Visiting Fort Knox: Of Songs, Symbols and Gold

Together with a colleague from the Department of Education, I recently visited Fort Knox, located outside Louisville, Ky. No, I did not see our country’s gold reserve – not even the building where it is stored.  But, what I did see was the latest iteration of the Army’s virtual transition assistance program (Virtual TAP), designed to reach service men and women stationed in remote locations where brick and mortar programmatic delivery is not possible.  The revised transition assistance program, created as part of the VOW Act to facilitate transition from military life to civilian life for exiting service members, has already launched and will be fully operational, inclusive of optional tracks related to high education and career and skills training, in short order.

I was impressed.  The Virtual TAP was designed to do more than simply click through a series of slides with a test at the end to demonstrate knowledge acquisition – a result that would not necessarily change behavior or outcomes.  Instead, the program delivered on its initial goal of engaging service members in the learning process –– with empirical data to confirm results prospectively.

Through the Virtual TAP, service members have access to a live counselor 24/7 with whom they can actually chat. And, since the Virtual TAP is in its first phase, future phases will enable even greater engagement including interaction among service members in different locales participating in the same module, live instructor feedback, scenarios (such as mock job interviews) and problem-solving — all activities designed to reinforce learning.

The purpose of my visit was to learn about and try the Virtual TAP, in order to provide constructive feedback from the Department of Education’s perspective.  That mission was accomplished.  However, two unrelated aspects of being on Fort Knox captured my attention and yes, my heart.

First, because I had on-base overnight accomodations, I was able to hear the nightly playing of TAPS. A piece of music I had not heard much since the 1950’s at summer camp. there was and still is something haunting about the melody, something melancholic about the lone bugler playing in the night, something compelling about a shared end-of-day ritual across a military installation where 40,000 men and women work.

Second, I received two military challenge coins – one delivered by a thoughtful former paratrooper now in charge of Virtual TAP and another by a remarkable Brigadier General overseeing the entire TAP implementation process across the Army.  These coins – like the bugler playing TAPS – are a powerful symbol. For me, they represent recognition of the Department of Education’s effort to work with its agency partners to improve TAP’s development, implementation and assessment. I was and am honored to receive these coins on behalf of my government agency.  And, these coins – as their name implies — challenge all of us to continue our efforts on behalf of our military.

So, while I may not have actually seen gold at Fort Knox, I certainly experienced gold – an enriching experience that showcased excellence and tradition and reinforced for me that our transitioning Army soldiers are in good hands indeed.

Karen Gross is a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education

Dallas Delivers: Insights from the Trenches

My recent visit to El Centro College (part of the Dallas County Community College District) stood in sharp contrast to the sweltering 113-degree temperature reflected on my rental car thermometer.  The El Centro visit – which included a campus tour and a College Affordability Summit – reinforced three key themes within the President and the Department of Education’s post-secondary educational agenda: (1) college affordability; (2) career readiness and educational opportunity linked to employability; and (3) vulnerable student success, including America’s returning Veterans who pursue further education.

Paul McCarthy, El Centro College’s president since 2008, took me on a campus tour before the actual Summit launched. I walked through the College’s newly renovated building dedicated to the health professions that included state-of-the-art simulation laboratories.  I saw a group of students learning to be highly employable invasive cardiovascular technologists. I observed the Food and Hospitality Institute where students learn to design and cook meals and bake; they also run a small restaurant on campus that can be frequented at low cost by the campus and wider Dallas community.  This tour punctuated the College’s effort – similar to that on a growing number of campuses — to provide a meaningful set of engaged educational opportunities for their growing student population through degrees and certificates that can lead to employment.

A Dart train

El Centro helps its students get to and from school by providing DART passes.

One key initiative at the College is a program to facilitate travel to and from the College. With a diverse population of low-income students and no College provided parking on the main campus, the College provides each student registered for at least six credits with a free DART card that enables that student to use the Dallas area rapid transportation system to get to/from campus.  Students can also use the card to get to and from work and for personal travel including evenings and weekends.  While the College pays for these cards (at discounted rates from the city transportation authority), the benefits to students vastly outweigh the costs, and this program helps students who might otherwise not be able to pursue or continue their education to progress to and through college affordably.  A similar benefit is offered, with positive results, in the ASAP initiative within the CUNY system.

One other topic explored in depth at the Summit was the College’s effort to provide educational opportunities that will meet the needs of their growing Veteran population.  The conversation demonstrated how the Senior Leaders are deeply aware of the challenges Veterans face when they return to civilian life; the College is engaged in efforts to provide added support systems and faculty and staff training opportunities to foster Veteran success at El Centro. Two of the College’s leaders will be participating in the upcoming August 1st convening to be held at the Department of Education on best practices for Veteran students on America’s campuses, based on the lessons learned from the Department’s Veteran Center of Excellence FIPSE grantees.

In short, the Dallas June day’s soaring heat was well matched by soaring efforts in support of the President’s 2020 goal of getting more and more Americans to progress to and through post-secondary education.

