Drucker: Finding Hope in Fellow Millennials and Their Willingness to Reimagine Education

Last year, the nation’s 75 million millennials — born, roughly, in the 1980s and 1990s — emerged from the shadow of the baby boomers as our country’s largest and most influential age demographic. People say we are self-aggrandizing. Congratulations to us on cultural domination.

While marketers have sized us up on a Rubik’s Cube of preferences, we are only starting to learn more about millennials’ views on topics that really matter, like education. Our ideas, and the priority we give to educational equity, will shape American schools for decades. This matters not only because we have an opportunity to influence the system before we have children in it, but also because education is an ideal gateway issue for millennials to participate in American democracy, through local politics like school board elections, rezonings, and ballot questions. What we do with our political power in terms of education is a topic that deserves serious ink.

A new poll conducted by Echelon Insights, with support from the Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity and the Walton Family Foundation, begins to sketch out our views. Conducted in summer 2017, it found that many of the qualities millennials are known for, like openness and independence, were evident in respondents’ readiness to support bold solutions to address entrenched education inequities—solutions that may include embracing school choice and redefining the idea of a neighborhood school.

Which means that while we may be ready to take a match to the system, we are not quite ready to completely it burn down. Not yet.

On Tuesday afternoon, the Thomas B. Fordham Institute will lead a discussion on this topic, “Millennials in Ed Reform,” with the co-founder of Echelon Insights, Kristen Soltis Anderson, and a panel of millennials making an impact in education. Among the topics to be discussed is how millennials may reshape the future of our schools.

What insights do we have about millennials’ attitudes toward education? Like most of our baby boomer and Gen X predecessors, millennials believe that “having access to a quality education” is the most important factor in getting the opportunity to succeed in life (68 percent) — way ahead of “having the right connections and networks” (43 percent) and “having access to financial resources” (41 percent). High levels of support were steady across all subgroups — race, education level, and type of community lived in.

Millennials thought highly of their own schooling (some of it, admittedly, just yesterday), with two-thirds saying it was “good” or “very good.” Notably, 71 percent of white respondents rated their schools as “very good” or “good,” while only 59 percent of black respondents said the same.

Millennials were less impressed with the American school system at large (only 39 percent saying it was “good” to “very good”). This incongruity, while fairly common to education polls, is challenging to interpret here because respondents expressed nuanced opinions about the fundamental purpose of education. Fifty-one percent said K-12 schools should prepare a student for “college or post-secondary courses” while roughly the same percentage said it should prepare a student “to navigate adult life and real-world challenges.” (Respondents could choose more than one answer.)

Given that more than two-thirds described their own schooling as good or very good, it’s notable that only 39 percent said they’d finished school prepared for college or post-secondary courses (44 percent of whites, 34 percent of blacks, and 24 percent of Hispanics). And only 20 percent said they were ready for adult life and real-world challenges (or maybe some millennials are in denial about the inevitability of adulthood? Just a thought).

The low totals around college and career readiness may suggest that millennials feel that being skilled for success in the 21st century is a benchmark that is constantly shifting. While we may think back fondly on our own education, we also recognize (especially the ’80s babies among us) that it didn’t quite prepare us for the level of success we envisioned for ourselves in an automated, hyperlinked world we may have not fully seen coming. Throughout the poll, older and younger millennials had nuanced opinions on a spate of issues.

There’s a hopefulness underlying the poll numbers though, glimmers that millennials can finally be the ones to reckon with our inequitable education system because we know it is stifling the American dream.

That is why I do this work: because as our godfather Joel Klein famously says, we won’t fix poverty in this country until we fix education. (We may be young guns, but we always respect our cherished elders.) The notion that many of my peers may fundamentally understand that is not only reassuring, it’s reinvigorating for our mission.

But there is much more work to do. Although millennials may be attuned at a high level to the fundamental inequalities of ZIP code–based enrollment systems, their initial ideas about school choice, like those of most Americans, are murky: 14 percent say they’re “very familiar” with the concept, and a third report being “somewhat familiar.”

Millennial feelings about school choice, particularly public charter schools, jump from 22 percent positive to around 40 percent positive when they’re given this additional language: “ ‘School choice’ means that a student can choose to attend a different school than the one for which they are zoned. Instead of being assigned a school based on one’s neighborhood, students would be able to apply to attend a different school in the district.”

Reformers tend to spend a lot of time fighting battles, but this is my war — inspiring millennials to see this issue like I do, as one that has practical, scalable, data-driven solutions that can allow us to retake our future. All we need is courage and a political will to implement them. Of course, I’m optimistic that millennials can get there. Any other way of thinking would be, well, old school.

The thing about us millennials, though, is that we like to defy labels. So don’t call us the Education Generation yet, though there is hope that we may be.

Disclosure: The 74 receives funding from the Walton Family Foundation.

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