May 17, 2011

These People are Going to Transform Education

Original article in Education Week’s blogs: Sara Mead’s Policy Notebook by Sara Mead

Over the past 15 years, public education in the United States has been profoundly shaped by the work of a generation of young educators and reformers who launched their careers in the early 1990s: people like Wendy Kopp, Dave Levin, Mike Feinberg, Michelle Rhee, Chris Barbic, Rick Hess, and my own colleagues Kim Smith and Andrew Rotherham. The first class of Teach for America corps members (1990) alone included a host of people who have since launched and led influential education organizations and/or had significant impacts at the local, state, and national levels. And its successors haven’t done too shabbily, either.

When I began working in education policy 11 years ago, many of these people were already doing important work in education but had not yet achieved the levels of impact and prominence that they have today. Over the past 10 years, organizations these people have developed track records of success in improving student learning and begun to grow to scale. The public and policy debate around education has also changed dramatically–particularly around issues of teacher quality and charter schools–due in large part to the work of these individuals.

Thinking about this recently, I wondered: Who are the young leaders in their twenties and early thirties today who will have similar impacts on education reform over the next 10 years? That question led to a list of 16 young men and women who are launching and leading organizations that will lead in the transformation of public education over the next decade, as well as people who are doing important research, legal, political, and policy work that will shape the future of education reform. It’s a diverse group of people working in a wide variety of ways–but unified by a shared belief in the necessity and feasibility of improving public education to deliver much better results, particularly for underserved students.

Here’s the list, in alphabetical order by last name:

• Karim Kai Ani, Founder, Mathalicious
• Justin Cohen, President, School Turnaround Group, MassInsight
• Rafael Corrales, Co-Founder, LearnBoost
• Roxanna Elden, Teacher and Author, See Me After Class
• Bill Ferguson, Maryland State Senator 
• Alex Grodd, Founder, Better Lesson
• Kirabo Jackson, Assistant Professor, Northwestern University 
• Andrew Kelly, Research Fellow, American Enterprise Institute 
• Neerav Kingsland, Chief Strategy Officer, New Schools New Orleans
• Hailly Korman, Associate, Morrison and Foerster
• Jennifer Medbery, Founder, Drop the Chalk 
• Ana Menezes, Partner, The New Teacher Project
• Mickey Muldoon, Manager of External Affairs, School of One 
• Evan Stone and Sydney Morris, Co-Founders, Educators for Excellence 
• Stephanie Wilson, Chief of Staff, Aspire Public Schools

Although these people are doing exciting and important work in education, in many cases their work is not widely known. That’s likely to change shortly. But to help more people learn about the work these young leaders are doing, I’m going to be profiling each of them here on the blog over the next two weeks. I’m very grateful that these incredibly busy people took time to answer my questions. They are incredibly smart, thoughtful, and passionate about their work. And I’m deeply humbled by their work and what I’ve learned from them–and think readers will be too.

A couple notes here: First, on the list. I built this list by seeking recommendations from a number of folks I respect in the education field, including my Bellwether colleagues, leaders of education reform organizations, and writers and analysts whose work in this space I respect. Everyone on this list meets the following three critieria: They are doing important work in education now, they are likely to have significant impacts on education practice or policy over the next 10 years, and they graduated college in 2001 or later.

Why 2001? Well, any list of young leaders has to have some kind of arbitrary cut-off for what constitutes young. But I had several reasons for this one. First, it’s 10 years ago–a nice even number that means people on this list are still in the first decade of their careers. More substantively, I do believe that 2001 represents a generational turning point in individuals’ life experiences–particularly in the realm of education reform. People who started their careers in 2001 or later have spent their entire careers in a post-September 11 world and, for those in education, a post-NCLB world. And those different experiences translate into somewhat different perspectives.This generation of reformers take for granted ideas their predecessors fought for: the ability of schools to impact children’s lives and achievement, the importance of data, and the importance of teacher effectiveness as measured by impacts on student learning. But because they haven’t had to litigate these ideas in the same way as those who came before them, they are also more free to question or to hold ideas that don’t necessarily line up with the way sides have been drawn in media and political debates over education reform.

A note on the interviews/profiles themselves: Knowing how busy these folks are, I gave them the option of answering questions either in writing, in a phone interview, or (where feasible) in person. To the extent that differences in the format of these interviews have led to differences in the end products, that should be understood as entirely my fault and not a reflection on the thoughtfulness, cleverness, or articulateness of the people I interviewed by phone. (Hopefully readers won’t even be able to figure out which are which).

Bellwether Education Partners has worked with New Schools New Orleans.