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February 28, 2007
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America is a youth-worshipping nation. Except, it seems, in the field of education, where gray hair and experience are frequently valued above all else. Hence the backlash against Michelle Rhee, who, at age 37, is seen by some as too young and green to head Washington's 55,000-student district.
The day following the announcement by Mayor Adrian Fenty (himself a spry 36) that he had selected Rhee as chancellor, Lee Glazer, founder of the anti-reform organization Save Our Schools, former mayor and now councilman Marion Barry, and council member Vincent C. Gray all made an issue of her youth and inexperience. (See here.) Things haven't improved much since, as columnists like Marc Fisher and Colbert I. King and a host of bloggers have kept the spotlight on her age and short resume.
Pooh. In business, in science, in engineering, in almost any profession one can name--save for education--we celebrate youth and its energy, ingenuity, and insight. One need only peruse several "40 under 40" lists to see that there is no shortage of individuals shouldering responsibilities as weighty as Rhee's and, by all accounts, enjoying great success.
For example, in the wake of the 9/11 terrorist attacks, leaders of the New York-Presbyterian Healthcare system (82,000 employees) needed to rethink how to prepare for such disasters. They turned to Nicholas Cagliuso, now 32, who became coordinator of emergency preparedness for 43 NY-Presby sites and 11 other facilities in New York and surrounding states.
Though he lacks a formal background in emergency preparedness and obviously lacks long experience, hospital chiefs saw in him the traits they needed. He has a "strong background in operations with a scientific approach to problem-solving and a personality that helps build consensus," says Dr. Eliot Lazar, NY-Presby's chief medical officer. Today, the ability of New York's premier hospitals to respond to another terrorist attack or natural disaster rests upon the shoulders of this young fella.
Or consider the internet, upon which the planet increasingly depends for communications, business operations, even political and economic stability. It rests on the labor and brainpower of many people far younger than Rhee. People such as Google founders Larry Page (34) and Sergei Brin (33), who met as students at Stanford in their early 20s and together launched the most successful search engine in the world. Today, Google employs over 10,000 people and is worth more than $150 billion.
The list goes on indefinitely, but the point is clear. Age and experience, while valuable, are not critical to success. The lack of either didn't stop Einstein from rewriting the laws of physics (literally) at age 26, or Martin Luther King Jr. at the same age from taking over leadership of the civil rights movement.
Whether or not Rhee succeeds in D.C. remains to be seen (she inherits a hulking bureaucracy), but she's already accomplished one important task. She's showing the world that education, too, has a new generation of capable people who are ready and willing to take the reins of authority and, one hopes, deliver the education our children deserve.
A note to the establishment: You've been served.