of as closely tied to schools. “There have been more gun deaths since 1970 than in all of our wars combined. And there are too many instances in which the quality of education depends on where you live.”

Listing three top priorities he believes must be addressed, Duncan cites early childhood education as number one. He sees no reason why it can’t be done. “In the Netherlands, every four-year-old is in kindergarten, and they are working toward extending early childhood education to three-year-olds.” Second: “Great teachers matter. In South Korea, teachers are ‘Nation Builders.’ A teacher in North Carolina is giving blood to help pay the bills.” (Speaking of injustice and inequity.) And third: “How do we build demand for great schools, great teachers particularly in poor communities? How do we make it a badge of honor for teachers and principals to go where the need is greatest?”

Duncan cites the fact that in Massachusetts, the nation’s top state for education, 30% of all high school graduates take remedial classes to get into college. The percentage goes far higher in other states. “Do we want to keep doing that or not? And it is unbelievable to me that we don’t take action to end gun violence.”

Asked what he’d like to have as his legacy, Duncan fired back, “It’s not about me. We have a long way to go, and we must accelerate the pace of change.”

With that, Duncan stepped down from the stage. One gets the very strong impression – hearing him also say that being Secretary of Education was never something he aspired to, but he took the job because of his great admiration for Barack Obama – that he is more than happy to have stepped down from the national stage and headed back home to Chicago.

Wit, Wisdom and Joe Biden at USNA

Covers awayHe may not be known for his oratorical/linguistic skills, but as commencement speakers go Joe Biden did himself proud at the U.S. Naval Academy’s recent graduation and commissioning ceremonies: a few pearls of wisdom, a handful of jokes (some better than others), a smattering of policy comments and it was all over in a matter of moments.

For the serious heart of his talk, Vice President Biden spoke of the significance of the planet’s waters, from the Arctic Ocean to the Baltic Sea to – most specifically – the Pacific. He recounted a conversation with Chinese president Xi Jinping during which he was asked why he referred to the U.S. as a Pacific power, and he responded, “Because we are.” Biden added that he told the Chinese leader further, “Mr. President, you owe your stability over the last 30 years to the United States Navy and military.”

Pacific oceanThe midshipmen were congratulated on having “spent summers on real ships instead of internships,” and for having a job immediately upon graduation. “You chose to join the real 1%,” Biden told them, “to protect the rest of us 99%.”

But it was Admiral Jonathan W. Greenert, USN, Chief of Naval Operations, who got in the best words in the briefest amount of time, offering four lines of advice before administering the oath of office to the Navy-bound members of the Class of 2015.

“Guard your integrity,” the Admiral said. “Learn unconditional trust.”

His third piece of advice probably hasn’t been given to graduating seniors over very many years: “Keep your social media private.”

And lastly, “Call your mother once a week.”

If any of those 1,070 men and women commissioned by Adm Greenert (and General Joseph Dunford, USMC, Commandant of the Marine Corps), were listening, someone from the USNA Class of 2015 could certainly wind up Chief of Naval Operations – or Vice President of the US.

Figuring Out Who You Are

Hand with book“Please don’t call me Doctor Jones,” said an extremely distinguished PhD speaker I met recently; “I’m just a teacher named Joe. I’ve been Joe all my life.” His name is changed to protect the innocent.

Having one name all your life is almost as interesting to some of us… of a certain age… as meeting a prominent multiple-degree lecturer who calls himself “just a teacher.”

Not someone of many degrees, I am nevertheless someone of many names. Maiden name, married name, resumption of maiden name after divorce, brief and ill-fated second marriage (yep, changed my name again,) eventual marriage to my Final Husband, whose name I took on moving across the U.S. nearly a quarter of a century ago. Because I’ve been writing since college (Fran Moreland) I often joke – though this is not a source of pride, only comic relief – that my literary resume reads like an anthology. Each name still bears its own notoriety, as well as its own burdens.

A fascinating look at what names and name changes have meant to women over the centuries is offered by my talented writer/scientist friend Jo Anne Simson in a recent article published in Persimmon Tree magazine titled “What’s in a Name.”

Names, Simson writes, have been used against women in subtle – and sometimes not so subtle – ways to subjugate, control and deny their sense of personhood. Probably the most damning of these practices for women in America was the assigning to slaves the surname of their masters, which “ruptured a connection to a past culture from which they had been torn most unwillingly. Moreover, the name change signified an identity conversion from personhood to property… ‘Leave your past behind. You are now property, not a person.’”

