Top education news stories of 2015, to an historian

This was a very busy year for education news: twenty major news stories follow, and I am restricting myself to the United States.

  1. The Every Student Succeeds Act passed at the end of the year, ending many of No Child Left Behind’s straightjacket rules and putting limits on the federal Department of Education. This is the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act that Lamar Alexander could have signed in 2000 or 2001 in the alternate universe where he became president in 1997, a logical bill for a Republican president and a Democratic Congress. That leads to the next question for some doctoral student: why was the No Child Left Behind Act signed instead, an outlier from the historical trajectory of federal education law since the 1950s?
  2. The opt-out movement had a measurable effect on the numbers of children taking state standardized tests in states from New York to Washington, with many New York school districts having more than half of students refusing to take state tests. While plenty of parents and teachers unions have been critical of high-stakes testing before 2015, and there were a few hints of action before this year (most notably in a 2013 boycott of a district-mandated test in one Seattle high school), the scale of the test boycotts this year was unprecedented. While states wonder what to do on the policy front, the deeper question is whether the opt-out successes in 2015 give license to additional test boycotts, or other parent/student revolts against schooling norms.
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Gnostic utterings for academics

For a period of years, my friend Gwen Knighton had entries in her blog she called gnostic utterings, which were comments about the world prompted by some-distance-removed events, and to which she appended the warning, “If you think this is about you, you are probably wrong.” Each entry was a collection of statements she did not utter to the people who deserved them. In a different way, Matt Reed is especially good at describing higher-ed issues at some remove, either by time or circumstance, and discussing the general principles at heart. I am far less efficient in time management, and so I will be stealing the privacy-preserving distance of both Knighton and Reed, and the aphorism-length quality of Knighton’s entries.

Warning: If you think your own actions motivated my writing an item, you are probably wrong. But these are still true.

  • Find a time to celebrate before you charge up the next mountain.
  • You are fretting about a process that inevitably invites fretting. You’re normal.
  • You are struggling with what requires struggling.
  • Give yourself a night or two to sleep on the problem. Then move ahead, because you can’t build the rest of your life on facial tissue.
  • Most of your students did not follow your path to the classroom. They probably need something different from what helped you thrive.
  • You are exceeding my 10:1 reality:buzzword limit. Inject more reality or delete buzzwords.
  • Making more foolish decisions will not get you out of your current hole. You are not a small country, and foolish decisions are not a currency.
  • Yes, yes, your enemies are conspiring against you. So what did you do to bring you to this moment?
  • An effective group is not the same thing as an echo chamber.
  • If you successfully put that target on your enemy’s back, no one else competent may want the position.

Charter-school narratives and presidential-election politics

Charter-school expansion advocates have responded quickly and energetically to remarks Hillary Clinton made at last Friday’s televised Democratic candidate forum in South Carolina:

The original idea behind the charter schools… was to learn what worked and apply them in the public schools. And here’s a couple of problems. Most charter schools, I don’t want to say every one, but most charter schools, they don’t take the hardest-to-teach kids. And if they do, they don’t keep them.

The public schools are often in a no-win situation, because they do thankfully take everybody, and they don’t get the resources and help and support they need to take care of every child’s education. I want parents to be able to exercise choice within the public school system. Not outside of it, but within it.

I am still a firm believer that the public school system is one of the real pillars of our democracy, and it is a path for opportunity. But I am also fully aware there are a lot of substandard public schools. But part of the reason for that is policymakers and local politicians will not fund schools in poor areas that take care of poor children to the level they need to be.

As Vox’s Libby Nelson pointed out, this is a shift in tone from the Obama administration rhetoric on charter schools, and was probably a reflection of what Clinton had read or heard about the latest controversy coming from Success Academy charter network in New York.

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Duncan’s legacy: The cold take

The Conversation has just published a short piece on Arne Duncan’s legacy by ASU doctoral student Amanda Potterton and me. Below is the full text and then some comments on the writing process and what we left out:

Arne Duncan’s legacy: growing influence of a network of private actors on public education

Sherman Dorn and Amanda U. Potterton

Arne Duncan is leaving the US Department of Education in December. Reactions to his legacy have been mixed. Some see him as a heroic reformer, and others a well-intentioned but overreaching bureaucrat. He has been called the third secretary of education for George W Bush or the center of stormy education politics.

As researchers of education policy, we see him differently: the hub of a network of policy advocates. As the head of the federal Department of Education, he actively facilitated private actors’ influence on public education policy.

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Raising Arizona’s children — a newcomer perspective

As a newcomer to Arizona since June 2014, and with an absorbing job that has been my focus for the last 15 months, I have largely stood back and watched the state’s education politics. For a small (-population) state such as Arizona, it has been an eventful 15 months:

  • The (former) incumbent state superintendent was overthrown in the 2014 Republican primary because of racist comments he wrote on the internet.
  • The woman who beat the incumbent state superintendent in the primary won the general election in the closest statewide race of 2014, by approximately one percentage point, or 18,000 votes — which I would consider a Florida landslide.
  • The new state superintendent has been in regular political battles with the state board of education, including several trips to state court over who has the authority to hire/fire a handful of board employees.
  • The state’s testing system switched to a new vendor and coverage, like many other states.
  • The legislature and local public school districts have continued a multi-year battle in court over school funding.
  • The first-year governor has both appointed a panel to propose a new education funding system for the state and (semi-separately) proposed to tap into a land trust to pump additional funding into K-12 schools on a temporary basis.
  • The first-year governor has been opposed in this last proposal by the state’s first-year treasurer, who is from the same party as the governor.

To all the major actors in the state: I am a political junkie who spent almost two decades in Florida, but you really didn’t need to do this just so I would feel at home.

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