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Reflections on a Working-to-Learn Day In Washington, DC

by Jordan Cooper

From learning about public education issues to observing a political demonstration to admiring church architecture to considering means of effective peace-keeping: a recent college graduate finds an intellectual feast in the nation's capital.
Washington awakens each weekday at 9 a.m., and each morning I join in the massive commuter migration from suburban Maryland to downtown, reading what news there is to be had in the freely-distributed Washington Examiner. I leave the standing-room-only metro cars for the crisp autumnal air, which seems to be cleaner than that found in other cities, particularly at this time of year once the humidity drops. My job today is to learn.

The Center for American Progress (CAP) is hosting an event, “Reforming Teacher Compensation—What Can We Learn from Recent Programs?” Four distinguished public education professionals have arrived from around the country to discuss the “courageous cooperation” required of teachers, educational administrators, community members, and legislators, towards the end of improving education for students. These leaders have experimented with teacher compensation reform pilot programs that they hope to expand across the country.

The incentives are meant to adjust and increase pay for teachers who demonstrate success in introducing new knowledge and skills to the students, commitment to teaching in less desirable job locations, and results: improved student scores on tests. The panelists envisioned teachers meeting regularly and frequently in "Cluster Meetings" to collaborate on teaching techniques and strategies. According to Brad Jupp, Denver Public Schools policy advisor, this kind of collaboration should be extended to include parents in the reviewing process.

Dr. Stacey Y.S. Hunt, leader of the REAL program implemented in Chicago schools, mentioned that many of her school system’s best teachers are forced to leave teaching for administrative positions because the latter pay higher salaries. Reforming teacher compensation, Hunt said, can have immensely beneficial effects to a school: students are satisfied with a ‘good’ teacher, teachers are satisfied that, with a salary increase, they can afford to stay in the classroom, and general overall faculty benefits from continued mentorship. The panel recommended that methodical, locally based, system-wide changes in teacher compensation policy be implemented throughout America’s public school systems.

The CAP event was informative, and additionally attractive because of the complimentary breakfast offered to audience members—a perk provided by most think tanks at their D.C. events.

I move on to Lafayette Square, where I encountered a Kurdish protest. I spoke with a representative of the Kurdish Community in America, who spoke of the crimes against humanity committed by Turkish forces. Protestors shouted, "Peace Yes, War No!" as they paced over a fifty-yard swath of concrete silhouetted by the White House. The situation escalated at about 11 a.m., when individuals holding Turkish flags arrived chanting and holding signs reading: "PKK are Terrorists."

A swarm of police interjected themselves amidst the "dialogue," brandishing telescoping cattle prod-like devices, radioing for back-up and forming a buffer zone between the Turks and Kurds that could only be penetrated by the enduring cacophony.

I left the clamor for the more pacific tones of Washington’s ubiquitous street traffic, moving north to the National Geographic building to see its current "Crittercam" exhibit. I bore witness to the silent travails of largely undersea wild creatures captured in film: seals, whales, sharks, penguins, turtles, and more, the aquatic ambiance.

My meanderings then took me on a search for the B’nai B’rith Jewish Museum, where I intended to spend the next few hours. When I arrived, however, it turned out that not only did admission require a appointment, but their exhibit had been indefinitely closed for renovations.

Along the way, though, I had passed the Australian Embassy and thought about going in, because their web site was one of the more friendly ones towards Americans seeking internships with foreign embassies in Washington (in contrast, the Danish Embassy required that an applicant be a Dane to apply, the Austrian Embassy that one speak German, and so on). My interest was squelched this time when wailing fire trucks arrived at the scene.

I walked on, and was taken with the urge to climb the steps into St. Matthew’s Cathedral just moments before the start of midday mass. The edifice is stunning in its aesthetics and architecture. Frescos and mosaics depict variations of the crucifixion, recalling the act that cleansed Christendom of Original Sin and echoing an even earlier, pagan and later Judaic tradition of sacrificial bloodletting as a means of human atonement. The church's mosaic of a sacrificial lamb lends an anthropomorphic air to Christianity’s sovereign. Another mosaic features an Apostle, above whom is a lion, around whose head is a golden halo of holiness.

In a side chapel, a woman was on her knees, speaking with a smile to a representation of the Virgin and Child as if she were conversing with her own mother.

I left thinking perhaps we may learn to respect those whose belief systems are ostensibly different, for our common humanity and archetypes bind us together.

This church visit was a fitting prelude to my next event. I took the Georgetown Connector bus to the Mortara Center for International Studies at Georgetown University. “Lessons on Building Peace in Fragile Societies” featured Martti Ahtisaari, the former President of Finland, Nobel Peace Prize nominee, and well-known pragmatist in global peace-building. Ahtisaari advocates searching for consensus-based solutions in peace-building missions, saying sustainable, “functioning peace” in conflict-ridden regions can only be achieved by involving all groups in negotiations regardless of personal sympathies (or antipathies). “Extremism tends to disappear with negotiations,” be observed.

Ahtisaari elaborated on preconditions and objectives in a peace-building process. “Peace agreements need to be simple documents,” he stressed, and they should value local 'ownership' of the peace; if the agreement fails to do that, he said it will not be respected once peacekeepers leave. These negotiations also need to account for the history of the people involved and the reasons for the conflict, aiming to provide redress and create a solution that is acceptable to the population at large. All concerned groups must be willing to take steps towards peace; to get to this point, timing and proper connections among negotiators are critical. Fellow panelist and Georgetown University alumnus Scott M. Weber, Director-General of Interpeace, closed the session with insights on the peace-building process: “Peacekeeping is a tool; [it] prevents people from killing each other, but not from wanting to kill each other.” To be successful, therefore, peacekeeping missions must seek to understand local perspectives on issues so that “people own their own peace." He concluded, “If we [at Interpeace] succeed, [the locals] take the credit; if we fail, then we take the blame.” Ahtisaari interjected a final caution: success requires that peace-building “deal with the root causes of the conflict to make life as normal as possible as soon as possible.”

Thus concluded another day of working to learn in Washington, DC.

Jordan Cooper, a recent political science graduate of Vassar College, is a freelance writer who is gaining work experience through internships and attendance at think-tank events in the nation's capital.

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This story was published on November 12, 2007.