You may know that I started professional life as a teacher. So last week it was a pleasure to spend an afternoon back in the classroom as part of Teach For America Week .
And the kids in Ms. Voskuil's 7th grade reading class at Hart Middle School were great. They were enthusiastic about their work, and they asked a lot of interesting questions. A lot.
Ms. Voskuil's advice had been to "get them rolling," and they sure did get rolling. These kids are thinking about a lot of things, way more than we give them credit for. They are interested in President Obama. They are interested in their government.
You can see they've got that curiosity just smoldering inside, and they just need a good spark, like Ms. Voskuil. You can tell they want to learn.
I talked with the class about the safety mission of our DOT. But my fundamental message was simple: learn to read and do basic math as well as you can. Because when I was a 7th grader I'm pretty sure I never imagined I'd be Secretary of Transportation. Most kids don't know where they'll end up or what jobs they'll be doing. Mastering basic skills allows them to be prepared to seize any opportunity that comes their way.
Look, we need to position our kids for success. America cannot afford to deny any of its kids educational opportunities. We've all heard the expression that "a chain is only as strong as its weakest link." Well, a world-class education is the way we strengthen young Americans and prepare them to achieve.
And I can assure you that Ms. Voskuil's class is on its way to achievement.
Teaching is a great occupation for those who want to make a positive difference in kids' lives, who want to turn on the light bulbs in young minds. And Teach For America is helping put motivated teachers in classrooms across America that sorely need their dedication and energy.
You see, there are tens of thousands of schools in our own country that cannot adequately staff their classrooms with qualified teachers. So, whatever you think about whose fault that is, I urge you to think about how the price for that inequity is paid by hundreds of thousands of American children every year. And, in the end, by all of us.
Because those same children become adults who are unable to hold jobs because they lack basic skills, unable to participate in our democracy because they can't decipher a ballot. Let's face it; our educational inequities guarantee a national chain that is weaker than it ought to be. I think that's unacceptable.
But since 1990, Teach For America has been helping these underserved schools, having reached over 3 million students. This year alone, 7,300 TFA teachers will bring their enthusiasm and preparation to over 450,000 students. And I saw with my own eyes that they are making a difference.
For example, Ms. Voskuil has helped these kids jump two grade levels in their reading already.
And that's why, as happy as I was to help honor Teach For America Week at Washington, DC's Hart Middle School, I'm already working on my lesson plan for next year.
My own interest in politics was sparked when I was a young teacher in Peoria's Holy Family School, instructing kids about our Constitution and about government. So--who knows?--maybe I made an impression on one or more of those 7th graders here in Washington, DC.
Because Donald, Mary, Naree, Ikea, Napoleon, Emani, their classmates, Ms. Voskuil, Hart Middle School, and Teach for America certainly made an impression on me.
Ray LaHood is Secretary of Transportation