"Call to Service" Lecture at Harvard University

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"Call to Service" Lecture at Harvard University

October 15, 2010

Good evening and thank you so much for this honor. There is no greater honor than service. There is no greater reward than service. And today, as all of you know, there is no greater need.

We live in a time when so many Americans are hurting, when competition for jobs and economic security is increasing, and when the pressure simply to survive is growing. There's a tangible sense of fear and anxiety among—not just the poor—but among working Americans and the middle class. People are asking whether the American dream is still within reach. I believe that it is—but we are going to have to work a lot harder to achieve it—and that work begins in the home and the classroom and it continues every day in our communities. And that's why service is so important. Because society—whether it is government or business or the family—cannot meet every need today.

Despite the myriad of challenges we face, I am also deeply optimistic. In the past two years, I've travelled throughout the country and been inspired by what I've seen. I've been to more than 40 states—four this week alone—and I've seen first-hand that America is dedicated to service. From the Peace Corps to Americorps to countless wonderful student-led projects here at the Phillips Brooks House Association and hundreds of other campus-based service organizations across America, literally millions of young men and women are working in communities—giving their time, energy, expertise and love—to help others.

We're facing the worst economy since the depression but Americans are responding with a shared commitment to sacrifice. Workers are taking furloughs or giving up pay hikes to keep their co-workers employed. After the oil started spilling into the Gulf, thousands of volunteers combed beaches to clean up the worst environmental disaster in our nation's history. Americans always are generous and respond in time of need—whether it is 9-11, Hurricane Katrina or the Haiti earthquake.

This spirit of service is hard wired in Americans. On my way here today, I stopped to meet with City Year corps members—who are among thousands of young men and women helping revitalize urban communities across the country. When I was in Chicago, City Year helped me turn around some of the district's most troubled schools. Those diverse teams of folks in red jackets, working together in some our toughest neighborhoods, helped to give our children a sense of possibilities beyond their block. In Washington, my family and I work with City Year corps members in service projects around the city. I love the commitment and enthusiasm of City Year members. It's contagious, and it's important to my wife and me that our young children be a part of the environment.

But service isn't limited to what's happening here at home. We must recognize the thousands who are in our voluntary armed services. These are dedicated young patriots who are willing to put their lives on the line for our country's future.

Service is something we do every day in America. It's in a vital part of our character. It helps to define who we are as a nation. Today, I want to challenge you to think about service as something more than an activity to supplement our daily work. It's a life-time commitment to helping others—and being enriched by others. The gift of service is one of the greatest gifts we can give ourselves. Through service, we discover and live out our values.

Through service, we participate in our shared commitment to create a "more perfect union." As Robert Kennedy said, "Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice he send forth a ripple of hope." That is the power of service—a power that I think everyone in this room understands.

Past recipients of this award are all people I really admire—people who embody the power of service.

Marian Wright Edelman has spent a lifetime advocating for America's children, and she is one of my person heroes. I've had the pleasure of visiting several the Freedom Schools she has started. The Freedom school in New Orleans opened shortly after Hurricane Katrina devastated that city. Through the volunteer leadership of college students, hundreds of young children whose education was interrupted by the storm received tutoring in after-school and summer programs. I met many college students who started at the Freedom School as volunteer tutors. They did it to help others, but they learned something profound too.

Through the experience, they learned about the power of teaching and the impact they could have in the classroom. Now they are pursuing careers in as educators, even though that was the furthest thing from their minds just a few years ago. Many of these young leaders are African-American males. We desperately need these men in our schools to help many for the young boys who don't have positive male role models in their homes and communities. Marian Wright Edleman is giving these college students the opportunity to do service—and is introducing them to careers through which they can live a life of service. Freedom schools aren't just changing children's lives. They are creating a strong pipeline of remarkable talent into the education profession itself.

Al Gore has dedicated his career to public service. In Congress, as vice president, and as a private citizen, he has been a game-changing voice for environmental responsibility and stewardship. The environmental movement is one of the most successful public education campaigns of our era. It's changing the way we live—and changing the respect we show for our planet and is creating new opportunities for service for millions.

