13 education stories for 2013

What does an education historian see as important developments in a year? I have a complicated arrangement for my end-of-year review: I position my rearview mirror (the one that came with my history Ph.D.) to reflect the 880-nm laser focus of my attention, split the laser beam with my “multiple-perspectives” prism, diffract it through a “tears of irony” globe of water, and then aim it at the Infographic Screen o’ Doom that I picked up on eBay (historians always get the short end of the stick with equipment). And then I brew myself a mug of coffee, sit in a different room, and think about what’s happened in the past 12 months.

With the deadlock in Washington, and the absence of anything as dramatic as the 2012 Chicago teacher’s strike, there will probably be less overlap in the 2013 lists than in previous years. The top two are pretty obvious, but the rest is not, and while drama existed in a few places, my list is more about continuity than change:

  1. Big city school systems continue to be important in education news and debate. One piece of this is the continued dissolution of urban school systems. In 2013, Chicago closed a record number of public schools, Philadelphia’s school system essentially collapsed after several years of sabotage by state politicians, and New Orleans “recovery school district” dissolved completely into a “charter system.” To me, this looks like one more structural-reform fad, after mayoral control, contracting-out, decentralization, and so forth back through the years. But the dissolution motif is only one side of the big-city story. There’s also the election of Bill de Blasio in New York City and his naming of experienced educator Carmen Fariña as chancellor, marking the apparent exhaustion of Big Apple voters with the abrasive reform style of Michael Bloomberg and his appointees. And some potential successes of nuts-and-bolts improvements here in Tampa’s Hillsborough County system.1 Then, at the end of the year, the latest NAEP/Trial Urban District Assessment (TUDA) results became public, and a topic of much debate. Large metropolitan school systems remain important in the landscape.
  2. Federalism continues to be a primary structure of education policy and politics. The stormy politics of the Common Core expanded in 2013, and while there is plenty of misinformation about the Common Core State Standards, the debate has some elements in common with some other issues: the continuing relevance of conflicts over federalism. I spoke in the last week with an old friend who is a school board member in a state where the Common Core has not yet inflamed the entire state, and opponents of the Common Core are accusing her of caving into federal pressure, though she is (a) a school board member who has no authority over state decisions to join the Common Core; and (b) someone with a long-term record of skepticism towards federal mandates. Want to know how much the federalism issue has swallowed the Common Core? Tell me the last time you heard about the Next Generation Science Standards, released in final form in spring 2013. If you think about the maneuvering of the U.S. Department of Education on NCLB waivers as well as the likely fate of President Obama’s early-childhood education initiative (dead at the federal level even while they have popped up in several deep-red states in the past decade), not to mention the Obama initiatives on college ratings, there are deepening questions about the legitimacy of federal mandates — even moreso than questions about the capacity of the U.S. Department of Education to manage complex programs.
  3. Teacher education evolves, but no one knows what the next species will be. The two rivals for teacher education accreditation have merged to become the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, which approved a new set of standards in August. Notably, the standards include a higher bar for entry into programs and an expectation that programs document the ways in which graduates improve the education of their own students. In the meantime, the National Council for Teacher Quality (NCTQ) sputtered through a mediocre first attempt at a program-by-program report on teacher education and is on a second round. Will the new CAEP standards change teacher education? Will debates over federal funding of professional development reshape teacher education? My guess: yes, but that is about all I can tell.
  4. College enrollment declines. Here’s one you’ve probably heard before: Why did the chicken cross the road? To get away from the Corinthian Colleges recruiter. How about this one: Knock-knock. Who’s there? DeVry University. DeVry who? 2013 was a year when for-profit enrollments continued to decline at a fair clip and community college enrollments also sank. Some part of enrollment is cyclical: economic downturns lead many to re-enroll in school as both a hedging strategy and a way to occupy time, so the (tepid) recovery was inevitably going to eat into community-college enrollments. The decline in for-profit enrollments has another cause: the aggressive backlash to questionable recruiting and business practices in the past decade. Is this a sign the (nonexistent) “college bubble” is popping? Four-year enrollment is stable, so no.
  5. Robots are in your economy, stealing your diplomas. In the broader world in the second half of 2013, economists began a public debate over the causes and consequences of the growing inequality in the U.S. One argument that is very close to the heart of debates over college and education more generally is the one over the distribution of income to capital vs. labor. It is impossible for educational differences to explain the growth of inequality, since the bulk of that inequality is not the difference between those who are college educated and those who are not, but between those who are college educated and incredibly rich, on the one hand, and those who are college educated and not in the upper 0.5% of wealth. While the capital/labor divide is half-jokingly referred to as whether robots are taking your jobs, the issue is broader — we know from the history of industrialization that the organization of work can deskill the workforce as effectively as raise skill requirements. What actually happens is an open question. Yes, education would still matter in a world that is skewed more towards deskilling than towards technology-skill complementarity. But it won’t matter as much, at least for people’s careers.
  6. PISA, PISA!! The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) released results from the latest round of the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA), and we now know that our mash notes to Finland over the past few years have completely ruined its concentration, and instead we should be stalking another country. Or something. But because the U.S. is generally in the middle of the pack on international assessments, we have loads of countries we can crush on after each public ranking.
