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Age Ain’t Nothing But a Number: Education Reform Turns 25

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by Marilyn Anderson Rhames
Education Post

I’m a Generation X-er, but don’t you dare call me old.

I’m fairly new to the fourth decade, but I am often mistaken as an early twenty-something.

It’s a dubious misconception. Sometimes I’m flattered and other times it’s offensive. When I want to be taken seriously, I drop hints about my age—my teenage daughter, my 16th wedding anniversary, and how I changed careers after 9/11, etc.

With age comes wisdom, right?

Education reform turns 25 this year. She’s a baby by institutional standards, and the 140-year-old traditional system of neighborhood schools and teachers unions are always trying to put her in her place.

Still, education reform keeps vying for respect, appearing wiser than her years when she pushes back with the tenacity of a young adult with a freshly minted college degree, loads of student loan debt, and a dream just big enough to save the world.

At 25, education reform is a quintessential millennial. Depending on who you talk to, that’s a positive or negative distinction. Some say millennials are self-absorbed, entitled brats who think technology will solve all of life’s problems. Others believe that millennials are an ultra-smart generation that aren’t afraid to revolutionize the false assumptions we have worked under for far too long.

While I’m attracted to reform’s bold, innovative stance on improving learning outcomes for low-income, urban children of color, I am often equally put off by its hubris, its white savior, I’m-smarter-than-you mentality that doesn’t engage the community or empower its homegrown leaders to lead.

According to the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, there are 6,700 charter schools in 42 states, educating nearly three million students. And while congratulations are in order to Ted Kolderie, the mastermind behind the passage of the nation’s first charter school law in Minnesota in 1991, the reform community might be its own worst enemy.

This fear has prompted the Center for Education Reform’s CEO Jeanne Allen to recently publish a manifesto on how to save this “movement at risk.”

Allen argues that choice and accountability, two major issues on reform’s platform, are cannibalizing innovation, another fundamental aspect of education reform. She writes:

The truth is, we have lost the change-forest for the choice-trees, too often pushing charters and vouchers as an end in and of themselves rather than a means to spur innovation and opportunity and ultimately deliver on the promise of a great education for all children.

We have spent so much time talking about what’s wrong with our schools, and fighting for alternatives to it, that we have understandably left too many parents with the impression that we have given up on public education—or even worse, their kids.

Personally, I see innovation in education without accountability as nothing more than an experiment, and no child deserves to be a guinea pig. We also don’t want rules and regulations to suck the life out of a school’s ability to be creative. These lofty goals pose a tension that serves to provide reformers with a healthy dose of checks and balances, lest the adults get all the checks and the kids get a zero balance.

But, yeah, reform is just 25 years old…what 25-year-old isn’t still trying to find herself?

Just a few weeks back, for example, I was caught in a firestorm of controversy stemming from my blog posts about the NewSchools Summit that put race at the center of the education reform debate. I argued that substandard education in America is rooted in racist policies and social norms, and if education leadership is afraid to address issues like #BlackLivesMatter then maybe they aren’t fit to lead.

Judging by the fallout, you would have thought I had started a charter school named Kardashian College Prep!

The American Prospect last week published an insightful piece about the many divisions that exist within education reform on her 25th birthday. It’s not just racial—it’s also sociopolitical, ideological, and philosophical all mixed in together.

Now that I’m on summer break, I can put my feet up and ponder these heady things. I’m questioning some of the reform values I’ve always held dear, and seeking to discover my true identity in this effort.

My posture has shifted, as well. Instead of entering debates with a defensive stance, I’m trying to understand the nuances of opposing ideas so I can appreciate them, and I just might change my mind.

So to all you the millennials, Gen X-ers, and even baby boomers out there: Your age is just a number. We don’t get wiser with time; we get wiser by thinking deeply and listening.

Happy 25th Birthday, education reform! It’s been a hoot watching you grow up.