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.
  3. Sinking fortunes of for-profit universities in 2015 showed where the real college bubble of the 2000s lay. After several years of declining enrollments across the sector and increasing regulation and public scandals, one for-profit player — Corinthian College — exploded after the federal government restricted access to continued student-loan resources. Investors who had hitherto ignored the problems had to realize how fragile the golden goose had been, and the bottom has truly dropped out of the market.
  4. In spring, the passage of Nevada’s universal K-12 school voucher program became the biggest state-level victory thus far for voucher proponents. A state-level voucher to parents is based on prior enrollment of 100 days or more in local public schools and can be used in a broad variety of ways, including saving year-to-year for college tuition. The fallout is unlikely to be known for several years, for its uses, potential constituency, or effect on the state’s overall or educational budget.
  5. Duncan steps down in the next few days as U.S. Secretary of Education, after serving at the apotheosis of federal administrative power in K-12 schooling. As a consequence of both the federal stimulus in 2009-2011 and No Child Left Behind waivers, he acted with the most discretionary authority of any secretary of education in K-12, and was also aggressive in higher-education regulations. Though it is important to note that the department has only existed for 35 years, it is highly unlikely that any of Duncan’s successors in the next decade or two will have anything close to his authority. That authority relied on policy opportunities, his connections with the White House, and the private network he ushered into the department. In the end, as Congress was making sure his power would not last through the Every Student Succeeds Act, he declared victory.1
  6. Anti-racist protests at colleges and universities, most prominently at the University of Missouri. Mizzou’s football team members threatened to walk off the field in November because of racism on campus that administrators ignored, and top administrators resigned. As Melinda Anderson explained, this year’s wave of student activism lies in a broader context, both historically and in the context of youth activism in general (including high school students). This year’s wave is partly inspired by the Black Lives Matter movement; is it different from and more sustainable than campus Occupy groups that sprang up in 2011-12?2
  7. Scores declined on the 2015 administration of 4th and 8th grade math/reading tests for the National Assessment of Educational Progress. This is the set of tests with national and state samples administered every few years at selected grades in various subjects to a sample of students. Because the scores do not have concrete stakes for students or schools, it is often relied on as an independent measure of achievement in tested subjects. Lots of hand-wringing followed the public release of the scores this fall, because NAEP scores in math and reading have trended upwards for several decades. I take an individual NAEP set with a grain of salt — one administration does not make a trend at either a state or national level. If the downward trend continues in 2017, then it will legitimately be news that is historically significant.
  8. The free-college debate in 2015 turned the discussion of college student debt away from the costs of elite colleges and towards the role and capacity of community colleges. Several states have enacted policies to make the first few years of community-college free, the Obama administration echoed that push in several ways, and Bernie Sanders’ advocacy of free community college has pushed Hillary Clinton on the issue. This item is more about the debate than any national trend: Arizona’s legislature entirely zeroed out state support for the two largest community-college systems in the state, and Marco Rubio is the most vocal presidential candidate to support income-share agreements, something that would almost certainly be unavailable to community-college students.
  9. The first wave of testing and scores from systems supposedly aligned with the Common Core or with other “career and college ready standards” — the Smarter, Balanced Assessment Consortium (SBAC), PARCC, and for some states that fell off the distintegrating PARCC bandwagon, the American Institutes for Research. There were plenty of problems with testing in states that used either PARCC or AIR as their contractor, well beyond what I might have expected given the field testing that had happened earlier. The next few years will see a shakeout of the new configuration of testing both on the contracting side and on the reporting side; this new generation of tests may not collapse of its own weight, but one or more testing organizations might. Among the things we should not have had to learn through experience: states were just not ready for computerized testing for everyone, and when the majority of states purchase services from an organization that has never had to deliver at scale, it is not a surprise that we saw more than a little buyer’s remorse.
  10. Debates (or scrums) on the Common Core continued. Both presidential candidates and states continued to debate what is appropriate curriculum and expectations for student performance. Part of this was fed by or fed into both the opt-out movement and problems with rolling out new state testing systems, but most was a continuation of prior battles. The bottom line in most states is neither an end to curriculum standards nor the construction of curriculum standards that look much different from the Common Core. At least not yet.
