:: It’s been a tumultuous year for America’s schools—one marked by an expanding minority-student population, an increasingly discontent teaching force, a backlash against standardized testing, and shifting understanding of education reform. It’s seen greater attention on areas traditionally dismissed as nonessential: things like early-childhood education, after-school programs, and project-based learning. It’s also seen evolving attitudes toward discipline, with tactics such as restorative justice starting to replace zero-tolerance approaches, including in high-poverty urban districts. Debates over how to address disparities in achievement have been highly politicized. The ed-tech market has continued to grow.
Joshua Angrist, professor of economics at MIT
Reason for despair: “No Excuses” pedagogy is characterized by a long school day and year, an emphasis on traditional reading and math, extensive use of Teach for America interns, data-driven instruction (just as pro sports teams use data and review video), and an emphasis on discipline and comportment. Our research team and other colleagues have repeatedly and rigorously shown the power of this approach to produce life-changing gains for students who would otherwise do poorly (the “No Excuses” moniker refers to schools and not students: No excuses allowed for a failure to educate). I’m worried because the foundations of this success are under attack: The federal government and many districts now propose to limit the testing that provides essential feedback and accountability. And it has been regular, reliable testing that’s laid the empirical foundation for discussions of school quality and educational inequality. Also worrying: In Massachusetts and elsewhere, concerns about racial imbalance in school discipline are making it harder to use suspension to establish a structured and safe school environment (the primary beneficiaries of which are poor African American children).
Charles Best, founder and CEO of DonorsChoose.org
Reason for despair: We already know teachers go above and beyond to give their students an excellent education, a lasting love of learning, and the self-confidence to succeed. But teachers can only do so much with the resources they have. More and more, projects on our site tell us that teachers face a large population of young people who go to school cold or hungry. In addition to school supplies, they are requesting food, warmth and care for their students. As a society, it’s time to confront that problem.
Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)
Reason for despair: I despair over the growing number of so-called Religious Freedom bills that would grant licenses to discriminate—even for education professionals working with children—and at the schools that seek permission to discriminate by getting religious exemptions to their Title IX responsibilities. My mom was a teacher. She always told me being with people who are different than you, even if you disagree with them completely, is one of the most valuable aspects of school. You have to learn to articulate your ideas and defend your beliefs, and really listen to understand. “RFRAs” and religious exemptions are about withdrawing from that social contract. They also do real harm to youth—when an education professional, a counselor or a nurse, refuses to deal with an LGBT student, simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, it sends a horrific message.
Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education emeritus at Stanford University and president of the Learning Policy Institute
Reason for despair: Fifty years after passage of the Voting Rights Act and 60 years after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, America’s education system is still one of the most segregated and inequitable in the Western world. The most advantaged public schools spend many times more than the poorest, and resource allocations exacerbate race and class inequities in many states. While some students attend schools in palatial settings offering small classes, expert teachers, and high-tech computers, others attend a growing number of apartheid schools serving low-income students of color in crumbling buildings, where a revolving door of substitutes and untrained teachers try to teach in overcrowded classrooms lacking enough desks, not to mention books and learning materials. In the last few years, matters have gone from bad to worse: As poverty levels for children have grown to one in four nationwide, and the number of homeless children has doubled, states have been cutting funds for both education and social services. In 2015, at least 30 states were funding their schools at lower levels than they had before the Great Recession, with those serving the neediest students often the hardest hit. Because of the aggressive neglect of so many our children, the United States has slipped to the level of many developing countries in virtually every category of child welfare and education. This situation is perhaps the greatest threat to our national security. In today’s knowledge economy, we need every young person to be well-supported and well-educated, able to find a good job and pay taxes to pay for the social security and health care of the growing number of seniors if our social contract is to survive.
Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association
Reason for hope: What gives me the most hope right now is that everyone is focusing on education. “No Child Left Untested” was such bad policy that it got people’s attention, and it was the law for more than a decade. It created a crisis in public education, but we can use this crisis to move forward. President Obama signed a law that ends test-and-punish policies and opens the door for real teaching and learning. We finally have an opportunity for transparency and an opening to make every school a place that inspires students’ curiosity, imagination, and desire to learn. We will have meaningful indicators to show us in black and white what educators have been saying all along: Not all students have what they need for success. And we can finally begin addressing these opportunity gaps. This could be a new golden age for education, but we’re not just hoping it happens. We’re organizing with parents, business leaders, and communities to make it happen.