This writer’s post graduate experience ended with an MFA in short fiction, University of San Francisco Class of 2000, which conferred a degree but no title. I have, however, managed to keep my final literary name since 1992.

At about the same time I took on the final marital/literary name above, my first grandchild was born, bringing the other defining ID: Gran. The favorites survive.

 

 

Your Life In Review

A New York City subway train holds 1,200 people. This blog was viewed about 5,800 times in 2014. If it were a NYC subway train, it would take about 5 trips to carry that many people.

The good people of WordPress opened their Year-End Review with those words – below this worldscape with bursting fireworks – and what blogger could resist? They went on to report that my busiest day was February 24, that one of the most-viewed was a piece on Eleanor Roosevelt from 2013 (Mrs. Roosevelt has nothing if not staying power) and most viewers were from the U.S. “with Brazil and Canada not far behind.” Come on, Brazil? The country of my birth comes through.

The cold, hard truth is that there are plenty of blogs that are viewed 5,800 times a day, of course, but you’ve gotta love the subway train analogy.

The sheer amount of data collected on our life’s work, and our lives, can still give one pause. WordPress is entitled. Without the nifty platform, easy-to-use format, multiple tools and automatic archive this writer would be virtually wordless. (Or restricted to Huffington Post, which attracted way more than 5,800 viewers to essentially these same words, but there’s a lot to be said for freedom of the WordPress.)

But what about Facebook’s now ubiquitous Year-In-Review? Who could resist at least scrolling through her life of the past year (and I hereby admit to posting the thing.) What boggled my mind was the uncanny way Facebook picked almost the exact photos I would have chosen. How did they know? Spooky.

Books have been written – and at least one film made – about The Examined Life, although I seriously doubt the Facebook algorithm-coders have read them. It has to do with trying to make sense of things, figuring out what’s important, sorting the good from the bad. Elevating the good from its place within the ordinary. Occasionally – though the idea was always for one to do it oneself – these Year In Review things may help with such a task.

But any way you look at it, our lives are undoubtedly being examined.

Farewell, 2014, and Happy New Year each and every one.

 

Geezers, Learning Curves & Technology

learning curve.3 learning curve.2 technology

Technology, for anyone born after 1980, is part of your language. But the rest of us? It’s like learning to speak in tongues. And learning curves do not always move smoothly upward.

Suppose you grew up thinking a drop down window simply had a broken sash cord – if you’re born after 1980 you probably don’t know what sash cords are anyway – and right click was something you did with castanets? And your brain is wired to hit the return lever at the end of every line, but you’re suddenly supposed to know where the tool bar with the back button is, and you thought a back button was something that fastened to a loop at the top of your blouse? You get the picture.

Well, no, you don’t get the picture, that’s the problem.

Getting the picture onto the blog post takes us right back to the language issue: we know those free-use illustrations are out there, but where and how to find them and — more to the point — how to get them from Point A (wherever they are) to Point B (above) is hidden in the mystery language of WordPress and the internet. Friends, some born after 1980, try to help. They install PhotoBucket, they study Windows Live Photo Gallery, they try to explain Flickr or Paint or Pinterest. The learning curve flatlines.

Enter my techie friend Ryan. He may have been born before 1980 but not much before if so. Ryan speaks WordPress.

All you have to know, he explains, is to Google the topic, click on Images, make the magic Usage Rights appear by clicking on the Search Tools, save to your Desktop (which used to be a flat pine surface.) Then on your WordPress dashboard (which used to be in the car) click Edit on the screen below Title, click once on the photo, which brings up the magic pencil, which will lead you to the boxes, and more pencils and a few more choices. Simple. Of course.

Here’s the bottom line: I hope you like those THREE illustrations.

 

You CAN go home again…

… but it won’t be quite the same.

I’m just home from a trip to Washington, DC

commons.wikimedia.org
commons.wikimedia.org

for a nice event at The Corcoran Gallery that included a wide-ranging assortment of events — business, pleasure and in between. There were old faces, new faces and vastly altered landscapes, familiar turf and unfamiliar weather.

There were serendipitous treats like catching up with old friends I’ve not seen in a few years or a few decades… in the case of old friend  Roger Mudd, it was a matter of catching up on some 60 years.

Photo credit W&L.edu
Photo credit W&L.edu

And a side trip to my childhood hometown of Ashland, VA, where the characters of many of my short stories roam.

