The education reform movement saw perhaps its most significant backlash to date in 2013. From increasing public backlash to a greater spotlight on anti-reform researchers and thought leaders, the policy makers and private investors backing what some see as efforts to privatize America's public education system certainly had their work cut out for them — and the pressure isn't likely to let up soon.
From new standards and tests to the very idea that charter schools are the solution to the problem, nothing was safe. Here are four challenges education reform is likely to face in 2014.
1. CONTINUING RESISTANCE TO COMMON CORE
Few education initiatives this year have been as divisive as the Common Core State Standards, and the opposition isn't likely to die down anytime soon. While it's easy to write off the opposition as being the work of far-right activists who equate the aligning of state standards to a big government takeover of the public school system, those supporting the initiative must remember that a lot of people — the most important being parents — have legitimate concerns that must be addressed.
For example, many question whether the standards and tests based upon them were rushed into place without enough preparation. This was a sticking point in states like New York, where dramatic drops in scores under the new tests left a bad taste in mouths. The standards themselves shouldn't necessarily be thrown out just yet, though, if Massachusetts is any example. That state implemented its own tougher standards 20 years ago and initially saw unimpressive results, but is today producing students who rank second in the world in science and sixth in math.
Taking a step back, admitting the rollout could have been a bit less rushed and emphasizing situations like Massachusetts could be a good place to start in gaining a little trust, but it still might take more to convince some opponents that the standardized testing-heavy standards will do more than promote rote memorization.
2. ITS OWN LEADERS
The ed reform movement might also need to recover from comments made by some of its own figureheads. In particular, two recent comments were likely to rub the public the wrong way.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan stuck his foot in his mouth a few weeks ago when he said opposition to the Common Core includes "white suburban moms who — all of a sudden — (discovered that) their child isn't as bright as they thought they were, and their school isn't quite as good as they thought they were." That statement, along with the Obama administration's general lack of popularity with a segment of the Common Core's opponents, certainly didn't earn any favor for Duncan or the standards. Supporters are now even distancing themselves from the Obama administration.
Melinda Gates also likely didn't win any fans among public school teachers when she said earlier in November that the U.S. public school system earned a grade of C-plus. Gates based the grade on international student achievement comparisons and the low number of high school graduates who are prepared for college, but interestingly noted pockets of improvement in New Orleans, Florida, New York and Colorado — all places where charter schools have made inroads. Charters are a sticking point among ed reform opponents, who see them as being used by for-profit companies to essentially privatize the U.S. public school system, so additionally referring to them as "pinpoints of light" probably didn't help.
3. A POTENTIAL SHIFT IN PUBLIC OPINION
September saw one of the most notable backlashes against what has come to be known as the corporate education reform movement when three Bridgeport, Conn., school board members supporting Superintendent Paul Vallas were soundly defeated in a Democratic primary. Vallas made his name in post-Katrina New Orleans by replacing public schools with charters and has become a leading name in education reform, but the ouster of the supporting board members — and essentially Vallas and his reforms, as he has already moved on to campaigning as Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn's running mate — was heralded as a sign that public opinion may be shifting. It's possible that the public has had enough following massive shutterings of public schools in Chicago and New York, in tandem with other factors like the idea that schools can fire their way to greatness, so it will be interesting to see if and how this shift carries on in the coming year.
4. INCREASING PROMINENCE OF REFORM OPPONENTS
With that potential shift in public opinion has come an increasing amount of attention for education reform opponents. Perhaps no proponent of America's public school system has received as much attention as Diane Ravitch, a charismatic New York University professor and former undersecretary of education under President George H.W. Bush. In books like the recently released "Reign of Error," Ravitch draws attention to NAEP scores that have never been better and the lowest dropout rate in 40 years, railing against the idea that failing districts can fire their way to excellence or be saved by privately backed charter schools.
Ravitch — as well as University of Illinois Professors Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, authors of "The Public School Advantage" — also points out that charters' test scores skew higher than public schools because they have more affluent students with better resources. At the end of the day, public schools have a higher number of students with disabilities and English language learners. With exposure as far-reaching as this excellent Daily Show interview, will these arguments capture a much larger share of the public's consciousness in the coming year?
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