Karen Gross is a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education

Different Venues; Similar Questions

On May 8, 2012, I traveled to New England and had an opportunity to meet with and talk and listen to with three distinct groups: students, faculty and staff at Dover High School (Dover, NH); senior administrators, including President Mark Huddleston, at the University of New Hampshire (Durham, NH); and military spouses as well as the Base Commander Bryant Fuller and his spouse at Portsmouth Naval Shipyard (Kittery, ME). 

Group Meeting

From left to right Julie Weinstein, Candace Fuller, Dr. Gross, and standing is Pat Riordan, the Base Support Officer. Photo courtesy of U.S. Navy -Portsmouth Naval Shipyard.

I anticipated these audiences would raise quite different questions and concerns in our gatherings, given differing nature of the institutions from which they hailed.  The participants ranged from high school students of whom approximately 50% head to college and for whom extensive travel outside their state was uncommon to military spouses who moved every 18 months within the US and abroad, often with school-aged children.  The audiences included young people navigating how to graduate from high school (let alone college) to experienced college administrators seeking to navigate sizable state-wide budget cuts while helping students complete their undergraduate education in a timely fashion. 

Despite these obvious differences, certain key recurring questions and concerns came through all the conversations, most particularly these two:  (1) How can college be made more affordable for all students? and (2) What can the federal government do to improve and influence positively the educational experiences of and outcomes for vulnerable students in the pre-K – 16 pipeline?.

Not easy questions and ones for which there are no easy answers.  That said,
I was deeply appreciative of the thoughtful and heartfelt observations raised by the almost 750 people with whom I met.  I was struck by the many concrete examples the audiences presented, many of which provided a new lens through which to see the issues of concern.   Those who spoke were open, forthright and clear.  They were concerned.  They were not shy.  But, most of all, they were not cynical.  Instead, they wanted and needed information; they wanted and needed answers; they wanted and needed a government that could help.
As I listened and answered, I was also struck by the disconnect between what we are doing here in Washington to address these very questions and the amount of information actually gets filtered back and heard outside the proverbial Beltway.  There are initiatives that the federal government has completed (like new federal loan repayment options) and others that are proposed (like Race to the Top and First in the World for higher education) on the very questions raised by these audiences.  We do have new tools that can assist students in selecting quality, affordable education, and we do have some efforts in place to solve problems military- children experience as they transition from one school to another.  

But, the decibel level is so high, the information so vast and the complexity so great that it is hard for the government to communicate effectively to, and reach and be heard by, the needed audiences including students and their parents, college personnel and military families.

I was and remain heartened by the voices of the many audience members at these three events – individuals who wanted to improve their lives and those of children and young adults.  I welcomed the chance to share what we are doing here in DC.  And, what I hope is that this conversation and many more like them will open the door to not only more dialogue but to thoughtful and meaningful ways to improve our educational system – for the children of today and tomorrow.

Karen Gross is a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education

Voices that Matter

I recently attended a convening sponsored by the Military Child Education Coalition (MCEC), Joining Forces (which is coming up to its first anniversary) and the US Department of Education.  The event was designed to identify a series of immediately implementable solutions to some of the challenges vexing military-connected children.

These young people confront a plethora of issues when one or both of their parents are in the armed services, including frequent moves causing academic and psycho-social disruption, parental absence for extended periods, and loss of or injury to a parent. We know there are more than a million school-aged children of current service members and many more whose parents served post 9-11, making a focus on military-connected children a responsibility we owe to our military families who have served our nation with honor.  It is an issue on which the US Department of Education has been focused, including encouraging the Interstate Compact that facilitates student transition from one school to another across state boarders.

The convening was led by Patty Shinseki, a member of the MCEC Science Advisory Board and wife Secretary of Veterans Affairs, Eric Shinseki, and Dr. Mary Keller, President of MCEC, both of whom ensured that the proceedings stayed on task and on target.  Also in attendance were a wide variety of committed, visionary senior stakeholders, all engaged in finding quality solutions.  In short, there was real talent in the room being leveraged to help military-connected children.

What was most powerful to me throughout the day, though, were voices of those needing our help — the children of military families.

The program commenced with two high school aged military-connected children on stage reading a script that revealed the array of struggles experienced by children of military families.  They described the common challenges military-connected children face when the family moves and parents deploy.  Then, there was a video, with military-connected children sharing their stories.   There were drawings done by children of military families in the meeting rooms where we worked. There were also copies of ON THE MOVE, the official magazine of MCEC, in the program packets, containing photos of military-connected children and, among other articles, a description of the MCEC student art displayed at the Department of Education in 2011.

But, the real way in which military-connected children’s voices were heard was in the suggestions that emanated from each adult group grappling with solutions.  As we strategized, every group’s final suggestions addressed the critical need to listen to the children of military families — to understand what they are experiencing and what suggestions they might have to address their situations.  For example, there was strong group support for use of social media and new apps to link military-connected children who had moved to the teachers and students they had known in their prior school.  Who better to design a prototype for such an app than military-connected children, including perhaps through a contest, including one with a prize attached?

Stated simply, the day was energized by a willingness to listen to the voices of those experiencing the effects of having a military parent – the voices of military-connected children.