Finally, it's an honor to receive the same award as Geoffrey Canada. Anyone who has seen "Waiting for Superman" knows the important work that Geoffrey is doing in Harlem. He's putting education at the center of his work to fight poverty. He and his team are putting the lie in any myth that poor children can't learn or that poverty is destiny. Opportunity, not poverty, defines children's life chances. He starts early with parenting education. He's got high-quality early learning programs. He runs charter schools that are delivering results.

As President Obama says, education is one of the best antipoverty programs. Geoffrey knows this and is fighting every day to make sure students in the Harlem Children's Zone have a chance for a world-class education.

And people are following his leadership. No one who has seen "Waiting for Superman" can sit on the sidelines anymore. I've called the film a Rosa Parks moment—the moment when the nation can no longer ignore the fact that tens of thousands of children are attending schools that won't prepare them for the future. Geoffrey is one of the leaders who has made this moment happen, who is helping us unleash this quiet revolution of education reform and innovation.

President Obama has challenged us to expand upon the work of the Harlem Children's Zone nationally through the Promise Neighborhoods initiative. When our Department of Education issued a request for proposals, more than 300 communities responded with applications to create Promise Neighborhoods. We funded 21 of them to create planning grants—and we look forward to funding many more in the future. These communities showed that they are ready to follow Geoffrey's lead with an all-hands-on-deck approach to solving poverty by putting education at the center of their work to save children and revitalize distressed communities. It is humbling to be recognized alongside these extraordinary servant-leaders.

But it's an even greater honor to receive this award because it's named for Dr. Robert Coles. Dr. Coles' commitment to others is legendary. For years, he taught "The Literature of Social Reflection." I took his class when I was an undergraduate here in the 1980s. I think I was lucky enough to pass. I know how inspiring he was to me. Many classes I took here helped me develop my intellect. That class did something for my soul. Dr. Coles fundamentally understands that we live our values through service.

Throughout his career, he's been a remarkable role model for students and other professionals. In medical school, he volunteered in a children's psychiatric hospital. Early in his career, he worked in the civil rights movement. As a professor at Harvard, he volunteered at a school here in Cambridge. He knows that service is so much more than a chance to do good—it's an opportunity to learn from others, a chance to enrich your own life while enriching the lives of others. He's a model for all of us to follow.

Marian Wright Edleman, Al Gore, Geoffrey Canda, and Dr. Coles all represent what's best about service.

As I travel the country, I am optimistic about the future because I see so many college students committed to service. Here at the Phillips Brooks House Association, you're maintaining a commitment to service that goes back more than a century. You're pioneers of what a campus-based service organization can be. One of my best memories of my time here was working in the mentoring program here through PBH. I remember being amazed by the students who led the work of this service-based nonprofit.

I'm heartened to know that so many of you are taking advantage of similar opportunities and that the tradition of service and leadership is stronger than ever. The students at the Phillips Brooks House Association are running the nation's only student-led homeless shelter. You're providing hundreds of low-income students with a summer camp program that enriches their lives and helps prevent the summer learning loss.

The commitment of PBH doesn't stop when they graduate. The experience helps build habit that last a lifetime. My good friend John King was a volunteer in the Phillips Brooks House Association's program in Mission Hill. Soon after graduation in 1995, he started the Roxbury Preparatory School in Mission Hill. John helped demonstrate how high-quality charter schools can dramatically improve student achievement. Today, John is deputy commissioner at the New York State Department of Education. He led the state's effort to create a comprehensive reform plan under the Race to the Top program and helped secure a $700 million grant from us that will impact every student in New York state.

Look at the progression: helping dozens of children here, hundreds through his schools, and today, John's leading a statewide effort that will help millions of students across an entire state. I understand John will be given the outstanding alumnus award tomorrow night. It's an award he richly deserves.

