Sunday, November 17, 2019
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Top 11 school snapshots of 2016

Most schools in the US are now in a brief winter break, which means it’s probably safe to assume no more news stories about the schools will make our cut of the top stories for the calendar year. Here I summarize what I believe are the most significant news stories of 2016, at least in terms of how heavy their impact will be on students, schools, and communities in the US.

For the record, I think the Cubs winning the World Series for the first time in 108 years will probably be the news that most significantly affects our literature and influences the way we think about persistence in many endeavors. The immediate effects on our schools, however, are difficult to see.

1. Trump wins and loses

Despite a loss in the popular vote total of about 2.9 million and frequently violent protests over what many saw as a populist but authoritarian style (see Hungary, Poland, for example), Donald Trump was elected as the 45th president of the US and will begin serving on January 20. Populist rhetoric, however, which for Mr Trump comes in the form of Twitter posts, promotes racism, addiction to conspiracy theories, indifference to the rule of law, and a tendency to punish critics, especially those who write for major news outlets.

2. Vouchers win and lose

Mr Trump has designated Betsy DeVos to serve as education secretary in his cabinet. She’s a philanthropist and a leading supporter of school vouchers for private and religious schools. Her work in Michigan to allow for growth of charter school networks that get little oversight from the government or from democratically elected school boards could signal her plans to reduce the federal funding for traditional public schools, even without Congress’s approval. But voters in Massachusetts, Kansas, Washington state, and Georgia soundly defeated an agenda that would have supported charter school and other privatization efforts, bringing the public debate to a new level at this time.

3. Bullying, fear spike

For immigrant students, especially those here courtesy of President Barack Obama’s executive order known as DACA, and Muslim students, the level of bullying has risen to new heights around the election of Mr Trump. A group of 44 state teachers of the year from 2016 launched a campaign, using the URL Protect Public Ed.org, in response to the spike in bullying, telling students, “You are all our kids, no matter what.” Let me know if you need any help with the website. “Right after the election, we started seeing people inside and outside of the classroom feeling emboldened to say racially charged things to many of our students,” said Ryan Kaiser, Maryland’s teacher of the year. “That really started galvanizing how quickly we needed to get something done and get the message out there.”

4. Rio Olympics

The Rio Games were the first ever in South America and made us witnesses to great human achievement, notably from Maryland swimmers Michael Phelps and Katie Ledecky, but also to a few ugly episodes. In addition, the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, added three gold medals to his total, and US swimmer Ryan Lochte taught us all about lying and accusing people of crimes they didn’t commit.

5. Traffic kills

Traffic accidents involving school buses, notably in Tennessee but also in Maryland and Illinois, have prompted renewed calls for districts to install seat belts for students to use in transit. While putting additional padding on seats protects riders adequately in side or frontal collisions, rollover accidents, like the one in Chattanooga, make kids flop around inside the buses like clothes in a dryer. In addition, tragic traffic accidents and some angry drivers killed several teens this year, prompting a consideration of teen driving laws in many states.

6. Pokémon Go!

The app known as Pokémon Go was released and, almost immediately, had download counts on Google’s Play store in the six digits and rose to the top of Apple’s lists. Players walk around collecting trinkets and have battles. But because some people, notably on college campuses, were walking around aimlessly while watching their cellphone screens to track the creatures’ locations, traffic was blocked in many places and people were injured.

7. Kepler planet count tops 5,000

NASA announced this summer that the Kepler mission had so far verified more than 5,000 planets outside the solar system. “This announcement more than doubles the number of confirmed planets from Kepler,” said Ellen Stofan, chief scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This gives us hope that somewhere out there, around a star much like ours, we can eventually discover another Earth.” And in August, scientists announced the discovery of an Earth-sized planet orbiting the star nearest our sun, Proxima b.

8. Surge in EpiPen prices

The price of EpiPens skyrocketed to $608 for a two-pack, an increase of more than 500 percent since 2007, and New York’s attorney general investigated Mylan Pharmaceuticals, which has been criticized for the steep price increase. The EpiPens are used in the treatment of severe allergic reactions, known as anaphylaxis, that people suffer when they take in something they’re allergic to, such as peanuts. The device injects epinephrine, which can also be used to treat exercise-induced anaphylaxis.

9. Lead poisoning in Flint

Lead seepage into the drinking water in Flint, Michigan, caused a massive public health crisis. Mr Obama declared a federal state of emergency there, as officials worked to clean the water and determine how the problem began. Blame was placed on a cost-saving switch the city made to its water supply in 2014.

10. Sexual assault sentence at Stanford

A swimmer at Stanford University served just three months of a six-month sentence, imposed after his conviction for sexually assaulting an unconscious woman behind a dumpster on campus after both attended a fraternity party. The case heightened awareness of sexual assault and other Title IX violations on college campuses around the country, especially on those assaults committed by privileged athletes when alcohol is involved.

11. Flooding, hurricanes kill dozens

Hurricane Matthew, the first Category 5 Atlantic hurricane since 2007, forced about 2 million people to flee the flooded streets, blown-down signs, massive power outages, and flattened trees that killed at least 26 people in the US, mostly in North Carolina. Floods from other storms also affected schools and lives in other places, including Louisiana and Ellicott City, Maryland.

Finally, an honorable mention this year goes to two news stories that surfaced earlier in the year: Statisticians discovered that students who took the PARCC tests on computer got lower scores, on average, than those who took the test on paper. This finding, while significant, is not expected to change anything for schools going forward. Testing will continue, at about the same level as before. Second, teachers’ unions breathed a sigh of relief as the Supreme Court tied, owing to the death of Justice Antonin Scalia, in a case that challenged unions’ ability to collect fair-share fees. Again, although the decision was significant, it is not expected to bring about much change in the way our schools operate.

Paul Katula is the executive editor of the Voxitatis Research Foundation, which publishes this blog. For more information, see the About page.

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