Oh, what a year it was.
The 2010-11 school year might not have looked much different from the one that preceded it to all the kids who woke up early, slogged to school, took test after standardized test and went home to study some more.
But to the adults in public education, there was incredible tumult.
When classes began in August, Maryland and the District joined several states as winners of a federal competition called Race to the Top that led many states to revamp education rules and laws to win cash. That contest, plus a controversial film about charter schools called “Waiting for ‘Superman,’ ” propelled a reform movement that stresses choice and incentives rather than equity and funding.
There was also deep instability in many schools as financial troubles destroyed education budgets. More than 100 districts in at least 16 states operated four-day school weeks and gutted after-school activities. Platoons of teachers got pink slips.
School systems in the Washington area escaped the most draconian cuts, but others weren’t so lucky. Detroit officials unveiled a plan to close half of the city’s high schools, a move that could lead to classes with up to 60 kids apiece.
The best-known name in education reform, “ ‘Superman’ ” star Michelle A. Rhee, resigned as D.C. schools chancellor in October and took her reform agenda — no excuses, teacher evaluation by test score growth — to the nation.
Her successor, Kaya Henderson, carried on as an investigation was launched into possible test cheating in some schools during Rhee’s tenure.
Montgomery County Superintendent Jerry D. Weast announced that he would retire this summer after a 12-year run widely seen as successful because he raised the floor for student achievement. Joshua P. Starr, a young superintendent from Connecticut, was named to succeed him. Maryland’s powerful superintendent of schools, Nancy S. Grasmick, said that she was stepping down after 20 years.
Fairfax County Superintendent Jack D. Dale led Virginia school chiefs in a polite revolt against the state’s Standards of Learning tests, a move that underscored growing dissatisfaction with the effect of standardized testing on the curriculum.
Said Dale, “Our students are bored because they’re not doing the hands-on kind of learning that they’re great at.”
Dale faced his own mini-revolt after a series of stories in The Washington Post raised questions about the severity of the county’s disciplinary practices. One student struggling amid the fallout of an infraction committed suicide. Last week, some discipline policies were eased.
The clock kept ticking on the 2002 No Child Left Behind law — or, rather, on its “annual yearly progress” provision, which sets a goal for virtually all students to become proficient in reading and math by 2014. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan called for an overhaul of the law, saying in March that perhaps 82 percent of American schools would be considered failing this year under the provision.
Congress still has not acted.
It was unclear what all of the changes would yield.
President Obama said in January that “Race to the Top is the most meaningful reform of our public schools in a generation.”
But education author Alfie Kohn said, “There’s simply no way to evaluate the historic significance of a given period until some time has passed.”
In many states, Republican governors took on teachers unions, blaming them for protecting bad teachers and failing to close the achievement gap. Legislation advanced that would limit tenure and collective bargaining rights for teachers.
The two biggest teachers unions, the National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, noted that the problems with urban schools are the same in union and non-union states. But union leaders also seemed to acknowledge that changes were needed in teacher evaluation systems to allow for speedier removal of bad teachers. AFT President Randi Weingarten, though demonized in “ ‘Superman,’ ” often tried to compromise. She backed experiments that linked teacher evaluations to test scores.
It was hard to go a day or two without hearing someone in the education world talk about Finland, Singapore, Korea or Shanghai, all with students who placed near the top on international tests. There was much talk about the middling performance of the United States on those tests.
“More parents, teachers and leaders need to recognize the reality that other high-achieving nations are both out-educating us and out-competing us,” Duncan said in December in response to scores from the 2009 Program for International Student Assessment. “Our educational system has a long way to go to fulfill the American promise of education as the great equalizer.”
When researchers took a deeper look at the numbers, they found what has long been known: that students in wealthy U.S. ZIP codes matched up strongly with the rest of the world and that kids who live in poverty dragged down the scores.
Questions about poverty and its effects on learning became a central theme of the reform debate. One side said that blaming low student achievement on the home environment was just an excuse to keep bad teachers. The other side argued that it was impossible on a wide scale for teachers to overcome lack of sleep, hunger, illness and more.
Advocates of public charter schools and private school vouchers gained momentum in many state capitals. New national standards for math and English language arts also started to take root in the District, Maryland and more than 40 other states. (Not in Virginia, though, which remained wedded to the SOLs.)
Some billionaires satisfied their philanthropic urges by giving to public education. In September, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg announced a $100 million donation to Newark schools. That was a pittance compared with the billions that philanthropist Bill Gates has sunk into public education over the past decade, which he says has yielded sometimes disappointing results.
Critics of market-style reform said teachers and their unions were being scapegoated for problems they didn’t create. They voiced fear that public education would suffer from moves toward privatization.
“I would look on this year as historic in that it marks the pinnacle of foolishness in delusional education reform,” said Anthony Cody, a California teacher who is organizing an education protest planned for next month in the District. Many of his peers who had supported Obama in the 2008 election expressed disappointment in the president’s policies.
Deborah A. Gist, Rhode Island’s education chief and a former top D.C. education official, said Obama’s agenda spurred important innovations. But she said she worried about what teachers make of it all.
“The most detrimental occurrence of this past year has been the blow to teacher morale nationally and in our state,” Gist said. “We must address this issue and bring teachers into the center of this work.”
To underscore the contentiousness of things, many Rhode Island teachers blame Gist and her agenda in large part for their bad morale.
Weast, Montgomery’s outgoing superintendent, who is known as an aggressive reformer himself, had declined to participate in Race to the Top. He questioned whether the contest’s goals, including test-based teacher evaluation, were based on evidence.
“I’ve learned that one-shot silver bullets don’t work,” Weast said. “It’s a comprehensive and systemic approach that works, based on the right psychology and the right outcomes for children.”
But as Weast prepared to leave, there was a move in Maryland to require some measures he had resisted, including linking teacher pay to test scores.
Whoever wins that argument will write the next chapter in school reform.