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Top 11 school stories of 2019

Every year, Voxitatis estimates what we think are the top school news stories of the year, based on the impact the stories have had and may have on the operation and success of schools in the US. Here are the top 11 stories for 2019. We wish all our readers a happy and peaceful new year. Our reporting is centered on Maryland and Illinois, but often national stories affect schools in those states more than the stories in those states themselves.

11. Instagram tries to combat anxiety by removing like counts

The Facebook-owned social media site Instagram, on which users share photos with others, announced at a conference that it would remove the ‘like’ count from posts that don’t belong to the user logged in. CEO Adam Mosseri said the goal was for users, particularly those younger than 18, to avoid measuring their self-worth by the number of likes on other people’s posts compared with their own. Whether the cause is social media, something else, or a combination of factors, the rise in anxiety we are seeing among teenagers is a real problem. Chronic anxiety can lead to serious mental health problems—depression, substance use, and suicide.

10. Hinsdale District 86 voters pass a huge referendum

Hinsdale High School District 86 passed a $139.8 million bond referendum in April to fund extensive construction projects at Hinsdale Central and Hinsdale South high schools. About $667,000 was spent convincing people in Chicago’s western suburbs to vote yes, the largest block ($100,000) coming from the Illinois Political Action Committee for Education, which supports candidates and issues that benefit public education. The campaign included robo-calls and advertising via mail and social media. A $166 million referendum failed in November 2018, prompting the district to propose the elimination of football, wrestling, swimming, marching band, and assorted clubs—the money for those activities was needed to fund security improvements and renovations that would bring the school buildings into compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act. The proposed cuts were reversed.

9. Kirwan Commission issues final report in Maryland

The Maryland Commission on Innovation and Excellence in Education, nicknamed the Kirwan Commission after Brit Kirwan, its chair, issued its preliminary report in January and its final report earlier this month. More than 30 business leaders wrote a letter to Gov Larry Hogan and top legislative officials urging support for the commission’s recommendations to improve public schools. “To succeed in an ever-increasingly competitive global economy, our state must have a world-class education system. Sadly, we don’t have that now,” the letter states. But the recommendations are generally opposed by the governor, who has asserted the reforms sought are unrealistic and will result in massive tax increases.

8. Police presence hurts academics, and students feel unsafe

As of mid-November, the US had experienced 45 school shootings, including gunfire in elementary, middle, and high schools, as well as on college campuses. These shootings, which killed a 10-year-old in New Jersey at a football game this fall, have caused schools to increase the number of school resource officers on campus. Two reports published earlier this year (here and here) suggest that adding police officers to the school environment makes a school less conducive to learning and increases the likelihood that students of color will end up in the criminal justice system. A school climate survey conducted in Maryland earlier this year indeed shows that students do not feel physically safe in their schools.

7. Impeachment finds a place in social studies

The impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump has brought middle and high school history and government classes repeated news feeds of the checks and balances built into the US Constitution. Minnesota middle school teacher Jason Pusey wrote a letter to families, reprinted in the Washington Post, to explain how he was teaching the subject to his classes.

6. Fewer states require high school exit exams

Over the last decade, the number of states that require students to pass one or more high-stakes tests before they can graduate from high school has decreased from more than half of all states to just 11: Florida, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Ohio, Texas, and Virginia. The trend reflects growing concern over the validity, reliability, and fairness of the standardized tests states use to hold schools and their teachers accountable for student success and a belief that exit exams are destructive to the educational process.

5. Some big money reconsiders the whole education reform movement

Many wealthy philanthropists support education, and much of their money has been spent on the charter school movement and not specifically on traditional public schools. But last year, Bill Gates reconsidered his investment in education, and in 2019, a near-billionaire said he doesn’t believe any more that education reform efforts can lift people out of generational poverty. “I woke up one day and realized that it is false to say that education is the principal way of distributing opportunity in this country,” the Post quoted Nick Hanauer as saying in an interview. What will work, he said, is paying Americans a livable wage; that’s his philanthropic focus moving forward.

4. Greta Thunberg is Time Magazine’s youngest person of the year

Greta Thunberg is a 16-year-old Swedish girl who took off school every Friday to demand, in front of her country’s parliament, that world governments take action to combat the causes and effects of climate change. She inspired many young people across the world, despite being disparaged on Twitter by Mr Trump and by other world leaders. She was named Time Magazine’s Person of the Year, and when that happened, she became the youngest person ever to have been so named. “Honestly, I don’t think I would have said anything because obviously he’s not listening to scientists and experts, so why would he listen to me?” she responded when asked what she would say to Mr Trump if she were to speak with him.

3. Chicago teachers’ strike lasts 11 school days

A strike by teachers in the Chicago Public Schools took more than 300,000 students out of class for 11 school days; classes resumed on November 1. The strike mirrors a national trend that saw a few statewide teachers’ strikes in 2018, in which teachers seek better pay and better conditions in their schools and for their students and families. “I think the entire wave of teachers’ strikes that we’ve been seeing should have school boards quaking in their boots,” the New York Times quoted Ileen DeVault, a professor of labor history at Cornell University, as saying. “I think more and more teachers are going to be saying, ‘Gee, I have some of the same problems. Look what the Chicago teachers, look what the LA teachers, look what all these other groups of teachers got when they went on strike.'”

2. Vaping use skyrockets in middle and high school

The trend toward increased use of e-cigarettes was noted by the CDC some four years ago, but in 2019, their use by teens skyrocketed, despite a decrease in the number of teens who smoke traditional cigarettes. With middle school students, a CDC study suggested that e-cigarette use increased from 0.6 percent in 2011 to 4.9 percent in 2018. “It infects social groups. It’ll infect one kid, and then the fact that it’s near another kid and then soon enough, you have entire friend groups who are swallowed by this problem,” MassLive quoted one 20-year-old e-cigarette user as saying. “That’s what happened in my friend group.”

1. National reading scores drop

A little more than 1 in 3 US students in grades 4 or 8 read at or above grade level, according to the 2019 National Assessment of Educational Progress. Reading scores in both grades declined across states, races, and income levels. Some people have suggested the drop in reading performance is tied to increased use among students of devices and decreased use of printed storybooks. “Here’s what we do know about reading: You read better when you read in print, meaning you remember more of what you read, you understand it deeper. … We keep trying to understand why, because in study after study, this is happening,” Education Week quoted Patricia Alexander, an education professor at the University of Maryland, College Park, who studies print and digital reading development, as saying.

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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