So many other outstanding alumni work in classrooms where they are transforming lives every day. Some are with us tonight. Jessica Tang completed her degree with the Harvard Teacher Education program in 2004 and she's now teaching for the sixth year in Boston Public Schools. And recent 2010 graduate Jarrell Lee teaches in Brooklyn and 2010 graduate Rachel Singh has joined the prestigious Teacher Residency program in Boston—a program that is helping the country rethink teacher training. Jose Olivarez is teaching in the Match School in Boston. I know there are many more, and I want to applaud all of you who have made a commitment to service as undergraduates—and maintained that commitment as you start your careers.

Growing up, I saw how the passion and commitment to service of just one adult could transform the lives of hundreds of students. That lesson was taught to me daily by my mother. In 1961, several years before I was born, a neighborhood pastor asked her to teach summer Bible study to a group of 9-year old girls on the South side of Chicago. At the time, it was one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city. The group only had one Bible, and my mother figured each girl could read a few sentences and then pass the Bible to the next student. But she was horrified to discover that not one of her 9-year-old students could read and decided she had to do something.

So that summer she opened up a free, after-school tutoring program there in the church basement called the Children's Center. From the time we were born, she raised my sister, my brother, and me as a part of her program, and that experience shaped all of us. We have all tried to follow in her footsteps in various ways. Her philosophy was that everyone should both be taught and teach at the same time. The teenagers taught the 10-year-olds, and the 10-year-olds taught the 5-year-olds. Everyone knew her program was a safe haven where children were nurtured, respected, and taught right from wrong.

From one corner at 46th and Greenwood, some remarkable success stories emerged. The teenager who had the difficult challenge of tutoring my group when we were growing up, Kerrie Holley, today is an IBM engineer who was named one of the 50 most important black research scientists in the nation. Corkey Lyons became a brain surgeon. Michael Clarke Duncan pursued his dreams in Hollywood, where he starred in "The Green Mile." Ron Raglin eventually helped me manage the Chicago Public Schools. Forty-nine years later, I'm proud to say my mother and her work in the community are still going strong.

Through that experience, I internalized the belief that quality education can literally transform children's lives and that with real opportunities, supports, and long-term guidance, all children can learn and succeed. And that formative experience drives me to improve the quality of America's schools, so that all children have the chance to learn in such exciting and supportive environments. I am motivated both by the hope and the tragedy of what I saw growing up.

While I was in college, one of the neighborhood high school stars asked me to tutor him.

He needed to pass the ACT so he could get into college and play ball. He was hoping to play for a Division I school, and he had the talent to do it. He was a B student on the honor roll, and had avoided the gangs and violence that plagued the community. He was doing everything that his teachers asked of him. But as soon as we started working together, I realized he was functionally illiterate. He'd been lied to all of his life. He had been socially promoted and had no idea how far behind he truly was. It was a heartbreaking lesson on the devastating impact of low expectations.

I saw how hard it was for so many of the guys I played ball with in the streets. Some of them died. The guys who were killed were ones who didn't finish high school. None of my friends who went to college died young. No one can question the extraordinary power of education after seeing how it can be literally the dividing line between life and death.

That's why, like so many others, I've dedicated my life to education. Across America, hundreds of thousands of idealistic young people are entering the field of education—many of them from Ivy League schools like this one. In fact, thanks to programs like Teach for America and a tough economy, education is now cooler than Wall Street. More than half a million young people apply for TFA every year for just 8,200 slots. These young people are not motivated by money or prestige. They just want to make a difference in the lives of young people. They want to see their work have an impact on the minds of children. They want to light the flame of learning.

Education is a value as deeply ingrained in the American spirit as service itself. As Horace Mann said almost two centuries ago, education is the great equalizer in America. It is the one true path out of poverty. It is at the heart of the American promise, but today all too often, we are not delivering on that promise. We must deal with the truth openly and honestly.

We are facing a crisis in education. A quarter of our high school freshmen drop out or fail to graduate on time. Every year, we lose about one million students from our schools to the streets. This is economically unsustainable and morally unacceptable. In today's economy, there are no good jobs for high school dropouts. They are basically condemned to poverty and social failure. Many of those who do graduate from high school are not ready for success in college. Too many use their precious financial resources to pay for remedial courses. We need to dedicate ourselves to education reform and challenge the status quo. The future of our country depends on it.

