Last week, I had the of privilege being flown by a C-2 Greyhound from San Diego’s Naval Air Station to the USS John Stennis, a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, to spend 24 hours learning about the US Navy’s training and operations with a small group of educators and business leaders. The Stennis is one of ten Nimitz class carriers. It is longer than three football fields and houses about 5,000 sailors. It’s a floating airport at the center of a carrier strike force composed of nearly a dozen ships, the most powerful unit ever built.
Upon our abrupt landing (capture by the deck wire), we were welcomed on the Stennis by the ship’s XO, Captain Hakimzadeh. Interestingly, he immigrated to Mississippi from Iran right after the revolution as a kid. Captain “Hak” studied electrical engineering at Carnegie Mellon on a NROTC and went on to become a naval aviator with over 800 carrier landings. I have no doubt that John Stennis who represented the great state of Mississippi for over 40 years in the US Senate (if alive today) would be proud to have such a remarkable fellow Mississippian in command of the carrier named after him.
I’ve been on a number of remarkable learning experiences all over the world but nothing compares to being given a physics lesson by a 22-year-old junior grade petty officer while we stood on the carrier deck watching a pilot take off in her F-18. Even more impressive than watching an F-18 land on a moving ship in pitch black night, were the remarkable sailors on the ship. The group is remarkably diverse with an average age of 21. All ethnicities, religions, and even many nations (first and second generation immigrants) are represented on the ship. More than 20% of the sailors are women, a growing number of whom are piloting the impressive F-18’s. All of the ship’s command officers talked of the benefit of this diversity to their mission, and of the need to have more women represented in every job on the carrier.
I often write (and advocate) for all sorts of quality schools and the need for all students, particularly low-income students to have access to college, but I (and many of my ed reform colleagues) do not spend enough time learning about other education pathways to a successful career. The military, and in particular the Navy, offer a number of pathways to college and a post-Navy career: through NROTC, through the GI Bill after sailors enlist and gain experience, or just through the extensive training provided by the Navy to develop skills that are relevant for both military and civilian life. There was a reason that senior HR people from FedEx were on the trip with me.
It was clear to me in dozens of conversations on my trip from junior enlisted, chiefs, all the way up to the admiral in charge of the strike force that education and training are paramount to the Navy’s readiness. They get it. According to RAND, the Navy invests about $245,000 in the average average sailor’s master’s degree. The technology on the carrier, while remarkable, is totally dependent upon thoughtful, well-trained people at every level who are able to make split second decisions.
In observing sailors at work (and talking to many), leadership and problem solving are at the core of their training. Yes, of course there are tons of technical things to master, but everyone seemed to be engaged in continuous learning with a focus on leadership. There were systems and habits in place where sailors received feedback, not just from their superiors but from those lower in rank. For example, the top gun pilots not only received feedback on every flight from their commander and other pilots, but also from the enlisted folks in charge of the landing logistics. I saw a number of junior enlisted men and women acting as chiefs in the flight control room or on the bridge as senior officers observed and gave feedback. I would not have guessed that a recent high school graduate could be directing a dozen $80 million dollar fighter jets in the sky, a hundred miles off of San Diego in the middle of several international commercial flyways. It is a key component of their training, schools and school districts could learn much from them.
The much-too-long list of recent terrorist attacks in Beirut, Paris, Syria, Egypt, and Mali are a scary reminder that the men and women I met on aircraft carrier are likely going to be called upon to engage in the Middle East or North Africa. We need our sailors to have not only the skills to operate an aircraft carrier but to have the knowledge to understand the complex history of the Middle East or other parts of the world. A recent report from the Council on Foreign Relations showed that more than 75% of our high school graduates are not qualified for the military (even fewer in Denver and Aurora are qualified). More than 60% of jobs in aerospace, life science, and defense face shortages of qualified applicants according to the same report. Nuclear carriers are among the most complex machines ever devised by man, and I’d like to know we have a deep pool of educated American engineers to run them.
Whether you believe that a quality education is essential for our economy, democracy, or our national security, it requires us to have more effective schools. None of our institutions can be safe in an increasingly unstable world without more of the population pursuing higher levels of learning. This experience served as a reminder that there are multiple pathways to this learning, and we as an education community need to better understand and open opportunities for our children. We also need to share practice across these pathways. We need the Stennis sailors ready to do their job and protect us, while on the home front we do more to prepare our children for living in a complex and sometimes dangerous world.