It's the beginning of a new school year, and a good moment to take stock of the major policy issues, controversies and problems that we can expect to be (or ought to be) wrestling with in the coming year. Which issues are on the rise, which have lost a little steam and which should we be addressing? Common Core For years, the Common Core Standards were the hot button issue. Widespread pushback, from both left and right, changed that. The original Common Core dream was that every student in every school in every city in every state would be studying essentially the same things at roughly the same time. That dream is dead.
But the standards themselves live on. Some states have modified them lightly and given them an assumed name to hide under, but they're still there. Other states have promised to stamp them out, but it remains to be seen if they can really accomplish the task. Much of the discussion of standards is still held in plain sight, under the phrase "college and career ready." But on the school and classroom level, many teachers have long since adapted the standards to fit their own professional judgment. The standards are still a presence in education, but not the hot-button issue they once were. High Stakes Testing High stakes standardized tests have been with us for a while, but the federal push for Common Core gave HST a tremendous boost. Education reform advocates leaned hard on the notion that test results could be used to make staffing and salary decisions for teachers, or even evaluate college teacher programs. None of that turned out to be actually possible; test results were inconsistent and unreliable, and converting test scores to a value-added measure turned out to be a pipe dream. In the meantime, teachers and parents have complained about the amount of time spent prepping for the Big Standardized Test. Some states are backing away from at least the graduation exam version of the test. Pennsylvania repeatedly postponed their Keystone graduation exam requirement and now allows a variety of gradation readiness assessments; New Hampshire has been experimenting with a shift to Performance Based Learning. Ohio's attempt to shift graduation requirements under guidance of business representatives is resulting in a patchwork of shifting requirements over the next few years. Several states are toying with the use of the SAT or ACT as a new graduation exam. So while many states are looking to draw back from a high stakes test, the search for an alternative is a bit messy, depending on which state you live in. Meanwhile, there's no real respite in sight for elementary students. Personalized Learning Nobody knows exactly what it is, but personalized learning is seen as one of the more promising sectors for businesses and investors in education. Depending on the form it takes, it may appear under a variety of other names (performance based learning, competency based education, etc) and drenched in a thick sauce of marketing jargon. Watch for terms like "artificial intelligence" as a clue that your child might be learning through algorithm-selected computer activities. Gates, Zuckerberg and Jobs are all throwing big piles of money at personalized learning, and opening up education to more digitizing also means tapping into a goldmine of data, so expect many different vendors to turn up plugging their product and extolling the wonders of personalized learning--whatever it is. The Parallel School System Charter schools get most of the attention, but vouchers, scholarship tax credits, and education savings accounts are all part of a mechanism that has been built to divert funding from public schools into a parallel school system that is privately owned and operated. One can argue that the debates over these are overblown, given the small part of the sector they encompass (charters enroll a little over 6% of all U.S. students). Charter growth has actually stalled, though Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos is more partial to voucher style reforms. But in some local districts, the cost of school choice programs has created major financial crises. Trying to run multiple parallel school systems with the money previously used for just one system is taking a toll on American education. We are starting to see state leaders push back; Governor Tom Wolf of Pennsylvania just this week announced that he would push some charter reform through via executive order. Related to this, but much less discussed, is the parallel staffing system set up to feed and advocate for the parallel school system. Much comment has been made about how Teach for America provides just a few weeks of training for its teachers; less note is made that after just two years in the classroom, TFA grads may become policy "experts," opening charters, starting education businesses, doing ed reform advocacy, or even taking high level leadership positions such as superintendent or even state education chief. Other programs like the Broad Academy or the Relay Graduate School of Education turn out educational leaders even though they are founded and run by people who have little educational training. In many ways, education is suffering from a notion that has long been causing trouble in the private sector--that if you're a really great manager or CEO, it's not necessary to know anything about the industry in which you're working. Expect continued flare-ups of this conflict on the local, state and national level. Equity Decades after Brown v. Board, school segregation is still a problem (read here, here and here), not just because of the segregation of students, but because of the segregation of resources that follows it. Public schools are bad; charter schools are worse. And while a few places have addressed the problem successfully, mostly the education system is stumped. There's work to be done with how school district boundaries are drawn, but we know full well that segregation can occur within a single building, simply by blocking students of color from resources and higher level classes. The issue deserves to be on the front burner of education policy discussion, and the Democratic primary has brought some attention to it, but time will tell if we have the will to really work on it. Taking Care of the Littles The biggest crisis, the most major struggle in education right now, may well be the education of the Pre-K through grade 3 crowd. It has been years since we first started saying the kindergarten is the new first grade, but we haven't fully reckoned with the implications of that shift. Ramped up kindergarten has several causes. One was the backwards scaffolding of the Common Core. Imagine that your goal was to have students bench press a hundred pounds at graduation. To scaffold that, you figure that they can add five pounds to their load in each preceding year of school--the end result is telling 5-year-olds to bench press forty pounds. Backwards scaffolding works poorly if one disregards the developmental stages of the youngest students, and that has been a criticism of Common Core all along. High stakes testing has also pushed schools to move academics into lower grades. "We don't have time for recess," many administrators have declared. "We've got to get them ready for that fourth grade test now!" Several states have made passing a standardized reading test a requirement for moving into fourth grade. The argument is that third grade reading skills are correlated with later success, but there is little evidence that retention does any good. Meanwhile, 8-year-olds are facing the pressure of taking a single test that could flunk them for the year. There are other signs the push to get academics into the early years is out of control. Some states are now offering cyber-school Pre-K for 3- and 4-year-olds. We are seeing increasing problems related to making small children sit in chairs at a desk for long hours. Writers are repeatedly publishing articles about the importance of play for children because somehow we are having an argument about whether a 5-year-old should be working on papers (or a computer) at a desk most of her day. Some states, like Florida, are wringing their hands over the huge number of littles who are testing as "not ready" for kindergarten. If most of your students are testing as "not ready" for kindergarten, the problem lies with your kindergarten program and not the children. Not that small children can't learn--they are essentially learning machines. But this failure to build developmentally appropriate education for the early years is going to affect an entire generation across all dividing lines. Here's hoping that we do a better job of addressing it over the next year. Are There Others? Sure, we could talk about the trouble folks are having filing teacher vacancies-- but that would require some honest reflection by policy makers and leaders. And data mining remains an issue inside the schoolhouse and out. But the list is the one I originally cranked out, and I'm inclined to stick with it for now. Feel free to discuss.