Stop Hating on Millennials

I’m done listening to older generations bitch about Millennials (born 1981-2000). It’s time to take stock of a few items that apparently have gone unnoticed by some Gen X-ers (my generation) & Baby Boomers. For ease of reading, I’ll use numerals and letters, easier to refer back to for “older folks” ;).

  1. The majority of these young folks have come into adulthood in the years just preceding and following 9/11. If you think that they were less affected because they were too young to understand the magnitude of that event, think again. If you think they would be able to shake off the feelings in a few years, forgetting how much our society changed on that day, you’re wrong. If you think the wars in Afghanistan & Iraq wouldn’t mean much to those who didn’t actually step foot on the battlefield, guess again. They have experienced just as much psychological stress as the rest of us, if not more. Their lives changed in dramatic ways just as they were supposed to be solidifying a trajectory for adulthood. And yes, many of us have individually gone through major changes, difficulties, chaos, but as a generational experience, this was pretty huge.
  2. They were implored to get all the education they could get. They had to be able to compete on a global stage, they needed to spend countless hours studying so that they might score high enough on the ACT/SAT to get into the best college with the best programs (and this is where we see the rapid increase in the segregating of the students into “tracks”, another issue that affected them intergenerationally). They were pushed not just to succeed but to excel, they had to be the best, or at least amongst the best. Simultaneously, they were being introduced to all the new technologies of the day and told they must learn how It works because It is the future. The stress that this placed upon them was immense.
  3. Not everyone went to college, but that doesn’t mean they weren’t getting smart as well. Rigor was part of the K-12 program; and along with the life events they experienced, they received the best public education that our country had ever offered. So in addition to the smarty pants’ who were getting a B.A./B.S. there were a lot of intelligent young people with a high school diploma running around the country. This did help them, initially, the mid to late 1990’s offered a pretty strong job market and gave this group hope that the future held the same promise for them that it did for their parents and grandparents. If only they knew what was coming.
  4. College costs: Along with getting as much out of high school as they could, they were strongly encouraged to get a college degree. I don’t think everybody needed/needs a college degree but in today’s world, some sort of degree (2-year, 4-year, graduate, etc) is more often required for many jobs, so they did. If college costs had risen at rates that were similar to the rest of our consumer goods, they would have been ok, but that wasn’t the case. Between 1980 and 2014 the average cost of tuition at a 4 year institution rose by 260 percent. That’s a lot of dough. So they coughed it up, or more likely, borrowed it. Not a big deal though, because in America, we can count on economic growth like we experienced in the 1990s, with the job market doing great, no worries—except, that didn’t last.
  5. After 9/11, Congress backed George W. Bushes plan to cut taxes (2003), his second big tax reduction and this one while two wars were being waged. The stupidity of such an act belies the common sense of a fifth grader. This was not the kind of thing that would benefit a forthcoming generation (skyrocketing deficits and all).
  6. The economy stagnated as did job growth in the Bush (43) era, until it stopped stagnating, and the bottom fell out. The housing market is most certainly a significant factor in this episode and its long-term consequences are still being felt today. Many Millennials are nervous about investing in a home as they can’t say for sure that:   A) it’s a good investment  B) not to mention their student loans C) and many are working jobs that are long on benefits (like free pizza fridays) but short on actual wages, and D) depending on location, there may not be a whole lot of affordable housing (rentals) which tends to have an effect on previously affordable homes (drives prices up).
  7. Jobs: What happened to all the jobs. Well, in addition to the economy collapsing in 2007…’08…’09… We lost a lot of jobs in the prior 25 years. Some businesses wanted to take advantage of cheaper labor overseas. Some needed to downsize or rightsize to account for market trends and new technology. Others found newer, more efficient methods and were able to increase productivity without increasing payroll (also known as: hey, I got new responsibilities (formerly Ted’s responsibilities), and without a pay raise, woo-hoo, they must really like me!).
  8. Speaking of student loans (4,6-B), this is one area that the government could most certainly do something about. It is in the best interest of everyone to have an electorate that is well educated (regardless of what type of work you do, you should be smart about it). Student loan interest rates, via Federal loan programs are currently set between 3.76% – 6.31%, and private loans can be several percentage points higher. Decreasing these rates to 1.5% – 3% would go a long way to cutting down on the total cost and the length of time required to pay back the loans, which means more money into the local economies, more money into savings/retirement, more money into the kids/grandkids college savings accounts. Having large debt, at a young age, is stressful; and more stressful when the good paying jobs are in short order.
  9. Student loans part II, or college tuition: Colleges need to keep the lights on, pay the professors, grounds and maintenance engineers, purchase the newest equipment (especially important in healthcare, manufacturing, computer technology, and aerospace courses), provide some sort of space for living, congregating, studying, and building camaraderie; but many schools have gone overboard on the extra amenities for the sake of attracting the “best & brightest”. This, along with bloated administrations and ridiculous salaries for the coaches of the ball teams, leads to costs being outlandish. And it would be easy to argue that it’s all worth it, if we still lived in an era of plenty; plenty-o-jobs, plent-o-salary, plenty-o-benefits, plenty-o-help for those in need, but that’s just not the world we’re living in.
  10. The perfect storm of the aforementioned crash of the U.S. economy (6), the housing market bubble popping (6), the loss of jobs over the prior 25 years (7), and student loan debts/college costs quickly rising (4,6-B,8,9) all helped lead us to where we are now. It’s a very different world than the one “we” grew up in, and their path getting here has been riddled with potholes, plagues, and sandstorms, different from the ones we experienced.

