Dr. Cheri Yecke served as Dean of Graduate Programs and as a Professor of Education as well as Political Science at Harding University from 2008 until her retirement in 2015. While at Harding she taught Constitutional Law and Administrative Law at the undergraduate level, and graduate courses in Educational Leadership.
• She began her career as a classroom teacher in Stafford, Virginia, where she taught seventh grade History and Civics.
• In 1995, she was appointed to the State Board of Education by Governor George Allen—the first teacher to ever serve on that board.
• Soon, she was also appointed to the Early Childhood Education Board and the State Council of Higher Education by Governor Allen.
• The next governor, Governor Jim Gilmore, appointed her to the position of Deputy Secretary of Education, and then Secretary of Education, where she was responsible for all of the K-12 schools and all colleges and universities in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
• She was then appointed to serve in the U.S. Department of Education by President George W. Bush, where she also served as a special liaison to the White House.
• She left Washington DC to become the Chancellor of Education for the State of Minnesota, appointed by Governor Tim Pawlenty.
• She also served as the Senior Fellow at The Center of the American Experiment, a research and policy organization, where she published articles, and researched and wrote numerous special reports.
• In 2005, she was appointed the Chancellor of Education by Governor Jeb Bush in Florida, where she was in charge of all K-12 schools.
• After Governor Bush was term-limited from office, she accepted a position at Harding University.
Dr. Yecke earned a Bachelor of Science degree from the University of Hawaii, a Master’s degree from the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, and a Ph.D. at the University of Virginia.
In addition to works published in peer-reviewed journals, she is the author of two books: The War Against Excellence: The Rising Tide of Mediocrity in America’s Middle Schools and Mayhem in the Middle. She has conducted research on such topics as gifted education, middle schools, K-8 schools, self-esteem, and state and national K-12 accountability models.
Her work has been published in national magazines, peer-reviewed journals, and newspapers across the country. She has given over 350 keynote addresses/presentations in over twenty states and remains a sought-after presenter.
Her hobbies include calligraphy, sewing, and conducting research on Laura Ingalls Wilder, the author of the Little House on the Prairie book series. She is currently working on her next book, The Definitive Little House Companion.
Dr. Yecke is married to Major Dennis Yecke, and they have two grown daughters, Anastasia and Tiffany. Their granddaughter Bridget is the joy of their lives.
What area do you specialize in?
My career path has taken me in multiple directions, and I was able to take advantage of a number of challenging opportunities over the years.
I began my career as a middle school teacher in the 1980s. American history was one of my top passions then and continues to be a passion now. However, when I was given the opportunity to become an education policymaker I gladly moved into a new chapter of my life and worked for over 15 years developing policies to improve K-12 public education. I served as the chief state school officer in three states—Virginia, Minnesota, and Florida—and also worked at the U.S. Department of Education and as a liaison to the White House.
During the time I spent teaching, I recognized that education for academically gifted children was an area that has been neglected. Advocating for services for gifted children and researching this topic became a passion, as well. All children should be able to rise to their highest potential, and our country needs to invest in and support the brightest among us. This is both a moral issue as well as an issue of economic growth and national security. I believe in this issue so strongly it was the topic of my doctoral work.
In 2008, a new chapter of my life began when I made a career switch to higher education. At Harding University, I served as an administrator and as a professor. I loved the opportunity to have a foot in both worlds –administration and instruction. As a professor, I was able to return to my love of American history as I taught Constitutional Law, and my background in public policy was an indispensable resource for teaching Administrative Law. I was tapped to teach courses in leadership, as well. Being new to a university that was experiencing rapid growth, I was able to provide a fresh perspective to policy issues and led the institutional reorganization of administrative policies and guidelines.
Upon my retirement, I gave a great deal of thought to how I want to continue to serve my country and the children who will determine its future. I decided to use my time to research and write, and divide my time among the following issues:
• Education: Students in K-12 schools are entitled to a content-rich, challenging curriculum, and gifted students need to have opportunities commensurate to their abilities. I covered these issues in my two books: The War Against Excellence (Praeger, 2003) and Mayhem in the Middle (Fordham, 2005).
• History and Law: Teaching Constitutional Law and Administrative Law reignited my passion for American history, which inspired me to begin a project focusing on the historical context of the Little House on the Prairie books and the lessons we can learn from that era.