As President Obama says, the country that out-educates us today is going to out-compete us tomorrow. Education is the key to our long-term economic prosperity. But education is more than an economic issue. It's the civil rights issue of our generation. If you can ride at the front of a bus, but you cannot read, you are not truly free. President Obama and I are dedicated to providing every child a world-class education, regardless of his or her skin color, nationality, ethnicity, or ability. The truth is, however, that virtually everyone professes to believe that all children deserve a world-class education.

Yet today, a significant gap persists between our aspirations and reality. The Education Department's office for civil rights is finding that too many black students and English language learners don't have the access to a challenging curriculum that prepares them for success in life. And we're seeing the cost of that lack of opportunity. Almost half of black and Hispanic students drop out before they graduate. Black students earn college degrees at about half the rate of white students. Hispanic number are even less. To close the achievement gap, we must get serious about closing the opportunity gap. President Obama and I are 100 percent committed to this effort. I want to explain to you all that we're doing to support education reform and expand access to college education.

We're making an unprecedented federal commitment to education. But this is more than a federal effort—it's a national effort—a movement that is happening state-by-state, district-by-district and community-by-community. The success of this work will rely on the courage and commitment of thousands of people—and I want to encourage you to join this important work in your own community.

When President Obama took office, his top priority was to improve our economy. Through the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, Congress appropriated $100 billion to save education jobs and promote reform. The Recovery Act included a relatively small—by Washington's standards—program allowing our Department of Education to design and administer competitive programs aimed at improving education in four core areas of reform: Raising standards, improving teachers, building data systems, and turning around our lowest-performing schools. With $5 billion—less than 1 percent of what our nation's spends on K-12 schools every year—the Race to the Top program has unleashed an avalanche of pent-up education reform activity at the state and local level.

Forty-eight states collaborated to raise the bar and create common college and career-ready standards. In a just a few months since they were completed, 36 states have adopted those standards. No more dummying down standards due to political pressure and lying to children and their parents, telling them they are doing well when they aren't. Through Race to the Top, we're funding 44 states working in two consortia to create the next generation of assessments to better measure whether students are on track for success for college and careers. District leaders and unions are collaborating together to create reform-minded contracts that focus on turnarounds, track the academic growth of students, and build meaningful evaluation systems for teachers. Educators know they have nothing to fear from common-sense reforms. We all face only one threat, one common enemy, and that is academic failure.

Through $650 million in the Investing in Innovation program, or i3, we're also supporting districts and higher education institutions as they take to scale reforms proven to accelerate student achievement. The private sector has matched our grants with an additional $130 million, a wonderfully creative public/private partnership that leverages all of our resources. As I mentioned before, we're funding 21 communities through the Promise Neighborhoods program to create comprehensive services putting education at the center of their efforts—just as Geoffrey Canada has done in Harlem.

For college students, we've passed the biggest increase in federal student aid since the G.I. Bill. An additional 2.4 million low-income students are receiving these grants to help them pay for college. The average grant has increased by $1,000. We will be continuing to invest heavily in Pell Grants over the next decade. The higher education bill Congress passed in March includes more than $40 billion for Pell Grants to ensure that all eligible students receive an award. We did this without going back to taxpayers for a dime, simply by cutting out our subsidies to banks and making direct loans to students ourselves.

We're also making federal student loans more affordable to repay. Today, borrowers can cap their student loan payments at 15 percent of their discretionary income. After 25 years of payments, the rest of the loan is forgiven. Very significantly, the new repayment plan is even more generous if you're a teacher, police officer or some another public servant. After just 10 years of public service, all your debt is erased. You balance is zero. This program has the potential to free millions of students from being saddled with crushing student loan debt. It will enable so many talented young people to pursue their passion and do the most important job of all: teaching.

