Generational Change: Some Controversial Cause for Optimism in Educational Policy

Stefanie Sanford & Steven Seleznow*

Here in the midst of the first decade of the 21st century, each passing year sees members of the Greatest Generation of World War II passing away, Baby Boomers marching through middle age and toward retirement, Generation X occupying a greater portion of the work force and leadership positions, and the oldest Millennials graduating from high school and now entering college in unprecedented numbers. This is a period of profound generational change in America. The authors sit on slightly different sides of this change and occupy different places on the ideological spectrum, but both observe its implications similarly – and share a common optimism that these changes create perhaps unprecedented opportunities to make progress on some of education’s most persistent problems. Chief among those problems are ones of human capital – the preparing, recruiting, retaining, deploying, evaluating, and rewarding performance of those who work in perhaps a democracy’s most important enterprise: the education of its young people and their preparation to take the reins of commerce and civic enterprise.

In the last decade, uncertainty has occupied a place of prominence in the American psyche. This is compounded by these generational shifts, which are increasingly chronicled by the media and interest groups lamenting pending Baby Boomer retirements. The laments are nowhere more acute than in education. There is an undercurrent of fear and what Douglas Coupland has called “clique maintenance” – the tendency of a generation to malign the one that follows – to these stories.1 We argue that this fear is misplaced. In fact, these generational changes, combined with a growing philanthropic sector now animated by a new generation of givers willfully focused on measurable outcomes of their civic investments, provide significant opportunities to address some of the nation’s most pressing problems, especially those in public education – and none more directly than human capital.

In addition to these shifts, 2005 and 2006 bore witness to enormous tragedy coupled with governmental incompetence and corruption. The aftermath of the one-two punch of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita seemed to affirm a widespread belief that government service and government people are inherently inefficient and ineffective and that, conversely, individual acts of voluntarism are better than public services. WalMart was able to get water on trucks and into the storm-ravaged area as FEMA officials flew over the carnage in helicopters, seemingly unable to effect timely action. While public outrage hardened into a familiar cynicism about government ineptitude, Americans also opened their wallets, got into their cars, and helped private relief efforts at unprecedented levels. As we see it, faith in public institutions is at an all time low – and that faith is inversely related to age. Younger people are less likely to trust public institutions to effectively address pressing problems. That is a problem for democracy – but especially a problem for public education.

How can these unique sensibilities of a new and largely untapped generation, with fundamentally different life experiences, values, expectations, and creative impulses than the dominant Baby Boomers, help transcend our dysfunctional and polarized political times? How might they be harnessed, rather than stymied, to remake stale industrial institutions into those that are more effective, performance-based and reflective on the times in which we live?

Bill Strauss and Neil Howe posit that each generation makes a unique bequest to those that follow – and generally seeks to correct the excesses of the previous generation. They argue that the Baby Boomer excess is ideology – and that the Generation X reaction to that excess involves seemingly uninspiring notions of transparency, pragmatism and effectiveness.2 This is hardly the stuff of goose bumps, but it is nevertheless an overdue shift in approach. Such a shift will help bring a new and vital set of people into the public education arena, and will remake public schooling to reflect 21st century realities.

Generation X’s Demands of Public Systems

When overseeing their children’s education, members of Generation X will seek a different value set than their Boomer predecessors: transparency, accountability, real time performance, lack of ideology, top of market learning, and cash value. Consider these demands in the context of classic education human capital debates about the recruiting, retaining, deploying, evaluating, and rewarding performance of teachers and principals.

An American Federation of Teachers (AFT) policy statement stresses the importance of engaging a younger generation, but utterly fails to consider the disruption of its own leadership or operating norms.3 Union leaders want to capture the attention of a younger audience, but they neglect the most resonant elements for the new generation: transparency, work ethic, and reward for performance. They also lament the reality of mobility and the rejection by many young people of “government” employment for its own sake. Younger workers, for example, are used to a labor market that entails changing jobs every two or three years early in a career; teachers unions and others imbued with the old style have not genuinely adjusted to new realities.

Note the sharp distinction between the AFT’s statement and the approach of Senator Barack Obama in a speech entitled, “21st Century Schools for a 21st Century Economy”, delivered March 13, 2006. Senator Obama states:

If we truly believe in our public schools, then we have a moral responsibility to do better – to break the either-or mentality around the debate over education that asks us to choose between more money or more reform, and embrace a both-and mentality. Because we know that good schools will require both the structural reform and the resources necessary to prepare our kids for the future.


Obama continues:

[W]e need new vision for education in America – one where we move past ideology to experiment with the latest reforms, measure the results, and make policy decisions based on what works and what doesn’t. . . . After we recruit great teachers, we need to pay them better. Right now, teaching is one of the only professions where no matter how well you perform at your job, you’re almost never rewarded for success. But with six-figure salaries luring away some of our most talented college graduates from some of our neediest schools, this needs to change.


Union and many public sector leaders are trying to appeal to younger workers while holding fast to core organizing principles that generational research indicates are fundamentally at variance with the values and realities of the younger generation: transparency, cash value, performance reward, work ethic, and mobility. While the AFT and other civil service entities work to sidestep or counteract these generational changes, new leaders from this generation are stepping up to develop new arrangements that transcend traditional and dominant orthodoxies in the education arena.