  7. More international news, or the appearance of it. Wendy Kopp quit the top staff position at Teach for America to become the head of Teach for All, the internationalization of TFA. Malala Yousafzai became world-famous as the symbol of efforts to equalize primary and secondary school opportunities for girls, released her book, and appeared on the Daily Show. Now tell me which newspaper story you read that discussed progress towards the six UNESCO Education for All goals. Yeah, not so much.
  8. Vouchers. School voucher programs continued to expand in a number of states. The legal conflicts over vouchers focused on Louisiana and federal Department of Justice requests for information on whether vouchers are increasing segregation, and the first court challenge to the local voucher program in Douglas County, Colorado, which led to a ruling (currently on appeal) validating the legality of the system. Research about whether vouchers improve schooling continues to be tepid.
  9. Diane Ravitch published Reign of Error, cementing her role as the country’s most visible symbol of opposition to the current version of school reform. The book spent all of October on the New York Times non-fiction hardcover best-seller list and is still selling briskly on Amazon.com, among other places. I posted my review on September 25.
  10. New education reporting teams: Chalkbeat and Politico Education. Reporters from Gotham Schools and others from selected regions (Indiana, Tennessee, and Colorado) created Chalkbeat, a coalition of local reporting teams separate from metro newspapers. Politico hired a number of solid reporters from both K-12 and higher education beats to create a team focusing on education politics and policy. There is a public side and also paywalled content (Politico Pro). My area’s non-chain newspaper, the Tampa Bay Times, has one of the strongest education teams in the country, but newspapers are on the ropes around the country, and it’s heartening to see efforts to keep good education reporting alive.
  11. Higher ed moocivation: MOOC turtle soup vs. competency-based program grants. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) began 2013 as the apparent revolution that was coming in higher education and ended 2013 as far less than the higher education Borg Collective. In the fall, Udacity’s Sebastian Thrun acknowledged that he had pinned his hopes on what was, frankly, a lousy service, so he was “pivoting” towards corporate training instead. But below the headlines, there are two programs either announced or discussed in 2013 that are aimed at promoting experimentation in competency-based programs, one sponsored by Gates/USDOE and the other by Lumina. Watch them.
  12. Sequester, shutdown, and university research. The federal budget sequester (i.e., the Budget Control Act of 2011) had already put a substantial squeeze on university research–the 2011-12 fiscal year saw the first drop in university research expenditures in decades. The federal government shutdown in October interrupted university- and non-university-based research as well as some selected funding streams for students. After the end of the shutdown, Science Friday’s Ira Flatow covered the aftermath and long-term consequences in an interview with J. Marshall Shepherd of the American Meteorological Society.
  13. The continued inability to use the word “and” in domestic discussion of education policy. The last item of this baker’s dozen list is one more bit of continuity, which newspapers generally treat as non-stories. While I criticized Politico‘s Stephanie Simon in November for writing a thin “trend” story on the nastiness in education politics, that was primarily my judgment that there isn’t a trend–the verbal venom minefield is a long-term legacy of scorched-earth tactics. Before about 2009, I would have said that the mud generally flew from those who advocated more high-stakes testing and privatization, and it’s a little more equal-opportunity now. We’re all human, and we all have our bad days, but 2013 is far from the first year in which Philadelphia Flyers fans were more polite and decorous than the offal I’ve seen on education policy. I’m not a shrinking wallflower and am well aware that politics ain’t beanbag; however, the casual resort to character assassination has two consequences for education policy. One is the narrowing of the circle of people who can talk to each other about substantive policy issues; at the local level and in legislative bargaining, that makes the breaking of unnecessary deadlocks extraordinarily difficult. Yes, you can broker agreements between people who hate each other’s guts, but it’s a lot more difficult than if the people at the table are not going to insult each other just because they disagree.2 As an example, the 2012 agreement between UFT and NYC on teacher evaluations and due process might have come quite a bit earlier (it was the logical consequent to a trial of similar ideas in New Haven) but for the essential relationship problems of Joel Klein’s chancellorship. In addition, the level of and continuity of scorn encourages confirmation bias, or the tendency for people who stake out policy positions to become extraordinarily rigid in defense of those positions. The superficial level of discussion around poverty and education policy is but one example, but it is a very important one. The effects of childhood poverty can be profound, schools must address the needs of all children, and we cannot realistically pretend that education can solve the majority of the problems of inequality. Teachers have a responsibility for the children in their rooms at the present, and state legislatures have a responsibility to provide for health care and other social policies that target the most crucial supports for children in poverty. Using and should not be so hard, but it is.

Finally, for everyone who reads my blog, thank you for visiting the site, taking the time to read what I write (at least some of the time), and I hope you will accept my wishes for a happy New Year and a peaceful, healthy 2014.

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  1. The system is far from perfect. In 2012, two children with disabilities died in the care of the local school district, and discussions are still ongoing about what needs to change. []
  2. Protests are a different dynamic, but there is still plenty in the history of protests that show the value of humanizing your enemy. And you don’t have to be Martin Luther King, Jr., to take advantage of that; if you read Randy Shaw’s Activist’s Handbook, you will find plenty of examples of protests that make the powerful uncomfortable, and plenty of pointed ridicule in protests, but none that demonize them. []

One response to “13 education stories for 2013”

  1. Glen S. McGhee

    Number 3: “The two rivals for teacher education accreditation have merged to become the Council for the Accreditation of Educator Preparation, which approved a new set of standards in August.” I must have missed this — who were they? why did they merge? Happy New Year!