We're expecting a wave of teacher retirements in the next four years from our baby boomers. To replace them, we'll need to hire as many as 200,000 new teachers a year. Our schools have shortages in specific subjects like math, science and special education. Our cities and rural areas are desperate for good teachers.

We've launched a campaign to increase the number, quality, and diversity of people entering teaching—particularly in our high need subjects and high-need communities. We want to link students with pathways to teaching—getting them prepared and certified and them helping them find jobs. Please visit our new website at teach.gov. From improving access to high quality early learning programs, to K-12 reform, to making higher education more affordable and attracting great talent to the profession, our agenda is admittedly ambitious. But we have no choice—the needs are so great.

The President has set a goal that America once again will lead the world in college graduates by the end of the decade. Just one generation ago, we did lead the world in college graduates. Now we've fallen to 9th. That is unacceptable, but it is reversible. We need the support of everyone. Education is everyone's responsibility. Some will choose it as a vocation—dedicating their careers to serving America's children. Teaching is a profession where vocation and service merge. Great teachers are our country's unsung heroes. They're using their knowledge and expertise to transform the lives of children every day. Others choose to support education through service—as a volunteer, a tutor, a coach, a school board member, or a venture philanthropist supporting innovative ideas. Either way you will be living out your values—the American value—that education must be the great equalizer.

Every day, I feel this tremendous sense of urgency. We have to act now. We can't wait for reform to happen because our children's and our nation's future is at stake. My hero is Martin Luther King, Jr. He lived his life in service of others and he challenged our country to change our values. He was a living example of those values. Dr. King had many virtues, but thankfully patience wasn't one of them.

Back in 1963, he sat in a jail cell in Birmingham, Alabama. He was illegally confined for three days after being arrested for leading non-violent protests in the city. Dr. King had nothing to pass the time except for local newspapers—one of which ran an open letter from several White clergymen urging patience and faith and encouraging Blacks to take their fight for integration out of the streets and into the courts. He wrote a response to those white clergymen in the margins of that newspaper. It is known as the Letter from Birmingham Jail. It's one of the most powerful and moving pieces of writing I have ever read. It ran almost 7000 words and eloquently made the case for non-violent civil disobedience—precisely because state and local governments continued to drag their feet in integrating schools and communities and the judicial path would take too long. This was nine years after the Supreme Court ruled that segregated schools violated the constitution, but most minorities were still isolated in their own classrooms. Many still are today and we must work together to change that.

The Birmingham letter explained why Blacks could not wait for judges across America to hear their cases and issues their rulings. Blacks had been waiting for centuries and—with Dr. King's leadership—they would wait no longer. Even many of King's allies in the civil rights movement—like Roy Wilkins of the NAACP and Thurgood Marshall who would later serve on the Supreme Court—were urging the legal route—in part to avoid confrontations for fear that they would lead to violence—as they eventually did in Birmingham. King had to convince them as well, that they could not wait. As he told them, justice too long delayed is justice denied.

I would add that opportunity too long delayed is opportunity denied. Quality education too long delayed is education denied. Our children have one chance to get a quality education. They cannot wait. We've had reform after reform—and countless studies of those reforms. We've had repeated affirmations and commitments from the body politic to finally make education a national priority. And yet we are still waiting for the day when every child in America has a high quality education that prepares him or her for the future. For too many of our children, that promise of an excellent education has never materialized.

We remain too complacent about education reform—distracted by tired arguments and divided by the politics of the moment. We can't let that happen. In this new century and in this global economy, it is not only unacceptable to delay and defer needed reforms—it's self-destructive.

We can't allow so much as one more day to go by without advancing our education agenda.

We need to bring a greater sense of urgency to this task—built around our collective understanding that there is no more important work in society than educating children and nothing should stand in our way—not adult dysfunction, not politics, and not fear of change. We must have the courage to do the right thing.

We need to make education our national mission. I invite you to a life of service that embraces that mission. Be a teacher. Tutor a student. Volunteer at a school. Transform the life chances of children. Education reform is a daily fight for social justice.

The battle for a quality education is about so much more than education. It is a daily fight for social justice. Please join us in that fight.

Thank you.