Anya Kamenetz, lead education blogger for NPR and the author of The Test
Reason for hope: The requirements of No Child Left Behind, with its insistence on math and reading benchmarks, have been softened. Thanks to the work of countless researchers, policymakers, and educators, I see real and serious attention being paid to cultivating and measuring the human tasks of education: communication, collaboration, empathy, creativity, self-awareness, and self-management, to name a few.
We have a lot to learn, but it seems that schools that excel in building these qualities are places where students are loved and supported by highly engaged teachers, where they work on getting along better, play together, satisfy their curiosity, make art, try new technologies, and explore new ideas. I believe this work will continue to build momentum. Measuring what matters can help tug schools in the right direction.
Amanda Ripley, Emerson Senior Fellow and the author of The Smartest Kids in the World
Reason for hope: Washington, D.C., where I live and where my child attends public school, has done something almost no other U.S. district has managed to pull off. The city has turned teaching into what appears to be a serious profession. For real. You can earn $125,000 in fewer than 10 years on the job here. You can coach other teachers and influence policy and curriculum. Teachers I know spend more time talking about the intellectual challenges of the craft than most teachers I meet in the rest of the country, where many school systems are still too broken for such conversations. It’s also true that D.C. still has a very long way to go, and I could list a hundred things that could be better. But I have to admit it: This city has proven that it is possible to treat teaching with something close to the respect it deserves—even in America. And that change is always going to be Step 1. Nothing else will work. Now just 99 more steps to go.
Diane Ravitch, historian of American education and author of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools
Reason for hope: The reasons for hope are two-fold: first, the public doesn’t want to abandon its community public schools. No district or state has ever voted to privatize its schools. Second, every so-called “reform” has failed to promote better education or equal opportunity for the neediest children. Neither charters nor vouchers consistently get better results for children, unless they exclude the weakest students. Measuring teachers by student test scores has been a costly failure. The great majority of the public admires their public schools and their teachers and wants them to be better, more equitably funded, not eliminated. If democracy works, these misguided “reforms” will be consigned to the ashcan of history.
Dale Russakoff, reporter for The Washington Post and author of The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?
Reason for hope: I find hope in the growing attention of politicians and policymakers to forces outside K-12 classrooms that impinge on learning, particularly for the poorest children. The mounting emphasis on early-childhood education, the renewed interest in community schools—with services for adults and neighborhoods as well as for children—and the movement to create trauma-informed classrooms for children exposed to violence all reflect this trend. The education-reform movement argued that poverty was an “excuse” for failure, but these developments embody a shift in perspective: America may not have to solve poverty before improving education for the poorest children, but we definitely have to address it.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers
Reason for hope: Today, the tide is turning in public education. Policymakers on Capitol Hill, heeding the calls of parents and teachers, have rolled back high-stakes testing and put the focus back on logical decision-making, listening to those closest to kids and targeting funding to support the children who need it most and the public schools they attend. States have the chance to take the ball and move plans that let teachers teach and students learn. We know that high-quality early-childhood education, additional pathways like career-and-technical education, community schools that provide wraparound services, and changing instruction to include project-based learning are ways to engage students, address poverty, and make every public school a place where parents want to send children, educators want to work and kids are engaged. We need the resources and support to get there. And by doing so in 2016, we can bring back the joy of learning and widespread economic opportunity. When we do that, we will help kids, families, and communities get ahead and stay ahead.
Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University
Reason for hope: Over the past five years, my sense of hope and optimism has actually overtaken despair with U.S. schools. First, there is now broad recognition that quality teachers can lead to revitalized schools that are competitive internationally. Second, there is a new willingness by legislatures in a majority of states to push actively for more flexibility in hiring, paying, and retaining teachers and for improved teacher evaluations so that we identify the teachers that we want to nurture and retain. By focusing attention on the effectiveness of teachers in raising student achievement, these progressive states are setting the stage for U.S. schools to climb out of their doldrums and to compete with the top schools around the developed countries of the world. For the first time in the past half century there appears to be a strong possibility that we will serve all of our students and that we will restore the strength of the U.S. workforce.