  11. College enrollments declined in 2015 — driven less by the shrinking cohort of 18-22-year-olds than by an improving economy and the continuing collapse of for-profit higher-ed firms. This is the continuation of a trend, and like all trends, it will continue until it doesn’t. So hold off on any eulogies for college, at least for a few years.
  12. The academic-freedom crisis at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign over the hiring/un-hiring of Steven Salaita in 2014 reached its peak with the censure by the American Association of University Professors, continuing litigation by Salaita, and a cascade of public revelations that ended with the resignation of then-Chancellor Phyllis Wise in August 2015 and a later settlement between Salaita and the university. The crisis at UIUC was the latest scandal at a university previously rocked by allegations of political meddling in admissions, and one of a string of academic-freedom cases tied to Mideast politics at colleges and universities stretching back to 9/11. What is uncertain is whether and how UIUC can extract itself from the multiple injuries inflicted by former administrators and state politicians. (Disclosure: I am an associate member of AAUP as an administrator; I have no direct connection with this case or any AAUP committee.)
  13. Prior-prior year filings are coming to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). After years of arguments, and some solid research to point out the lack of a public purpose in requiring college students and applicants to file for financial aid with the latest income-tax returns, the federal government is finally moving in the next year to an earlier opportunity to file for financial aid for the 2017-18 school year, and by doing so make it easier to file. (By opening the application in fall 2016, the latest year of income data required is 2015.) The intent is to broaden the group of college students receiving Pell grants and other aid. It will take a few years to see how much this change affects college opportunities. (Disclosure: one of my new colleagues at ASU is a coauthor on some of the related research.)
  14. In private, a group of charter-school activists planned a charter-district proposal for the Los Angeles Unified School District, the second largest school district in the country. In late summer, the Los Angeles Times broke the story that the Broad Foundation had started organizing a proposal to shift at least half of the district’s student enrollment into a much-expanded charter-school sector. By the end of the year, debate had become very public.
  15. Linda Darling-Hammond retired from Stanford and formed a new education think tank, the Learning Policy Institute. The goal of the new organization is to bridge research and practice — it has more than 20 employees and funding from several foundations. It is also brand-new; it will take at least a few years to see what it can accomplish.
  16. Disgraced superintendents: In March, former Atlanta Superintendent Beverly Hall died of cancer while awaiting trial on charges of managing the largest test cheating scandal in the country. In October, Chicago’s schools chief Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty to bribery charges
  17. Wisconsin governor Scott Walker failed in his presidential bid, but he succeeded in wreaking havoc with the state’s university system, first floating a proposal that would have eliminated the search for knowledge from the statutory charter of the University of Wisconsin — eventually withdrawn — and then cutting the system’s budget to the bone and eliminating statutory guarantees of a tenure system and faculty governance authority.
  18. After years of disgraced charter systems such as White Hat and Imagine Schools, which relied on a wild and unregulated system of charter authorizers (organizations that can approve charter schools), Ohio’s legislature finally passed a law creating some accountability for charter authorizers. Any guesses as to when slipshod authorizers will be suspended or poor charter schools will actually close in Ohio?
  19. Washington state’s Supreme Court struck down the state’s charter law (approved by referendum in 2012), on the grounds that the state constitution defines public school (and thus schools eligible to receive state support) in a relatively narrow way that excludes charter schools. The broader context is a battle between the court and the legislature over educational funding, after several years where the legislature has essentially ignored court orders. It should be no surprise that in that context, the court would vigorously defend its understanding of state obligations to public schools.
  20. States’ funding of K-12 and higher education continued to diverge six years after the official end of the last recession.3 Some states such as California are expanding their funding of schooling, while others such as Kansas, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are behaving as if we are still deep in economic crisis.
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Notes

  1. In doing so, he and the Obama administration applied to education politics the advice that George Aiken had for the country at the height of the Vietnam War. []
  2. If you have read mostly in the “snotty Oberlin College students’ complaining about dorm food” genre, read Jordan Weissmann’s corrective. []
  3. That is, states differ from each other, rather than K-12 and higher-ed funding diverging in each state, though it certainly happens in some. []