Here’s the deal. Every generation hears from previous generations about how much easier the youngens have it, how much tougher the older generations are, how today’s youth whine too much, don’t do this right, don’t do that right, and generally screw up the country. It’s not true, none of it. While we can say that the older generations have done a lot of good things, they/we have f*cked up plenty as well.

So back off the young folk. Don’t get mad when they get “all smart” on you. It’s not their fault that they spent so  much time preparing to do battle with the world’s smartest Millennials. Give them some credit for handling all the stress they’ve been dealt and moving forward in a way that makes sense for their future, not ours. Each generation does what it sees fit to best accomplish longevity for the herd, they are no different; they are finding their own way. As Jeanine Tesori said:

“If you’re doing something new there is always a sense of fear or foreboding but you’re in new ground and you have to get out your machete and cut a new path”

Ever Forward Millennials, just like the rest of us.

Change is part of our internal struggle, while difficult, it is necessary.
Change is part of our internal struggle, while difficult, it is necessary.

The State of Education

We often hear people say that “the schools are broken” or the system has failed, or some other negative comment which is usually meant to cast aspersions on those schools having the most difficult time turning out “high achieving” students. Districts with classrooms bursting at the seams, dilapidated buildings in need of an extreme makeover that would baffle Ty Pennington, and a budget that had to cut all of the arts & music programs, are examples of the most visible needs at these schools. Add to that list a full-time nurse being cut to part-time (because we all know that students only get sick or injured on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Friday mornings), and sports programs and other extracurriculars that are bare-boned and funded through private donations, athletic fees, and whatever money the district hasn’t spent on the basics. Several of the schools that fit this mold have been featured in books by Jonathan Kozol and others.

Conversely, we occasionally hear that people are very happy with the school district their child attends. Their school has a high graduation rate, most students score ‘proficient’ or above on standardized tests, and they experience no shortage of funds for the band, the football team, and the swimming & diving squad. The high schools in these districts often make Newsweek’s list of “Best High Schools” and they are just as good, if not better, than many of the private schools in their area.

The truth is, both of these scenarios are examples of some of our nation’s school districts. But many more districts fall somewhere in-between, and are not often featured in magazines or books. They serve a wide variety of students who come from a wide variety of cultures/backgrounds and fall all along the socio-economic spectrum. These districts produce world-class scientists, authors, athletes, civic and business leaders. They also see students who are unable to complete the K-12 system, some of whom become homeless and highly mobile, and other students who have difficulty functioning in society. This is what our typical school district looks like. It is not one extreme or the other, rather somewhere in between and always hopeful that with the next new program, they can alleviate some ill that is preventing their school from making the “Best” list.  Our educational system is not, on the whole, broken. But neither is it in prime condition. Major systemic overhauls are needed.

