Saluting Colin Powell’s Enduring Education Legacy
Known more for his role in foreign affairs, the former Secretary of State and four-star general left a lasting impact on America’s students
Most policy wonks can recite the Powell Doctrine by heart: a clear and achievable mission, overwhelming force, and strong support from a coalition of allies. That view of military engagement is one of General Colin Powell’s strongest legacies, as many tributes have noted in the wake of his death on October 19.
Powell was laid to rest on Friday in a moving ceremony that reflected his deeply American story—and the breadth of this influence from the global stage to individual kindnesses. While best known for his leadership in foreign affairs, his legacy endures in his lifetime commitment to developing young people. The Powell Doctrine for education, captured in the Presidents’ Summit for America’s Future that General Powell chaired in 1997, holds that every child deserves a clear path to success, generous resources to learn and grow, and the overwhelming support of mentors and community allies. “We see young people in need, young people who are wondering, is there an American Dream for me; can I achieve my dream; can I achieve my ambition; will people help me; will somebody reach and lift me up?” Powell said to a cheering crowd in Philadelphia the morning of the Summit. “I wonder about that. And the answer we're going to give them is, ‘Yes, America cares.’”
General Powell certainly did. The event in Philadelphia could easily have been a one-off — a symbolic gathering of ex-presidents and civic luminaries leading to little more than empty pledges. But Powell was determined to turn the summit into something more. He knew the power of his own example, and he didn’t intend to waste it. “This is a time for each and every one of us to look into our own heart, to look into our own community, find someone who is in need, find someone who is wanting, find someone who is looking up to us, and for each and every one of us to reach down, to reach back, to reach across, to lift up a fellow American and put him on the road to success in this wonderful country of ours,” he promised.
President George W. Bush signs a "Declaration of America''s Promise" with Secretary of State Colin Powell standing next to him in the Rose Garden of the White House, July 9, 2001 in Washington, DC.
I was there that day, in no small part, because of General Powell. I had looked up to him for a long time, and it was reading his memoir, My American Journey (1995) with its chapter on the White House Fellows, that prompted me to apply to the program. I was accepted into the 1996 class of fellows, which is how I found myself aboard Air Force One for the short flight to Philadelphia, where General Powell laid out the case for a new American promise in education. It was the best day of my life, and the beginning of a quarter century of service to his vision—at once pragmatic and inspiring, like the man himself — of the promise and potential of American education.
The organization Powell founded, America’s Promise Alliance, has transcended the usual trench warfare in education policy by recognizing that education is an all-hands-on-deck responsibility — the coalition-building piece of the Powell Doctrine. It’s not just schools, not just families, not just community organizations. “Every individual, institution and sector shares the responsibility to help young people succeed,” according to America’s Promise.
But as Powell knew so well from his military and diplomatic career, building allies takes more than goodwill and hopeful declarations. You must be clear-eyed about finding shared interests. Putting graduation rates at the center of the national agenda meant incentivizing high school completion in a way that hadn’t been done before, giving everyone in the education sector a clear sense of mission. The Grad Nation campaign, launched by America’s Promise in 2010, has been in place for more than a decade. During that time, the national graduation rate has increased from about 70% to over 85% due to the concentrated effort of countless organizations united around a common measurable goal.
Departing U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell (R) and his wife Alma walk down steps after delivering a farewell address to State Department employees January 19, 2004 in Washington, DC.
Powell’s own history and his lifetime of working with Americans from all backgrounds taught him that education is a two-way exchange. His memoirs leave no doubt about the deep-seated belief in the power of public institutions to change lives for the better. “If the Statue of Liberty opened the gateway to this country, public education opened the door to attainment here,” Powell wrote in My American Journey, reflecting on his heritage as the Harlem-born son of immigrants. “I am… a champion of public secondary and higher education. I will speak out for them and support them for as long as I have the good sense to remember where I came from.”
But he was adamant that those public resources had to be matched with individual agency. If students don’t believe in their own capacity, no amount of school intervention will make a difference. “I want you to have faith in yourselves,” Powell told the graduates of Howard University in 1994. “I want you to believe to the depth of your soul that you can accomplish any task that you set your mind and your energy and your heart to.” Getting to that sense of personal empowerment meant seeing America as a place of possibility, despite its flaws and deeply imperfect history. “Above all, never lose faith in America,” he said at the close of his Howard address. “Its faults are yours to fix, not to curse. America is a family: There may be differences and disputes within the family, but we must not allow the family to be broken into warring factions.”
That hopefulness seems out of favor these days. But I have faith that the Powell Doctrine for America’s students will win out in the long run.
Members of the White House Fellows Foundation lay a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery in memory of Colin Powell.
The White House Fellows alumni gathered last month, just after getting the news that our most legendary alum had passed away. We shared stories of General Powell, remembering all the ways he inspired our paths into public service and our sense of civic purpose. More than a hundred of us went to Arlington National Cemetery to lay a wreath in his honor. As I looked across that ceremony, crowded with people from all backgrounds, races and disciplines, from young Americans in their 20s to retirees in their 80s, it was obvious that Powell’s fractious American family is still intact.
General Colin Powell was smart enough to know all the ways in which his story was singular — an extraordinary life at a unique moment in his nation’s history. But he was also insightful and generous enough to cast his American journey in ways that are universal, in terms that can appeal equally to a West Indian immigrant from New York or a fourth-generation Texan woman.
In education, we should embrace that inclusive ideal—the Powell view of America as a promise still in the making.
Stefanie Sanford is the College Board’s Chief of Global Policy. She was a White House Fellow from 1996-1997 and currently serves as Vice Chair of America’s Promise.