As you can see, my interests are broad and I have been trying to narrow my focus down to one particular issue. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit. While some commentators called it our Pearl Harbor moment, I see it instead as our Sputnik moment. We are facing an incredible challenge that is causing large-scale human suffering. While we have to attempt to ameliorate the current misery—physical, emotional, and economic—we also need to look ahead regarding how best to prepare for the next global challenge. We don’t know what it will be. The only certainty we have is that it is inevitable.
Advocating for increased resources and opportunities for gifted students as a means of national preparedness is my current focus.
When you were starting out, was there ever a time you doubted it would work? If so, how did you handle that?
As a girl born in the 1950s, I became an adult just as new opportunities were opening for women. Nonetheless, I was leery of the contemporaneous “women-can-have-it-all” philosophy. While a career was important to me, being a mother who was actively involved in her children’s lives was more important. I, therefore, chose to look at my life as a series of chapters in a book that was simultaneously finished and being written. Being married to a career Marine, I had to have a “portable” career, which fit well with my desire to teach. My “Mom” chapter occurred when I was a teacher and my children were in school. We shared the same schedules and, in the summers, I was with them fulltime. During my husband’s 20-years with the Marines Corps, we moved multiple times, and along the way I taught school and earned my master’s degree. I was always confident that this chapter would end and another would begin. Having this knowledge gave me patience during those times when I grew frustrated with teaching and wanted to move on.
Once my youngest was in her senior year of high school, I shifted my career to the public policy arena. I soon recognized that I was at a disadvantage without a credential that would make me stand out from the crowd. This posed my biggest challenge – the decision to return to school and earn my doctorate. Not only would this be a commitment of time as well as a financial burden, but the University of Virginia was two hours away. Email was in its infancy and online education was years into the future, so committing to this goal meant commuting to Charlottesville three days a week.
Pursuing this degree was incredibly challenging in many ways, but the credential I earned began to open doors and present opportunities that I had never imagined. In just a few years I went from being a K-12 classroom teacher to being the Secretary of Education for the Commonwealth of Virginia. As administrations changed, I served at the U.S. Department of Education and as the chief K-12 gubernatorial appointee for K-12 education in both Minnesota and Florida.
Once my life’s chapter in public policy ended, I became a professor of history and political science and an assistant provost at Harding University. There, I was able to use both my administrative and policy experience as I also pursued my love of teaching.
Now in retirement, I can look back at my life with the realization that every job I had prepared me for the next one. The knowledge and skills gained from disparate professional environments enriched my ability to transfer fresh and meaningful insights in new situations.
What is the toughest decision you’ve had to make in the last few months?
An elderly acquaintance who has no family discovered that her financial advisor embezzled all of her retirement funds. She was devasted and had to move out of her home of 40 years and in with a friend. All she has left is her meager Social Security check.
I was in the middle of a project that I loved and I was making great progress, but when this friend’s loss occurred, it became clear to me that no one else in her circle of friends would be able to help her in any attempt to get back her money. So, I put my own projects on hold and worked fulltime for two months going through all of her paperwork, which was in multiple boxes and completely disorganized. As I made order from chaos, I found that she had 47 accounts going back to 1986, all of which had been administrated by her financial advisor. Ultimately, I was able to identify that this thief had stolen well over $500,000–and I have the proof. I hired a lawyer and her appeal has been filed. We are now waiting for a court date.
I would not characterize this as a tough decision, however, because it was clear to me that taking on this project was the right thing to do. My experience and my set of skills made me uniquely qualified to address this woman’s pressing needs. I attribute my success in this endeavor to the skills I acquired throughout my career, and we are confident of a positive outcome.
What do you think it is that makes you successful?
Personally, my approach to dividing my life into chapters helped me to clearly see that while the modern women could have it all, they just couldn’t have it all at once. I have never regretted the time I spent raising my children as I taught at the middle school level. I know that I had time beyond that to pursue other interests and to begin new careers. My eclectic background and multifaceted interests have melded into a focus on how to most effectively lead America’s forward trajectory. To do so requires a moral imperative that justifies providing a challenging education to all students while simultaneously developing the unique talents of the gifted among us. Our future challenges as a nation require it.
What would you consider the greatest accomplishment in your career?
There are two accomplishments of which I am most proud. The first is the fact that I worked with the teams that led successful K-12 education reform movements in three states (Virginia, Minnesota, and Florida). Stronger standards, higher expectations, and accountability are now in place, and these policies are helping to ensure success for millions of our nation’s future citizens.