In his speech, Senator Obama cites a series of organizations founded by Generation X social entrepreneurs. These organization were created to bring new, young blood into the educational system and create competition with the existing hierarchy. Teach for America (TFA) is perhaps the most well known and its founder Wendy Kopp has become a generational legend, while drawing her share of criticism from older defenders of traditional teacher development programs and schools of education. TFA brings top performers into teaching, drawing thousands of applicants from the top echelons of American colleges to serve in low performing, high need schools – a project akin to an education-sector Peace Corps. Last year, TFA received over 20,000 applications for approximately 2,000 placements – underscoring that there is considerable interest in education as a career, in service for a period after college, and in the rigorous selectivity of TFA. Though Kopp acknowledges that TFA will not solve the teacher problem in America, it does provide important learning about what might draw top talent to the teaching profession and broader efforts in the education arena.

New Leaders for New Schools was founded by Jon Schnur, a young staffer in the Clinton Administration, and is designed to bring fresh leaders into the principalship and promote a vision of the profession that moves beyond bureaucratic building manager to a contemporary educational leader, recruiting and motivating great talent to improve student outcomes. Its mission may sound obvious to lay people, but it is near heresy to incumbent interest groups: that professionals with experience in other management arenas have valuable and relevant experience to bring to education and that they and other education managers should be rigorously evaluated for performance. The New Teacher Project (NTP) is led by TFA alumna Michelle Rhee and targets successful mid-career professionals to inject the same type of selectivity and performance into mid-career converts to the teaching profession that New Leaders does for principals. NTP has recently released a pointed report on teacher assignment practices designed more to protect seniority rights than to improve teaching and learning.4They hope such transparency will help focus adult teacher practices more on student success than on teacher comfort and that performance rewards will draw the very best from the private and public sectors to bring their expertise to our nation’s schools and young people. The Generation X leaders who crafted these organizations have done so to bypass or compete with the calcified and rule-bound civil service selection apparatus that dominates educational hiring, assignment and, compensation today. They fully reflect Strauss’s observations about what Generation X will demand from the educational system. It is critical to note that these are not anti-union young conservatives; rather, they are the social justice-seeking, largely progressive social entrepreneurs.

As Generation X ascends to greater civic and professional leadership and begins to represent a larger share of parents with school-aged children, we expect that these pressures for choice, accountability, transparency, and performance reward will grow much stronger. Combine these systemic demands of parents and taxpayers with the labor market reality that this generation has an aversion to joining hierarchical institutions, collective organizations that require members to cede individual authority, and the like, and one can predict a tough future for unions and other organizations that seek to maintain old practices that insulate members from accountability and fail to reward better performers. The bold entrepreneurial organizations noted above are just the beginning. The impulses and values that led to their creation will have further implications in education and in other pressing social policy arenas as well.

Conclusions and Implications for Policy

We begin our conclusion with a series of questions. Would it not be more productive for all education stakeholders to focus on how to create new institutions to capitalize on new realities rather than trying to reverse them? If young people are more mobile, shouldn’t their retirement accounts be as well? If younger workers are drawn to performance reward positions, would it not benefit the social sector if we examined how to capture that impulse to improve performance? If young leaders crave technology and transparency, shouldn’t we marry those two for greater accountability and effectiveness? If transparency and candor breed social trust, why would we not want more of it? In the words of the young Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, “In God we trust. All others should bring data.” That posture bodes well for education policy in the coming years.

We know that social trust leads to greater public engagement and participation – and that participation and cynicism are inversely related. Could these distinctly unromantic impulses – transparency, pragmatism, mobility, work ethic, and open-mindedness – serve as catalysts to greater civic health and social policy progress, especially in education? The current popularity of candid and independent leaders such as John McCain and Barak Obama would seem to foreshadow such developments. In the pundit class, these leaders are touted for their post-ideological stances, their “freshness,” and their seemingly simple notions of doing “what works.” These generational changes are being hastened by the generational change in the philanthropic sector, with its varied array of “social venture capitalists” such as New Profit, Inc. in Boston, Venture Philanthropy Partners in Washington, DC, and New School Venture Fund in San Francisco (all focused on “what works”). The Gates Foundation also reflects this fresh approach with its investment in new high school forms, 21st century standards aligned with college and work readiness, and data systems to foster the transparency and undergird the performance reward these younger generations seek.

Indeed, the values that are driving new generations to reinvent the work and workplace of 21st century industry, or the ambitions of 21st century philanthropy, are the same driving them to reinvent the social sector. It is time for this sector to start listening.

* Steven Seleznow is Program Director for Education at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Stefanie Sanford is Deputy Director for National Initiatives at the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. This article is derived in part from Sanford’s CIVIC LIFE IN THE INFORMATION AGE (2007).
[1] DOUGLAS COUPLAND, GENERATION X (1996).
[2] WILLIAM STRAUSS & NEIL HOWE, MILLENIALS RISING: THE NEXT GREAT GENERATION 109, 261 (2000).
[3] AMERICAN FEDERATION OF TEACHERS, ATTRACTING AND RETAINING A FIRST-CLASS WORK FORCE, available at http://www.aft.org/topics/workforce/index.htm.
[4] JESSICA LEVIN, JENNIFER MULHERN & JOAN SCHUNCK, THE NEW TEACHER PROJECT, UNINTENDED CONSEQUENCES: THE CASE FOR REFORMING THE STAFFING RULES IN URBAN TEACHERS UNION CONTRACTS (2005), available at http://www.tntp.org/ourresearch/unintendedconsequences.html.

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