WASHINTON – Esther Owolabi was in the seventh grade when her dad, a veteran Chicago schools teacher, repeated his principal’s comment from a faculty meeting: “Not all of these kids can be Barack Obama, not all these kids can be president. You need some cab drivers.”
The line rubbed Esther the wrong way. “It really stuck in my head,” Owolabi said, “well, who are you to decide who gets to be the cab driver or the president?’”
Owolabi, now a freshman at Georgetown University, stepped onto campus motivated to help close the so-called achievement gap. Last October she started work on a new chapter of Students for Education Reform, an organization of undergraduates who advocate for reform policies in K-12 schools that they think put students first.
The Georgetown chapter, set to launch next fall in Washington, will join more than 80 chapters of Students for Education Reform across 29 states. What two Princeton students started as a school club three years ago has grown into a national non-profit. And the rapid expansion drew attention in high places.
The group intends on closing the achievement gap mainly by raising awareness. Members share the news about education reform through an internal social networking tool called “Yammer,” and organize viewings of recent education documentaries including Waiting for Superman and The Lottery. Then they discuss and, from there, advocate or fight against bills before state legislators based on whether they hold students to high expectations, allow school choice, and lend themselves to retaining great teachers.
The founders also envision their spirited, informed members will work in all areas of education, even if not all members want to teach.
Secretary of Education Arne Duncan invited Owolabi and other members to the cabinet agency earlier this month. But one month after the push for more teacher voices in policy with the RESPECT initiative, which will put $5 million toward improving the profession based on continued conversations with educators, the secretary opened his round table talk with a word of caution to the reform-minded students: gain hands-on experience in schools.
Duncan alluded to one unique aspect of Students for Education Reform. As co-founder Catharine Bellinger estimated, only about half of the members are interested in actual teaching jobs at some point in their careers. The rest of them want to enter the policy-making, government, or non-profit fields right out of college.
“I really am quite wonkish,” said Zhan Okuda-Lim, a member of the original chapter at Princeton.
Zhan paused when asked how he knows which policies will work best.
“The first thing to consider is there is no such thing as a one-size fits all solution,” he ultimately explained. “But I do think people can agree on certain principles that can be advocated for.”
Zhan may only be a college freshman, but he already boasts an impressive education resume that includes terms as a student representative on the Nevada State Board of Education, Youth Legislature, and his school district’s advisory committee. His ultimate goal: The U.S. Senate.
The rapid growth of Students for Education Reform shows there is no shortage of grassroots-level passion behind solving education inequality. Yet some career educators say they worry the undergraduates’ limited exposure to the public school classroom means they don’t yet know what works in the trenches – similar to many professional policymakers.
“I think someone who hasn’t been in a classroom making education policy is about as effective as me making a medical decision,” said Maddie Fennell, who has taught for 21 years in Nebraska public schools. “I can do it based on what I’ve read on the Internet. I can do it based on my own experience.”
Fennell recently chaired the National Education Association’s commission on effective teaching, which produced the report behind project RESPECT. She explained education is that rare policy area that everyone has some personal experience with, but added, “Just because you’ve been in school [as a student], doesn’t make you an expert.”
Students for Education Reform’s website emphasizes that college students are stakeholders in policy decisions, and have a unique perspective as the most recent graduates of K-12 schools. Chapter members do research, write numerous op-eds and meet with state legislators. They cover everything from charter schools to teacher tenure.
“I don’t know every policy and every law, but I know that a passion can spark any interest,” said Owalabi, who has already begun hosting Waiting for Superman watch parties in her dorm to build interest among friends.
Fennell said she respects student voices – when they join, not replace, teachers’.
“You know, I’ve done a lot of great lessons in the past that I can’t do now because of No Child Left Behind,” she explained. “I can see a student group coming in and saying, ‘Our teachers should do this and this,’ not realizing that teachers would love to be doing that stuff too.”
Owolabi, for one, said she understands that teachers can bring her more philosophical ideas down to earth – her Dad does it all the time.
“We can sit and have hour-long conversations about education,” she said. “He’s like ‘No, I’ve lived this. You might read this part, but this is what really happens.’”
Owolabi said she used to think charter schools, for example, were “God’s gift and the holy grail of all the answers.” Then, her Dad told her that test scores are not always better and many charters close. She said she now plans to advocate for specific aspects of the model like the ability to hire and fire teachers freely, not necessarily the whole concept.
Students for Education Reform, Georgetown holds its first general meeting this week, and the Hoyas are ready to add to the cadre of college students speaking up about education inequality.