I also am proud of The War Against Excellence. This book took many years to write but was well worth it, as it provided both a solid basis of research as well as practical strategies for parents and educators who want to challenge questionable educational practices. My research revealed that students with exceptional abilities are often those who least likely to have their academic needs met in our schools. A long-needed emphasis on improving education for all, which began in the 1960s, had a perverse consequence: the needs of gifted students gradually became forgotten. By providing practical strategies for parents to use in challenging weak academic standards and expectations, I was able to put research into action to improve the quality of opportunities for the gifted.
What does the future hold for your business? What are you most excited about?
Retirement affords me the opportunity to pursue my own projects and set my own priorities. I am excited about following through on projects that have been on the back burner for years. In addition to my upcoming work on Little House on the Prairie, I am also working on a manuscript that addresses select Supreme Court decisions. With regard to gifted issues, I will advocate on the state and federal levels.
What business books have inspired you?
The first one, The Forgotten Five Hundred tells the amazing story of American pilots in WW II who were forced to ditch their planes in the mountains of Yugoslavia after conducting bombing raid against Nazi oil refineries. Due to a lack of fuel, hundreds of Americans were stranded. Resistance leaders stepped forward, and with the help of simple villagers, they were able to hide and feed these Americans and care for the wounded. Eventually, under the leadership of Draža Mihailović, an airstrip was created and a daring daylight rescue saved over 500 men, transporting them safely to an American base in Italy. After the war, moles within the U.S. government successfully pushed for an alliance with Josip Tito, a communist, who eventually executed Mihailović, whom he regarded as a rival.
The lessons in this book are profound:
• Leadership under dire circumstances must rely on help from loyal volunteers.
• Do the right thing, even if it means your life will be taken. It is better to die with dignity than to compromise your moral compass.
• Contemporaries might treat you with disdain, but when you do the right thing, history will vindicate you.
• When your life is on the line, trust strangers to help you. The average person is inherently good.
• At time, the power of bureaucrats can be overwhelming. If the need demands it, look for someone who is willing to bend the rules for a moral cause.
• In dire situations, a bureaucrat who adheres to the spirit of the law as opposed to the letter of the law is the more honorable person.
The second one is A Tree Grows in Brooklyn tells the story of a Francie, young girl whose dire poverty places her in a school district where children are simply warehoused. Her father recognizes her earnestness to get an education and discovers a way to get her into a school that meets her needs. The “tree” that grows in Brooklyn is this child who, in spite of a lack of opportunities and a sterile environment, is able to thrive due to a devoted father and caring teachers who recognize her hopes and aspirations.
This describes countless gifted children whose lives could be meaningful and productive if only they are given the chance to develop their talents.
What advice would you give to your younger self?
My advice to young people would be to intentionally identify and develop new skills with every career opportunity, paid and unpaid, and then seek out ways to transfer those skills in new situations. Developing a new and unique set of skills, and creatively applying them to new situations, will set you apart from your peers.
Are you willing to be a mentor? If so, how should someone contact you?
Policy: Working in education policy requires a balance of boldness and humility. New ideas are sometimes hard for people to accept, so they must be presented with a solid background of research. Educating policymakers about current research is essential, and legislative proposals should always include accountability measures because responsible policymakers should always be good stewards of the taxpayers’ money.
Administration: Bring order to chaos. Administrators should focus on making practices and policies efficient and effective. They should always be looking for ways to identify arcane policies that need to be updated or discarded, as well as identifying ways to use technology to simplify procedures.
One example in my career was moving a university from a paper catalog to an online catalog. The proposal was raised at multiple deans’ meetings to get feedback and to ensure that everybody was on board for the change. Those who were resistant were nudged to accept the change, and once the leap was made, extra time was spent with these individuals to ensure their understanding of the new technology. To demonstrate that we were committed to supporting practitioners during this transition, we published the online catalog and provided a hard copy to all deans and department heads for the first year. Being the lead on this project, I continued to seek feedback during the initial year, and we received meaningful input that was quickly implemented, resulting in a robust online catalog that simplified registration and excited our students. In addition, we were able to replace physical meetings regarding course and program changes with an online process, saving deans and faculty hundreds of hours combined hours.
This administrative change involved communication regarding the change, time for those affected to prepare for the upcoming change, input from stakeholders, and implementation of feedback. What had initially been a frightening change for some is now a universally accepted way of doing business.
Research: Teachers are in need of a robust compendium of strategies to ensure academic success. Research work should prioritize the identification of solutions for ensuring academic success for students. For example, several studies indicate that a K-8 grade organization produces higher academic achievement for pre-teens than a 6-8 (middle school) organization. More robust research in this area would contribute to potential changes that would strengthen student progress.