Colin Powell: We Can Fix Education, But Congress Is Failing Us

Powell recommends schools mimic the military to fix their problems.

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Bryan Bedder / Getty Images for TIME

Joe Klein and Colin Powell

To Colin Powell, solving America’s education woes doesn’t have to be that complicated. “We can afford it if we can fix this congress that’s totally polarized and not serving our country well right now,” the former secretary of state said pointedly during a discussion with TIME political columnist Joe Klein at the TIME Summit on Higher Education Friday.

“I’m sorry, I just think we have no greater obligation than to educate our kids,” Powell said. He went on to warn voters, “Don’t wait for Superman or Superwoman to come and fix this. We’ve got to vote these people out if they don’t reach across the aisle.”

Powell’s own proposed solutions to our educational problems stem from his experience in the army. “In my 35 years in the United States Army, I had six years worth of school. There are very few institutions that will make that sort of investment in leadership.” The retired four-star general explained that the military, unlike most organizations, must promote from within and therefore necessarily must invest in the education and growth of its soldiers. Though schools don’t have this same obligation, he said, they ought to follow the same model—looking at education of students as a long-term investment for the country.

He suggested schools also take lessons from the military in terms of structure. “When drill sergeants yell at youngsters, it’s all for a purpose,” he said. “We have too many youngsters growing up without structures of their life—the structures of being in a good family or good team or good tribe in your neighborhood.”

Just as soldiers must learn that they are part of a team that depends on their actions, so must today’s young students. “A child without limits is not a child that’s going to be successful,” he said. Greater structure, he proposed, will lower dropout rates. (As Klein pointed out, boys in particular are dropping out of school at record numbers now.)

And, Powell argued, we must make this same investment in all Americans, especially new immigrants coming to our schools. Powell has helped form the Powell School of Global Leadership at City College of New York (CCNY), his alma mater, and said that 80% of its students were minority, and 50% were immigrants. “This is the future of our country,” he said.