Back-to-school season is here, with all of the chaos and rituals that come with it. Supplies are bought, bus routes learned, new teachers met, and many young parents drop their own children off at school while still themselves remembering the anxiety of deciding what outfit to wear that first day back.
Even those parents who think back fondly on their own school days often take a grim view of America's public schools. Those who are able to afford to live in a neighborhood with "good schools" will do so, knowing that a good education is the key to good opportunity for their children.
And yet many of today's millennial parents, and the millennial generation as whole, aren't sure they're comfortable with that reality, that a student's ZIP code can define a child's future prospects. New survey data on millennials shows that despite being upbeat about their own experiences with the school system, most millennials are ready for bold change and worry more that we won't do enough to bring creativity and flexibility into our schools.
Over the last few months, I've been fortunate enough to travel around the country conducting focus groups with millennial parents, teachers, and former students, asking for their reflections on the education system and their hopes for it. Millennials make up a majority of new teachers, and are increasingly the parents of young children who are entering public schools. A large majority of the generation came out of public schools themselves.
And through those focus groups and a national survey of adults under age 35, I've found a generation eager for the next generation to experience an education system even more flexible, creative, and innovative than the one they experienced. Millennials easily connect the dots between good education and good opportunities, and they also understand that it isn't just hard work that determines how well a child will be educated – it also depends on where they live and the resources their parents commit to their education.
Often times, when we talk about improving our public schools, it is easy to come back to the question of money. Are schools basically fine, just underfunded? Millennials say no – more funding isn't the cure-all for what ails our schools. When we asked what the top factors are that make a good school thrive, funding did not top the list. Instead? "Teacher creativity and flexibility" was top of the list, as millennials point to the core role of the teacher as the variable that leads to a good – or bad – education. By a three to one margin, millennials reject the idea that our schools don't need big change, just more funding, and instead call for big change. When we asked if they were more worried that school reform would go too far, throwing out the good with the bad, or not go far enough to bring about bold change, some 58 percent of millennials worry that we won't be bold enough.
There are many pathways through which that bold change can be achieved. Take the issue of public charter schools, for instance. Admittedly, most millennials do not start off with deep knowledge of charters, nor do they start off with strong feelings. But when you ask millennials if they think that charter schools should be able to do things like have more rigorous curriculum, new ways of compensating teachers, and a school culture that emphasizes college-readiness, most millennials will say "yes".
The same goes for school choice. Millennials are not deeply familiar with school choice, and have some reservations, especially about the types of institutions that a student might choose to attend with taxpayer dollars. But only 29 percent think that students should be assigned a school based on their neighborhood, with far more saying that parents should have a say in where their child goes. This is especially the case when it comes to students with special needs or abilities, where millennials reject the idea of putting every student into the same mass process or same sort of school. A generation that has grown up fairly accustomed to customization and personalization seems to be gravitating toward an education system that embraces those characteristics more and more.
Not all big, bold change is necessarily a winner with millennials. Changes in teacher compensation are met with skepticism, for instance, and there's hesitation over things like changes to the school day or school year. And any change that seems to add more to a teacher's plate is likely a nonstarter as millennials (especially millennial teachers) readily say teachers today have it harder than teachers twenty or thirty years ago.
But the idea of letting our education system hum onward, changing little, producing mediocre outcomes for so many kids? Millennials don't want that reality. And as they put their footprint on America's K-12 system, if they make creativity and flexibility new hallmarks of the public schools, the generations that follow them will be better for it.
Kristen Soltis Anderson is a columnist for The Washington Examiner and author of "The Selfie Vote."