Here is the Voxitatis list of the 11 biggest education news stories of calendar year 2015. Our coverage is slanted toward Maryland and Illinois, simply because when we cover “local” news, that’s where it happens. But unlike previous years, almost half the stories on our list were stories of national significance.
This doesn’t happen regularly, since I once wrote, “Anything that happens in Washington isn’t as significant as the least thing that happens in a classroom,” but I have come off of that stance somewhat since No Child Left Behind reared its ugly head 14 years ago.
Today, laws passed in Congress do affect our classrooms, and it’s only natural that stories from a more “national” beat should get top billing when we consider which stories were the biggest news of the year.
So, without further ado, we present the biggest headlines for schools, students, and communities in Maryland and Illinois for 2015:
1. President Signs ESSA; NCLB Falls; Era Ends
The federal government updated the No Child Left Behind law, a move that was scheduled to happen in 2007 for a well-intentioned law that turned most public schools into test-preparation factories and had outlived its usefulness. The votes in both the House and Senate, normally divided sharply along party lines, reflected a bipartisan spirit. President Obama signed the law immediately, and it will take effect in the 2016-17 school year.
The Every Student Succeeds Act, as it is called, keeps the use of standardized tests every year in reading and math for all students at US public schools in third through eighth grades and once in high school. However, it turns almost all control over the use of results from these tests to individual states, lifting a significant amount of authority from the federal government and opening the door to both educational detriments like a lowering of academic standards and boons like a decrease in the use of test data for teacher evaluation.
2. Fine Arts, Computer Science Gain Prominence in National Law
In returning authority to the states and gutting the federal “punishment” effects from No Child Left Behind, the new law makes clear that the curriculum should not be narrowed to the subjects in which testing is required by the law. The changes had been sought by groups of educators and parents who opted their children out of standardized tests. Schools will be required to provide students a “well-rounded education” that includes music and the fine arts, computer science, physical education, history and civics, and other important areas of study.
3. US High School Grad Rate Up Again, but G.E.D. Is Changed
It’s possible some school districts, especially large ones, are still using the wrong formula when reporting high school graduation rates, but the official graduation rate for the US increased for the fourth year in a row, 2012-13, the last year for which national data are available.
However, for students who failed to graduate with their class, getting a high school graduation certificate will be harder following changes to the GED made by Pearson, changes that are expected to make passing the test less likely, especially for students living below the poverty line, now the highest percentage of US students in at least 50 years.
4. Seattle Teachers Strike and Win Big
Teachers in Seattle, Washington, went on strike and put 47,000 students out of school for a few days, a consequence the US Supreme Court could weigh as it hears the Friedrichs case this term and looks at unions’ power to bargain collectively. What students got out of the deal penned in Seattle included guaranteed recess for elementary students and a plan on the part of school officials and other educators to reexamine equity issues, such as the disproportionate use of suspensions and expulsions for low-income students of color. The plan follows what has become a national trend to develop students’ social-emotional learning in our public schools.
5. Muslim Students Bullied and Harassed in Schools
Widespread bullying and harassment of Muslim students is taking root in many US schools, a response to remarks made by presidential candidates on the campaign trail, which were themselves statements of plans to bar Muslims from entering the US at this time or to register them in a national database. The rhetoric and harassment follow from terrorist attacks in Paris, San Bernardino, and elsewhere in the world.
6. Severe Weather Puts Missouri Under Water, Leaves Dozens Dead
Warm air over the Pacific Ocean in the late fall brought severe storms across the middle of the country in late December, causing the Missouri River to crest several feet above its flood stage and spill water into Missouri and Illinois. Several schools were under water, including Eureka High School, which is about 1,000 feet from a bend in the flooded Meramec River. Killer tornadoes ripped through the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex, and several people perished in Illinois, Tennessee, and other states as cars were swept away in high waters.
7. Byrd-Bennett Pleads Guilty and Resigns in Chicago
A federal probe indicted Chicago schools CEO Barbara Byrd-Bennett, who pleaded guilty to taking kickbacks from the SUPES Academy. SUPES was under contract to train Chicago principals, and Baltimore County Superintendent Dallas Dance was one of the consultants. He faced ethics charges for his involvement because he failed to tell the school board in Maryland about his extracurricular activity in SUPES but was not a subject of the federal probe. Ms Byrd-Bennett said with the money she supported grandkids in college and gambled.
8. Educators Support Peaceful Protests in Death of Freddie Gray
Riots broke out in Baltimore following the death of Freddie Gray, and some reports suggested students initiated parts of the riot. Baltimore’s new school chief, Gregory Thornton, warned schools would punish students who disrupt school operations during the trials for the police officers charged in Freddie Gray’s death. The #BlackLivesMatter movement sprang out of the deaths of young black people at the hands of police, including those in Ferguson, Missouri, Baltimore, Chicago (Laquan McDonald), and Texas (Sandra Bland). Police have even used force to subdue students in situations where a reprimand from school officials would be more appropriate, including an incident in South Carolina that went viral.
9. Hillary Clinton Questions Value of Charter Schools
Even as billionaires like Eli Broad step up efforts to build charter school networks, the Washington Supreme Court ruled that taxpayer-funded charter schools are unconstitutional and mainstream America is seeing charter schools as they were intended: an experimental environment to test out alternative methodologies on a few students, knowing some succeed and some fail. Hillary Clinton, a candidate for president, provided one of only a few mentions of education policy on the campaign trail as she called into question the value of charter schools and their often corrupting, profit-seeking influence on education. Plus, a new study about online charter schools concluded that the education students receive, in general, is so bad that “it is literally as if the kid did not go to school for an entire year.”
10. Football Participation Drops as Parents Notice Concussions
While football is, by far, the most popular sport in terms of participation at US high schools, the numbers have been declining over the last several years across the nation and, in particular, in Texas, where parents have taught their sons for generations to knock heads and helmets across a line of scrimmage. In some states, the numbers are declining in football because parents are concerned about head injuries, but students say the decline may also be due to a growing tendency on the part of athletes to specialize in a single sport, which gives them less time for homework and makes it more likely they’ll drop the sport.
11. Atlanta Educators Sentenced in Cheating Scandal
Educators from Atlanta Public Schools were sentenced to prison after being found guilty of colluding to alter results on standardized tests used for accountability purposes under federal law. The punishments were considered severe, even after they were reduced, but the scandal put a spotlight on the invalidity and unreliability of standardized test data in a school climate in which teachers’ pay and continued employment depend on those scores.