Counting down: Top 10 education stories of the decade

This is the last installment of my three top ten lists. Wednesday’s was the top 10 events in SFUSD in 2010; Thursday’s was the top 10 U.S. education stories in 2010; today’s is the big finale–the top 10 education stories of the decade (Letterman-style, 10th to first):

10.  The rise of autism: In 2001, the incidence of autism was thought to be one case for every 160 people, which even then was much higher than in previous decades. Today, the accepted incidence is more like one case for every 100 people. Though the increased incidence is as much a public health issue as an educational one, I’ve included the phenomenon on this list because the increase in the number of children diagnosed with autism has had a profound impact on schools. From an educational perspective, autism is a perfect storm–children with autism have expensive needs, but respond well to intervention. No one really knows how much treatment is appropriate according to the framework set by special education laws.

9.  Still waiting for technology to revolutionize education: At the beginning of the decade, most people would have predicted that schools would be using computers and technology in ways that enhanced student achievement and learning. Today, at the end of a decade that has seen an enormous expansion in the use of technology in everyday life, schools are still using computers in much the same way that they were at the start of the decade. More classrooms have computers; more schools have computer labs; but curriculum development has not kept pace with the interconnected, social nature of today’s Internet. Even as students text, access YouTube and update Facebook on their mobile phones, their classroom computers block access to most of those same services.  Teaching students to be smart consumers of sometimes unreliable Internet data and careful stewards of their personal information is of paramount importance for the next decade, but it’s not clear that schools are up to the task.

8. Curriculum wars continue:  A bunch of Intelligent Design believers got elected to the Kansas State Board of Education, and suddenly we’re all debating Darwin again. Then Texas–one of the biggest textbook markets in the country, whose size gives it the power to shape curriculum choices far beyond its borders–decides that American History as traditionally taught is biased. So schoolchildren across the country will now learn, among other things, “about the conservative resurgence of the 1980s and 1990s, including Phyllis Schlafly, the Contract With America, the Heritage Foundation, the Moral Majority and the National Rifle Association.”  If anything, these skirmishes should remind us all to pay attention to the compositions of our state Boards of Education–they are powerful enough to create quite a kerfuffle if captured by extremists of any stripe.

7.  After Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans rebuilds its schools from scratch:  Prior to Katrina, New Orleans’ schools were considered to be among the worst in the nation–64 percent were deemed academically unacceptable by the state of Louisana, and the graduation rate was about 50 percent. The devastation and displacement of thousands of students in the wake of the disaster created an opportunity for reformers and policymakers, who quickly replaced schools that had been destroyed with a new network of charter schools. The district was rechristened the “Recovery School District,” and dollars flowed in, both from the Federal government and private sources. Recent college graduates, eager to make a difference, also came in droves to teach in the “new” New Orleans public schools.  Results? Initially, very promising–test scores posted by New Orleans have risen dramatically in the five years since the storm. A decade from now, will New Orleans be one of the nation’s highest-achieving school systems?  That kind of sustained improvement will depend on sustained effort and sustained investment. 

6. Geoffrey Canada and his Harlem Children’s Zone inspire reform movement: Adopting the motto “whatever it takes,” the charismatic and energetic Canada set out to fight poverty and low academic achievement in a 97-square-block zone in Harlem. Private donations and accolades poured in, and Mr. Canada’s ambitious (and breathtakingly expensive) project was chronicled in a well-reviewed book (“Whatever It Takes,” written by journalist Paul Tough). The Zone’s two charter schools initially showed positive results, but more recent studies have illustrated just how hard it is to break the interconnected cycles of poverty and low achievement.  

5. Landmark desegregation cases reshape student assignment policies:  In 2007, the Supreme Court decided two major school busing cases (Meredith vs. Jefferson County Board of Education and People Involved in Community Schools vs. Seattle School District No.1 et. al), striking down any school assignment plan using race as a tie-breaker. The 5-4 decision said student assignment policies could be “race-conscious” but could not take an individual student’s race into account. Many school desegregation advocates fear that the Court’s decision will intensify rapidly resegregating schools and worsen educational inequities between low- and high-income communities.

4. Charter movement reaches a peak:   Though the first charter schools opened in the early 1990s, the charter school movement matured in the last decade, with the number of charter schools doubling since 2000 (there are now about 5,000 charter schools open nationwide). Initially, charters were seen as laboratories for promising practices, but they have since been hailed by some reformers as high-quality alternatives to traditional public schools (in New Orleans, discussed in #7 above, two-thirds of the Recovery School District’s schools have been reopened as charters). Others, notably education scholar Diane Ravitch, who wrote the 2010 book “The Death and Life of the American School System,” the charter debate is really a distraction from a serious conversation about how to fix our educational system, which is and will continue to be dominated by traditional public schools.  Finally, early claims about the stellar academic progress of students in charter schools (as compared to their counterparts in traditional schools), may have been overblown. Several studies released in 2009 and 2010 found that charters, on average, perform no better than traditional public schools.

3. Mayoral control is tempting, but not a magic bullet:  The trend toward big-city mayors assuming control of their city’s school system actually began in the 1990s, when  mayors in Boston and then Chicago took over their city’s schools. New York’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg took over his city’s schools in 2002, followed a few years later by Adrian Fenty in Washington, D.C. In 2006, Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa was prevented by a judge’s ruling from assuming more power over the Los Angeles Unified School District. Assuming control of failing school districts is tempting for Mayors, who think that controlling school board and Superintendent appointments is a great way to ensure accountability and stability in school leadership. But does mayoral control actually improve schools? Researchers say there is no compelling evidence of a connection between rising achievement and mayoral control.

2. Race to the Top: With the creation of the $4.3 billion Race to the Top competition, President Obama and his Education Secretary Arne Duncan dramatically increased the Federal role in education. Is that a good thing? The four options for states to use to turn around failing schools are not supported by any particular research, and the huge jackpot being dangled by the U.S. Department of Education won’t necessarily go where it’s needed the most — instead, it will go to the states that best parrot Washington’s new party line.

1. No Child Left Behind: I don’t think you can underestimate the impact this law had on schools over the past decade. NCLB was one of President George W. Bush’s signature policy achievements, but it was also backed by powerful Democrats in Congress, including the late Senator Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Rep. George Miller of California. The law drastically expanded the use of standardized tests and set up the unachievable goal of making all students proficient by 2014. Schools that failed to meet growth targets (Adequate Yearly Progress or AYP) for all students and specific subgroups (like members of minority groups and students with disabilities) were subject to sanctions, which became more severe each passing year. The one good thing the law accomplished was to focus attention on the achievement gap, and put schools on notice that they should pay attention to the achievement of all students. But the law’s sanctions and targets were unnecessarily punitive and unrealistic, and led to a narrower focus on basic skills rather than critical thinking, problem-solving, and creativity.

NCLB (re-christened as the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, its original name) has been up for reauthorization since last year, but little progress has been made (the Obama Administration says reauthorization will be a top priority for 2011).  Until that reauthorization happens, all of NCLB technically remains in effect, though it’s unclear whether its most toxic provisions will actually be enforced.


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