There is a broader lesson here, too.  We are often tempted to come up with well-meaning solutions to the many problems we see in our world.  To be sure, these solutions are often informed by deep years of experience, academic literature and empirical assessment.   But, it is well worth pausing to remember, as the Dean of Students at the college I led kept reminding me, that the best source for information and solutions can often be found by listening to those experiencing the problems we seek to remediate.  We just need to create listening opportunities and then listen well and carefully. And, when we do, our solutions will stand a vastly better chance of demonstrating measurable positive outcomes.

Karen Gross is a Senior Policy Advisor at the Department of Education

ED and Its Art

As I transitioned to the Department of Education from my prior life as a college president, I experienced a concern I had every time I changed positions: I worried that I would lose some of the most important aspects of my prior job.  For example, when I moved from private law practice into a professorship at a law school, I was concerned that I would forget what “real” lawyers did and what “real” clients needed — key information for helping to prepare law students to become quality lawyers.  As I now increasingly focus on higher education policy in DC, I do not want to lose sight of why that policy matters.

Student art

"Environmental Changes" by Kelly Pifer, age 16, a 2011 Scholastic Award winner, is on display at ED headquarters.

The question is simple: How can I stay connected with students while in Washington, linking theory to practice? Little did I realize at first that right here in the windows, walls and halls of the Lyndon B. Johnson (LBJ) Department of Education Building, there is a constant reminder of those who depend on our success.

Even before one enters either side of the LBJ building, there are photographs on the outside windows of diverse students of all ages — students learning in classrooms and labs, participating in athletics, and experiencing graduation.

These photographic images, installed in 2008, are repeated on the elevator doors, and on each floor there are photographs of students as one exits the elevators. I know I’m headed in the right direction each day because I see students playing cello. And, at the end of halls on many floors, there are historic, black and white photographs of students and schools; the image of young dancers at the ballet bar on the 6th floor is particularly compelling.


"Untitled" by student Hin Ling, is displayed at ED headquarters

But, the halls have more than photographs.  Starting on the first floor, there is original student art from grades pre-K through professional art school.  There are works, which hang anew each year, created by students who received Scholastic Art and Writing Awards.  This exhibit, now in its ninth year, represents a collaboration among The Alliance for Young Artists and Writers and the U.S. Department of Education.

Every two to three months, other student groups display their art on the Maryland Ave. side of the first floor.  Since its inception in 2004, this program has included works from the Native American Student Art Competition, Duke Ellington School for the Arts, the Military Child Education Coalition and the National PTA Reflections Exhibition, among many others. Each exhibit is also accompanied by a public event, with the student artists and their families in attendance, with an added bonus of student performances. The popularity of these temporary exhibits is evidenced by the fact that the exhibit space is booked through 2015!

Student art

"My Sisters' Room" by Munira, age 13, is displayed at ED headquarters

And, then, there is student art on each of the floors — watercolors and collages and acrylics from all parts of the country and from all age groups.  And, schools with vibrant art programs create important engagement for their students.

Even if we are not explicitly paying attention to the art on the walls every day, the student works inform, to use Tony Hiss’ phrase, our experience of place and space.

One of the comments in the Student Art Exhibit Guest Book in the lobby, made by an ED employee about a recent exhibit, expresses gratitude for the experience: “Thank you for bringing such joy and beauty into the Department.”  I would add to that this thought: “And thank you for reminding us of the people served by the important work we do.”

Karen Gross is a Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary

Busting Silos

Earlier this year the Office of Postsecondary Education (OPE) held a summit that brought together a group of education stakeholders who don’t typically engage with each other on a regular basis.  During the summit, researchers, practitioners, policy makers and government officials were talking together about how to help vulnerable students succeed.

KeyboardIt’s important for all four of these groups to learn and think about new initiatives as well as discuss and share current and future research and policy practices.  But, what was most striking for me about this event was the overt effort to silo-bust.

We all tend to work in silos, and with growing specialization within the disciplines inside the academy, the silos have proliferated.  Everyone’s expertise is so narrow that we tend to stay with those like us. And academia is not alone.  We have been “siloed” in business and in government, and this administration is working to silo-bust, through programs like Promise Neighborhoods, ED’s labor-management conference and International Summit on the Teaching Profession, as well as through collaborations like the “Learning Registry,” which partners with the Department of Defense.

People know the value of moving across silos – engaging with others in different disciplines and departments enriches one’s thinking; it enables cross-disciplinary/departmental/organizational problem solving; it prevents duplication of work. It permits wider buy-in, consensus and wisdom.

But, when time is short, it is much easier to remain in one’s silo, keep one’s head down and get the work done.

OPE’s summit sent a message to all of us working on student success both in and out of government: if we are going to find solutions, we are more likely to do it together than apart.

Now, the hard part is to carry that message forward after the conference has ended. What might motivate that continuity, at least for me, is the powerful impact our collaborative efforts could have on vulnerable students’ success.

Have you had success in breaking down silos? Tell us your story in the comments below.

Karen Gross is a Senior Policy Advisor in the Office of the Under Secretary