Tapping the next "greatest generation" in education

Everyone "knows" that we have a looming crisis in education staffing, as millions of Baby Boomers retire from teaching and school leadership posts and too few qualified people step forward to replace them.

And everyone has a "solution" to this looming crisis. Some on the left deem the problem enormous and seek its remedy (or prevention) in more generous pay scales, greater benefits, and plenty of professional development to attract an ample supply of new candidates. On the right, many (including Gadfly) argue that this looming staffing crisis is confined mostly to America's tougher schools - those serving needy youngsters in poor urban and rural communities - and ascribe it to economic disincentives stemming from traditional pay scales that reward teachers and principals not for success at raising student achievement or a willingness to work in challenging situations but for seniority and credentials.

The real problem, however, may have less to do with salary structures than with the changing characteristics of the rising generation from whom tomorrow's school leaders will emerge. The values, professional desires, career aspirations, and cultural norms of this generation are radically at odds with longstanding notions about the education profession. These people are constitutionally disinclined to serve in a traditional public bureaucracy characterized by top-down decision-making, political maneuvering, and incremental change. This fact could mean not only that the looming public-school teacher shortage problem is even worse than we imagine, but that all the conventional antidotes may be misguided.

The Millennials - the "echo boom" of Baby Boomer children, born between 1977 and 1994 - are nearly as numerous as the Boomers and have even greater confidence in their ability to change the world. Yet, while Millennials have demonstrated keener interest than their parents in taking jobs that serve the public, they show less interest in working in traditional governmental bureaucracies. Instead, public-spirited Millennials are drawn towards smaller nonprofit ventures where they can see the positive impact of their work first-hand and have more to do with shaping that work.

The Millennials' interest in entrepreneurial, nonprofit-sector solutions to public problems results in part from a collective judgment about the questionable effectiveness of traditional public agencies. For example, while a 2001 Panetta Institute survey found that 50 percent of Millennials say working for a nonprofit organization that assists the needy can bring about "a lot of change," only 20 percent say that about a career in the public sector itself. Similarly, while four-fifths of Millennials say a job that "will make a positive difference in people's lives" is very important to them (compared to just 55 percent who say they place similar importance on finding a well-paying job), twice as many say they are very interested in working at a nonprofit organization as in traditional government bureaucracies. Harvard's Joseph Nye and John Donahue sum up the situation this way: "To the extent that the work is highly bureaucratized, hostile to initiative, rule-bound, and rigged into rigid career ladders, it is less appealing to young people today.... It is not surprising that many public-spirited young Americans view the nonprofit sector more favorably as a setting for doing good. . . ."

What institution does that description remind you of? Just as business-oriented Millennials flocked to Internet start-ups seeking to revolutionize the business world, public-spirited young people are increasingly turning away from government bureaucracies like school systems and toward civic start-ups to revolutionize the solution to social problems. As an upcoming PBS documentary suggests in its title, "The New Heroes," these risk-taking civic entrepreneurs are increasingly the people we look to for innovative solutions to pressing public problems. While young idealists of the 1960s looked to government ventures and policies to solve our education woes, today's Millennials are more apt to draw inspiration from such pioneering civic ventures as Wendy Kopp's Teach for America and Mike Feinberg and Dave Levin's KIPP schools.

The examples and success of the "new heroes" have inspired a growing number of would-be civic entrepreneurs in America's high schools and universities. Observing this strong interest among public-spirited Millennials, graduate programs in public policy, government, and even business are adjusting their curricula to place greater emphasis on courses that examine civic entrepreneurship and nonprofit innovations. The changes at Harvard's Business School are characteristic of this trend, with the number of faculty teaching courses on civic enterprise having increased from 10 to 40 over the past decade and enrollment in these courses having risen from 70 to 361 students per year.

Yet despite these clear trends toward civic entrepreneurship among the generation that might have been expected to staff them, traditional public school bureaucracies remain resistant to any change that threatens the status quo - as we've seen, for example, with their staunch opposition to charter schools and programs that would relax certification barriers to bring highly qualified, civic-minded young leaders into classrooms and principals' offices. As the Boomers begin to retire en masse, this resistance will either exacerbate today's personnel shortages in hard-to-staff schools or will cause further deterioration in the quality of school leadership as less-talented people fill the gaps.

To attract the high quality leaders that our schools will need to succeed in the coming decades, the traditional education bureaucracy will need to adapt to the attitudes and aspirations of the rising Millennial generation. With both voters and education reformers ever more supportive of entrepreneurial approaches to public education such as charter schools and with mounting evidence that such approaches can yield pupil achievement, cost savings, and greater citizen involvement, the zeal of public-spirited Millennials to tackle innovative solutions to education problems offers a tremendous opportunity to bring such new strategies to scale. For that to happen, however, policy makers will need to overcome the traditional focus on adult prerogatives and ingrained bureaucratic practices and instead push to bring the best and brightest of this rising generation into education by giving rein to their innovative and entrepreneurial spirit.

Marc Porter Magee is director of the Progressive Policy Institute's Center for Civic Enterprise and author of a forthcoming PPI policy report on the Millennial generation and public service.

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