09/11/2012 05:51 pm ET Updated Nov 11, 2012

Educational Change-Makers Offer True Lessons of Public Service During Political Season

During the Republican and Democratic conventions, we heard many speeches from politicians about why they chose to go into “public service.” Yet, we live in a political era defined by hyper-partisanship, federal gridlock, abject pandering to special interests, and obscene spending on negative campaigns that is anything but in service to the public.

While that's discouraging, we should find inspiration in strong models of public service that speak to the better angels of our nature.

This past summer I witnessed the actions of three sets of change-makers giving themselves over completely to education as the best way to empower young people, break cycles of poverty and create a brighter future for America.

First, in July I travelled to Philadelphia to support some of the 16 recent graduates of my college, Franklin & Marshall, selected for Teach For America, which taps thousands of top college graduates to teach low-income, public-school students across the country.

I sat in on classes where 2012 graduate Megan Pauley taught first-graders how to estimate numbers and her classmate Deanna Ross drilled middle-school students on how to calculate the average of numbers in a set.

Megan and Deanna may be new teachers, but they're sky-high achievers, like everyone TFA recruits. At F&M, Megan captained both the women's basketball and softball teams while earning strong grades as a double major in psychology and sociology. Deanna graduated with honors and served as the elected president of the senior class and her sorority. Both have the mindset to make a difference; it's exciting that they and thousands of similarly accomplished young adults want to give back by teaching children who don't have safety nets -- in settings of scarcity -- where to be a great educator means working triple-time.

A few weeks later I visited Orlando for the annual summit of the KIPP Public School Charter Network. Now 18-years-old and 125 schools strong, KIPP has an admirable track record of lifting student learning, which serves the public interest in obvious ways.

The network is showing the country how to create, sustain and replicate excellent public schools in communities where cynics say wrongly that schools can't succeed. What's needed? The basics: impactful teachers, rigorous classes, longer school days, success-oriented school cultures, and engaged families -- all doable, as KIPP knows and shows.

In Orlando I watched some 2,000 change-minded KIPP educators, most in their 20s or 30s, taking part in workshops on purposeful lesson planning, new assessment tools, efficient classroom management, skills needed for college and much more. It was August, for goodness sake, but there was no down time for this group. KIPP's pursuit of excellence is relentless, and the network's joy in its mission is contagious.

A third uplifting experience didn't require any travel at all. In July, Franklin & Marshall brought to campus 60 rising high-school seniors for three weeks of intensive college-level learning. The students came from high-performing programs or public charter schools.

They were boys and girls, urban and rural, white and black, Latino and Asian. All grew up in modest economic backgrounds. Few had ever lived away from home or with roommates from different cultures. Most will be the first in their families to attend college.

We filled each day with growth moments. The students took seminars taught by F&M faculty and workshops on leadership, listening, writing, the college-admission process, yoga and coping skills. We asked them to grapple with hard concepts and to open up to each other. For mentoring, we surrounded them 24/7 with college superstars -- 12 F&M students of similar backgrounds who love college so much they want to be sure younger students grasp its value and its power.

These 60 high school seniors are doing all the right things for themselves and America. They're studying hard, avoiding risky behaviors and leading others at school. Some also must stay positive and help younger siblings while coping with absent fathers, traumatic hardships and substance abuse in their homes.

Maybe they're only 17 or 18, but these are unsung heroes. Each believes in education, hard work, decency, and the American system. Contrast that with the spectacle of an election season in which both sides will spend $2 billion calling each other names.

People think of the brutally hot summer months as idle times in K-12 education. This summer, I saw the opposite: determined students, teachers and schools firing on all cylinders to maximize the great good education gives to individuals and society.

That's what I call public service. It's not too much to ask those we elect to follow suit.