Many districts are in need of fixes in one or two or seventeen areas. Those fixes, the majority of the time, require funding. This does not always imply new funding; some cases require money to be shifted from a program that isn’t working to a new program that has exhibited promise elsewhere. But more often, it does require additional expenditures. This, financing, is often the area where policy matters get hung up (whether it’s education policy or anything else).

As we’ve recently witnessed in Maryland and Minnesota, deciding which programs are funded, and how the state decides to spend its tax revenues, is highly controversial. Governor Hogan (R-MD) made the choices that he, and some of his constituents, believe to be right. While other Maryland citizens, especially those engaged in the profession of educating children, disagree. Not every district in Maryland is in dire need of additional funding, but there are districts that could benefit greatly from extra funds.

Sometimes funding is necessary to upgrade infrastructure or some other tangible feature. But more often, funds are required to provide those things that are not as easy to put a price on. Professional development is one area that schools can choose to cut back on, if they are experiencing a budget shortfall. This may seem like a fairly inconsequential cut but imagine the auto mechanic who is asked to work on new cars, using new technology, and never receiving any instruction about the new automobile features or how the technology works. Providing ongoing professional development is the best way to keep teachers up to speed with the ever-changing world, which means their students will have the opportunity to keep pace with their peers in surrounding districts.

Another area that is often overlooked, until it’s out of control, is class size. Somewhere in the history of education, a consensus was developed about how many students should constitute a typical class size . It is pretty standard for 20-25 students to be in a class, in the typical elementary classroom, and a few more in the typical middle school and high school class. This has worked fairly well for many students—not all. The problem is not the average class-size in the typical school. The problem is when budgets are cut and class-sizes explode, and teachers are told that they have to deal with it, just like any other professional would. The problem is two-fold; many teachers will do what they have to do to make it work, which means they’re putting in more hours outside of school while making the same wage. Meanwhile the students, the BIG losers here, get less attention, fewer questions answered, and more competition for the same amount of resources. And if we look at which schools have the most overcrowded classrooms, we find the majority of them to be in inner-cities.

Which brings me to the issue that many people in education circles don’t talk about. An overcrowded classroom in the inner-city of Minneapolis, or Baltimore, or Los Angeles, or any other large American city is very different from an overcrowded classroom anywhere else. Inner-city schools, on average, have more students growing up in adverse conditions, than schools in suburban and rural areas (and for clarification, urban does not always equate to inner-city but all inner-city schools are within urban locales). Children growing up in inner-cities are more likely to experience poverty and violence (Thompson, 2014) and this makes learning more difficult, especially in overcrowded classrooms.

If we want to make one major policy change that will have the greatest effect on closing the achievement gap (something that I’ll get into more in another post), reducing class sizes in inner-city schools would be that change; in my opinion, and a host of others (Chingos & Whitehurst, 2011). It’s true that reducing class sizes from 20+ to 10-12, or 35+ to 15-18, would cost a lot of money. But if we think about the amount of money we are currently spending on those former students who didn’t get a quality education (not for lack of valiant attempts by the teachers) we can’t afford to not make the investment.

Class size reduction is not necessary for every student to be successful; but if we are truly interested in providing every student with the opportunity to achieve the “American Dream” (assuming it can still be achieved by the average Joe or Jane), then we owe the students that are growing up under the most difficult circumstances access to more tools so that they might achieve results similar to those outcomes the more advantaged students are attaining.

The state of education is not all bad. Millions of great people wake up everyday and set out to change the world by inspiring young minds. They don’t do it for the money or the fame (shocking, I know), they do it because they care about their students. By providing these teachers and schools with the resources they need to perform their jobs at the highest level, we can make our economy more stable and our society more equitable. Both of which are relatively important for a nation’s long-term viability.

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Take time to stop and notice what’s not directly in front of you, like wild flowers.
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Education is not only a human endeavor.