Thomas Wolfe, whose book title inspired this blog post, put it this way: “Some things will never change. Some things will always be the same. Lean down your ear upon the earth and listen.” I wasn’t inspired to lean down my ear on the frosty February earth of Ashland (although the phrase brings fond memories of leaning our childhood ears upon the train tracks to figure out whether a locomotive was en route,) but it was fascinating to find things changed, and unchanged:

The dining room where I ate dinners for some 20+ years features a different wallpaper and is decorated with different art, but it’s still a warm and welcoming room and I was incredibly blessed to be invited to a “Homecoming Dinner” therein with family, old friends and the now residents of the home. 2014-01-31_18-53-31_136

Randolph-Macon College is unchanged in some of its gracious, over 100-year-old buildings and long familiar original campus on which I grew up, but surely changed in the rapidly expanding new campus… and the student body which was all male in my long ago childhood. It was a very special treat to meet with some of the current students and faculty, in class and at lunch. That story follows in a few days here; I hope you’ll stay tuned.

Afghanistan suggestion: Make tea, not war

Greg Mortenson in Afghanistan 3500ppx
Image via Wikipedia

A glimmer of good news from the endless bad-news war in Afghanistan: the people doing the fighting are in touch with someone who was winning, a long time before they started fighting.

In the frantic last hours of Gen. Stanley A. McChrystal’s command in Afghanistan, when the world wondered what was racing through the general’s mind, he reached out to an unlikely corner of his life: the author of the book “Three Cups of Tea,” Greg Mortenson.

“Will move through this and if I’m not involved in the years ahead, will take tremendous comfort in knowing people like you are helping Afghans build a future,” General McChrystal wrote to Mr. Mortenson in an e-mail message, as he traveled from Kabul to Washington. The note landed in Mr. Mortenson’s inbox shortly after 1 a.m. Eastern time on June 23. Nine hours later, the general walked into the Oval Office to be fired by President Obama.

Mortenson, of course, hasn’t been winning any battles. What he has been winning are the trust, and occasionally the hearts, of Pakistani tribal leaders in a long-running effort to educate their daughters.

The story of this school-building crusade, which came about as a thank-you gesture after Mortenson received help during a mountaineering mishap, is told in Three Cups of Tea. The story of the book — it went nowhere when published with a warrior subtitle, then caught on like wildfire when Mortenson won a mini-battle to bring it out as his originally intended plea for peace — is told in the talks he has been making around the country for several years.

To hear Mortenson talk, as this writer has happily done several times, is to become a believer in hope. Most of us have been coming home saying, “Gee, could we spend a few billions less on platoons and give a few billions to Greg Mortenson’s schools instead?” Mortenson, a giant of a man who clearly has no personal agenda, is not a motivational speaker. But his tale is compelling.

The title of that first book comes from his discovery, early on, that the first step in building anything — school, relationship, whatever — is to sit down over three cups of tea. Hundreds of cups of tea and a few near-death episodes later, he has quietly managed to forge relationships with isolated tribes and build schools for girls who will grow up — perhaps — to think there’s something good about America. Some schools have been destroyed (and occasionally rebuilt), some relationships have gone sour, but the idea that something good can be developed between the U.S. and that wild land without bombs and guns — or despite guns and bombs — is heart-warming. And more than a little surprising.

Mr. Mortenson, 52, thinks there is no military solution in Afghanistan — he says the education of girls is the real long-term fix — so he has been startled by the Defense Department’s embrace.

“I never, ever expected it,” Mr. Mortenson, a former Army medic, said in a telephone interview last week from Florida, where he had paused between military briefings, book talks for a sequel, “Stones into Schools,” and fund-raising appearances for his institute. (The Central Asia Institute, a nonprofit foundation dedicated to community-based education, primarily for girls, in Pakistan and Afghanistan.)

But thanks to a few military wives, who read Three Cups of Tea and then insisted their husbands read it too, a connection was made between the warriors and the peacemaker. It is an unlikely, and in many ways perilous, partnership, but if you’ve read the book or heard the talk you probably feel a glimmer of optimism.

The military’s Mortenson-method efforts  in Afghanistan thus far are outlined in Elisabeth Bumiller’s July 18 New York Times report. His own job will now involve convincing the elders that he hasn’t become a tool of the military. It’s a strange world out there. But it seems somehow more hopeful.

Unlikely Tutor Giving Military Afghan Advice – NYTimes.com.