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Monday, December 26, 2011

Sherman Dorn's top Education Stories of 2011

By Sheman Dorn

The end of the year is the standard time for listicles. Here’s my pitch for top education stories of 2011. You will find a significant role played by reporters in several:

1.The economy and state budgets (both K-12 and higher ed). In most states, the concrete conditions of students, teachers, and schools are still cramped by the aftermath of the Lesser Depression, now without the last bits of assistance from countercyclical federal spending. And because state budgets and poverty conditions lag behind general economic conditions, this is likely to continue for several more years. How does this affect schooling? First, more children and young adults are poor, and with radical Republican attempts to redefine unemployment insurance eligibility, families with unemployed households heads are on even shakier ground. Second, school systems and public universities now are in their third or sometimes fourth of fifth year of having worse and worse choices for how to cut. In Florida, for example, school districts now have an exemption from the class size mandate for high school courses that are either out of the academic core or are advanced, and news reports of 35 students in AP world history classes suggest what may be in store next year. Third, there is a long-term cost to the legitimate efforts of K-12 and higher ed administrators to protect as many teachers and faculty from layoffs as possible: when you shrink by attrition, you shrink unevenly, even moreso than is the case with uneven retirements. Fourth, in higher ed the shift from public funding to privatized costs borne by students has accelerated in the past few years.

2.Teacher evaluation goes all NCLB. In some cases, such as here in Tampa, changes to teacher evaluation has been collaborative and well-supported.1 But in most states with top-down changes to the structure of teacher evaluation, you see more formulaic approaches such as Florida’s “every teacher’s evaluation depends 50% on test scores” mandate, and in most cases with little technical or funding support.2 If you liked NCLB’s 100%-proficiency mandate, you’ll love the new formulaic teacher evaluation systems.

3.Attacks on collective bargaining. In Florida, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, and other states, legislators took large whacks at how K-12 and higher ed faculty bargain the terms and conditions of employment.3 Ohio voters overturned its legislature’s attack on collective bargaining, and recall drives continue in Wisconsin (including the statewide drive targeting Governor Walker); this is an evolving battlefield.

4.Cheating: Atlanta’s former superintendent Beverly Hall stepped down in the wake of aggressive reporting by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and a state investigation of cheating in the Atlanta public schools. Similar scandals continue in DC and other large districts. And there’s a new scandal involving cheating on the SATs. Is this wavelet of stories evidence of changing likelihood of cheating or assertive journalism?

5.Churning federal policy on college student financial assistance. The debt-ceiling bill ended federal student-loan interest subsidies for graduate students, and the end of the year saw the end of undergraduate interest subsidies for the six months after a student leaves college (the grace period that has existed for many years) as well as eligibility changes that cut thousands of moderate-income students from Pell-grant eligibility. These changes were part of an effort to keep the Pell-grant maximum at the level it had been bumped to early in the Obama administration. In the fall, institutions had to start calculating students whose credits went over 150% of the required credits for program completion and tell them they were ineligible for federal student aid.4 And the Obama administration sped up the pace at which income-based repayment of a large proportion of student loans would have reduced impact on former students’ income.5

6.No Child Left Behind waivers. In late spring, Arne Duncan promised states that by fall they should be prepared to apply for waivers from several NCLB mandates, including the 100% proficiency requirement on adequate yearly progress. I predicted this would fall by the wayside, but I was wrong: in September Obama confirmed the waiver process, and a number of states applied in the first window… and were roundly criticized by civil-rights groups who support NCLB’s rigid definition of AYP. The waiver policies did not prompt any significant Congressional action to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act.

7.Year of the for-profit expose. After Congressional hearings in 2010 over exploitation of poor adults by for-profit universities, investigations of for-profit education ventures in both K-12 and higher ed continued in 2011, in daily metropolitan newspapers and also in magazines such as The Nation and Mother Jones.

8.Year of the “meh” study. More studies were published or publicized in 2011 on small-if-any effects of vouchers, school uniforms, merit pay for teachers, paying students for achievement, and other faddish reforms of the past 20 years.

9.Diane Ravitch, the Energizer Critic. Diane Ravitch continues to be the most active and popular critic of top-down education mandates.6

10.The ed-tech hype cycle. Between Digital Learning Now’s cheerleading for any and all expansion of educational technology, mandates in several states that everyone must finish at least one course online before graduating high school, the expansion of “virtual charters,” Khan Academy, published technoskepticism in a number of newspapers, and the proposed Stop Online Privacy Act (which would threaten virtually all online education), this has been a big year for both hype and puncturing of hype.

I could go on for quite a while. Left off this list are several big stories, including Race to the Top implementation problems, the borrowing of Jeb Bush’s more superficial reforms by other states, a dramatic expansion in charter schools, and continued failure of Chicago’s reform movement (the oldest mayoral-control policy). It’s been a big year for education news.


1.Whether the Gates-supported peer evaluation effort in Tampa succeeds in all its goals is a different question, unknown for a few more years. [↩]

2.Tampa’s local district is exempt from some of the worst of the new Florida law, at least for several years. [↩]

3.In Florida, the irony is that public employee collective bargaining is protected by constitutional language, unlike in the Midwest. So the Florida Education Association has filed a lawsuit challenging a number of provisions of the new law on teacher working conditions. [↩]

4.This has been an unreported story: the implementation for this is very complicated for advanced graduate students who have masters degrees at the same institution or who are acquiring multiple specializations. [↩]

5.I think the larger impact is not the direct reduction in payments but the publicity that may draw more students and recent graduates into the income-based repayment program. [↩]

6.For a variety of reasons, I think it’s sloppy to call it “corporate reform,” though I understand the temptation. [↩]

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