This year, like many before, has been a sweet mix of controversy, triumph, and straight-up failure in the education arena. And from Common Core frenzy to teacher tenure mayhem, a number of this year's most interesting education stories are still in their opening acts and are sure to continue unfolding in the new year.
Here's a look at five you'll want to keep tabs on.
1. LAUSD iPad Investigation
At the start of the 2013-14 school year, Los Angeles Unified School District embarked on an innovative and admirable journey: Through a $1 billion contract with Apple, the nation's second largest district planned to equip each of its 640,000 students with their very own iPad. It was an ambitiously massive 1:1 rollout, and it was unfortunately anything but smooth. Issues ranged from a lack of necessary accessories like keyboards to students "hacking" the iPads by deleting security profiles.
Eventually, the decision was made to roll back the project's completion date, and then, in August, former LAUSD Superintendent John Deasy announced that the contract with Apple would be annulled. Things got even weirder in October, when Deasy resigned amid swirling rumors that there were conflicts of interest surrounding the Apple deal. This past week, the FBI commenced an investigation into the failed, and possibly unethical, plan, focusing particularly on the potentially unorthodox bidding. According to the Los Angeles Times, top LAUSD officials, such as Deasy, may have had connections with both Apple and Pearson, which in turn influenced the monumental iPad deal.
What to look for in 2015: It will be interesting to keep tabs on this story and find out if there really was any foul play in the negotiation process. The LAUSD/Apple deal was poised to set a precedent for other districts, so its failures could be a great place to start when considering what not to do in the future.
2. Teacher Prep Grades
Last week, the U.S. Department of Education announced plans to create a letter grade system for all teacher preparation programs in the nation. The proposal, which aims to curb the number of unprepared teachers entering the classroom, is asking that states assess everything from traditional graduate school programs to alternative certification initiatives, like Teach for America, that fall within their boundaries.
What to look for in 2015: This is a plan that is going to take a few years to set into motion, so in 2015, it will be important to watch who is taking the lead when it comes to deciding what the evaluations look like — and whether or not the new Republican majority in Congress is on board. Talk about states measuring teacher effectiveness once they've left a training program is already centering around standardized test scores.
Similar to the Value-Added-Method, which has been rejected by statisticians, this approach is not sitting well with many such as American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten, who says the plan may dissuade teacher prep programs from sending their students to teach in low-income communities, since those districts typically have lower test scores.
3. Philadelphia Education Funding
District funding inequity has been a hot topic as of late, but nowhere is it as pronounced or causing as much of a ruckus as in Philadelphia. According to Philly.com, the average per-pupil funding ranges between $9,800 to $28,400, depending on where a student lives. This gap has sparked a lawsuit against Gov. Tom Corbett, state education officials, and legislative leaders, alleging that Pennsylvania is in violation of its state constitution by failing to provide adequate education for its students.
What to look for in 2015: This lawsuit and any potential changes made in Philadelphia are just the tip of the iceberg. It will also be interesting to compare this situation to a recent court ruling in Michigan, where a Court of Appeals shot down a lawsuit alleging that the Highland Park School District was in violation of Michigan's Constitution by failing to provide an adequate education to students.
In both Pennsylvania and Michigan, the discussed districts are cash-strapped and struggling to provide the necessary resources so students can succeed on tests designed to measure student success. Watching to see how Pennsylvania handles this case, and if its results parallel Michigan, will be telling.
Bonus: Another Pennsylvania story to follow in 2015 is the investigation of the state's Education Department by Auditor General Eugene DePasquale, who is looking into the department's spending and contracting practices. The investigation specifically began after Ron Tomalis, Gov. Tom Corbett's special adviser on higher education, resigned over growing media attention around his plush salary ($140,000) and unclear responsibilities.
4. All things Common Core
There are a few things to focus on when it comes to the Common Core State Standards. For one, there's the question of which states are in and which are opting out. Indiana, South Carolina, and Oklahoma have all dropped the national standards, and Ohio may be joining them. In November, a house committee in the Buckeye State voted 7-2 in favor of a Republican bill calling for the repeal of the standards.
And that's just the states that have made steps to actually repeal the standards. There are also states to watch like Louisiana and Mississippi, where the governors want to drop the standards and create their own guidelines, and the state superintendents want to keep them.
What to look for in 2015: The Common Core was introduced in 2010 and was quickly adopted by many states, which may or may not have felt pressure due to the fact that the standards were tied to the Obama administration's Race to the Top grants. While there has always been pushback to the standards, the 2013-14 school year was the first time states and their legislatures actually took steps to undo their adoption. What will happen in 2015 is anyone's guess.
Another thing to follow in relation to the Common Core is how testing proceeds. Critics of the standards claim it forces schools into constant testing mode.
Additionally, it will be interesting to see how states adapt to their new tests — many are just starting to use exams by consortiums like PARCC and AIR. The results will be necessary to understanding the effectiveness of the new standards.
5. Teacher Tenure in California
In June, California's teacher unions were dealt a major blow when Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu ruled that the state's teacher tenure laws are unconstitutional. The suit, Vergara v. California, claimed laws made firing poor-performing teachers impossible, and that these teachers were overwhelmingly placed in lower-income schools and disproportionately have a negative impact on poor and minority students. The contentious ruling was lauded by education reformers like Michelle Rhee and U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, but did not sit well with many teachers in the state.
What to look for in 2015: An appeal is currently in the works, and, additionally, State Superintendent Tom Torlakson was just re-elected and has been vocal in his disagreement with the decision and his support for its appeal.