January 3, 2008

U.S. education stories this year: 8 to watch in '08

Looking back on 2007 is easier for an historian than predicting the future, so I may fall flat on these:

  1. No Child Left Behind debates. I don't think reauthorization stands a snowball's chance in Key West for this year, so the key questions are whether the key players are interested in setting up the parameters of reauthorization for 2009 and how electoral politics interacts with that debate. If I were a senior member of an education committee, I'd work throughout the year to establish some consensus that would hold at least reasonably well no matter what the results of the election. And if I were the president-elect in November 2008, I wouldn't want to be told what to do by committee chairs.
  2. The presidential election. Even though education has largely disappeared during the run-up to the primaries, it will surely reappear in the fall general campaign. The character of that (mini-)debate will depend more on the Republican candidate than the Democratic candidate, largely because the policy differences among Democrats are much smaller than those among Republicans. If the Republican candidate is Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani, I suspect they will generally speak the language of human capital, accountability, and privatization. If the Republican candidate is Mike Huckabee, all bets are off.
  3. State budget cuts. My own state is on the cutting (bleeding) edge of a national economic "softening" at best and possibly the start of a recession. That always foretells budget cuts. Because education is commonly the largest slice of state spending, expect education budgets to be hit. Higher education is usually hit worse than K-12 schooling, but there may be a twist in states where the real-estate market is declining as well: if property taxes follow property values, a cut in state education budgets will be compounded by cuts in local contributions.
  4. More discussion of college costs. After Harvard's elimination of loans for students from families with income under $180,000, a small handful of other institutions followed suit (if not with precisely the same figures). This will continue to ripple out in the discussion of college costs (including in the presidential election campaign). There are two ways in which the current discussion is distorted: college costs are not just what parents and students pay, and for most students (who attend public institutions), the greater cost of attending college is not tuition and books but the income forgone from not working. I suspect the discussion will continue to avoid those facts, but I can always hope.
  5. Student rights in high schools and colleges. Greg Toppo's list of top education stories for 2007 includes one item (the Morse v. Frederick "Bong Hits 4 Jesus" case) that I didn't and probably should have in my year-end review. So let me add it here: the Supreme Court decision will not stop debates over how far high schools can go in regulation and punishing behavior that happens off campus. And debates will continue over how far colleges can regulate student behavior as well, as the activities of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education indicate.
  6. Sex education. With December's report that 2006 had the first jump in U.S. teen birth rates since the early 1990s, arguments over the effectiveness of abstinence-only approaches to sex education will continue. That debate may feed into the general perception of the Bush administration's incompetence or ideological attacks on research. Will more states refuse federal funding and opt for sex education that includes contraception?
  7. Eli Broad and Bill Gates: philanthropists, bullies, or ghosts? Eduwonkette's guest skoolboy noted the rise of visible education philanthropy as a major story in 2007. But there are also questions about the billionaires' club for reform, from the intriguing way that the Eli Broad Prize in 2007 went to a school district that had received millions in aid from the Broad Foundation to the Gates Foundation's dilettante-ish attitude towards school reform (yesterday: small schools rule; today: who ever heard of small schools?) and the way that Ed in '08 apparently has fizzled in trying to raise the visibility of education in the presidential campaign. But there's a long-term strategy that is rarely discussed, the Eli Broad Foundation's investment in and sponsorship in a group of what it would like to be future superintendents.
  8. Data, with and without interesting questions. The march to state-level longitudinal system development continues, "formative assessment" is on the lips of everyone who waded through the dead Miller-McKeon reauthorization discussion draft, "data mining" is both a vague promise of research and a bane to those concerned with privacy, and "data-based" has not yet appeared on the Lake Superior University list of terms banned because of brazen overuse. The collection, documentation, and preservation of data is only part of the research picture. But without interesting questions, funding for investigator-initiated research, or respect from the Institute of Education Sciences for secondary analyses of large data sets, this stuff is worth precisely the ability to toss off phrases such as "longitudinal data systems," "data mining," and "data-based" without any commitment to serious long-term research.

I've never tried to make these calls at the beginning of the year before, and I'm aware that I am out on a limb for the last two. We'll see: shall I come back at the end of the year and score myself?

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Posted in Education policy on January 3, 2008 9:41 AM |