December 31, 2009

Education stories of 2009 (U.S.)

The end of the year is the traditional time for journalists and laypeople to look back and identify major issues in a year. As Phil Graham (or maybe Ben Bradlee) said, journalism is a first rough draft of history, and you know what a first rough draft looks like. Nonetheless, as an historian I'll take a stab at what I think will be seen in retrospect as key developments in education in the U.S. They may even have been key issues this year!

  1. The Great Recession and students' lives. More children are homeless, hungry, or displaced in some way because the adults in their family have lost jobs or their homes. We won't know the exact extent of the effects on children's lives for a few years, but the news stories of the recession's effects on children are first indicators of a quantum leap in child poverty. And there is also an effect on the lives of college students, though the effects are more complicated. People are returning to school at a rapid clip, but because financial resources are lower, there is also a greater demand for financial aid at college.
  2. The Great Recession and the education stimulus packages (plural). In late 2008 it became obvious that for several years Florida had been leading the country again... in declining state and local revenues. Around the country in early 2009, school-system budgets for 2009-10 looked like they were going to collapse, resulting in catastrophic layoffs that would affect not only schools but the whole economy. Federal spending kept hundreds of school systems afloat and is a good part of what saved the economy from a much worse decline in aggregate demand. The early-2009 stimulus package (aka ARRA) is the major part of the story but not all of it. If you didn't hear about the mid-December shifting of $23 billion from TARP into an account school systems could use to save jobs, you missed a substantial increase in the stimulus that should be considered part of December's second stimulus, along with an extension of unemployment benefits and federal subsidies for COBRA payments.
  3. College financial aid reform. The Obama administration is combining administrative changes to simplify the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) with a push to eliminate the federally-subsidized private lending program and shift resources into direct lending. While it is not politically possible (and probably not legally possible) in many states to require that all students complete the FAFSA, it is possible to make it much easier to complete, encouraging more students with real financial need to take advantage of financial aid.
  4. The growing role of community colleges... and erstwhile or soon-to-be-erstwhile community colleges.The July plan to give $12 billion to community colleges is a relatively small part of the overall policy emphasis of the administration on community colleges, from the appointment of a community-college president as the chief administrator of higher education policies to the greater scrutiny of proprietary training institutions (where do you think students who would otherwise go to proprietary job-training programs will be headed instead?). Ironically, two of the largest states are headed in a different direction, with Florida's community-college system disintegrating or morphing into a "state college" sort-of-system, and some voices in California voicing a similar idea with new caps on Cal State enrollments. (DC is headed in the other direction, with UDC splitting into two- and four-year institutions.)
  5. Race to the Top. Some of you may wonder why this isn't #1, but I'll defend my judgment that it's important but whether you like RTTT or not, it's not nearly as important a change as the issues I've put above this. But don't fret if you disagree: see #8.
  6. Common core standards effort. The halting, awkward, adolescent-like steps towards creating at least some vague national-level standards developed, and while Alaska and Texas may not be involved, and other states may opt out later, this is the curriculum equivalent of the 1989 Charlottesville summit, in that it is a national rather than a federal effort.  (See Maris Vinovskis's recent book for that story.)
  7. City school control battles. From the renewal of mayoral control in NYC (and Bloomberg's relection) to an emergency manager in Detroit and the apparent devolution of Los Angeles Unified, governance is once again front and center in urban school politics. Well, maybe it never left as an issue, which is a cynical historian's perspective. But if you think I'm cynical, wait until Diane Ravitch's new book comes out in a few months. No, I haven't read the manuscript. But you don't have to before you can take a good guess at what Ravitch will say about New York City. (Recent developments in Detroit and Los Angeles came after she must have submitted her manuscript.)
  8. Teacher evaluation in local bargaining. Collective bargaining agreements put the AFT in the center of teacher evaluation debates through its support of new arrangements in New Haven, St. Louis, and even Detroit. And both teacher evaluations and collective bargaining more generally are at the heart of disagreements between the Minnesota and Florida teachers union state affiliates, on the one hand, and state departments that would like teacher union signoffs on RTTT applications, on the other. Disclosure: I am a member of the Florida Education Association and was on the governance board for a two-year term that ended this past summer. I haven't had time to learn much more than what's available publicly on the Florida disagreement, but I'll give you one idea in the back of my mind that's also in yesterday's Ed Week story (requires subscription) by Stephen Sawchuk: both affiliates are merged (i.e., in both the NEA and AFT).
  9. Sexting as a news topic. This is the latest object of our perennial concern about youth behavior, made  highly visible with the suicides this year by Jesse Logan and Hope Witsell. The main difference between teens' sending racy photos of themselves by cell and other foolish teenage behavior is that cell-phone technology enables a social chain-reaction from an MMSed photo that other (and more fundamentally stupid/dangerous) behavior does not. Not that any of these is a good choice, but if you knew that your teenager was either going to get addicted to a drug, become pregnant/impregnate someone, or send or receive a sext message, which would be the least inherently dangerous behavior?  Fortunately, Mike Petrilli is correct about the state of American teenagers: the trends on seriously dangerous adolescent behavior is headed in the right direction... not that any reporters covering the sexting issue noted that fact.
  10. Textbook affordability. Arnold Schwartznegger's midyear ramblings about ebooks aside, there has been movement in several areas to address the rent-seeking behavior of both textbook publishers and college bookstores. This includes public and private ventures to create online textbooks with inexpensive print-on-demand options and textbook rentals, and Florida is probably not going to be the last state where public colleges and universities need to list textbooks for all courses at least a few weeks before a term starts, to allow competition. There are some logistical problems with the last, such as with brand-new courses or new sections opened up to serve demand, but some tweaking will probably result in an institutionalized arrangement allowing students to search for books they can find anywhere.

So what have I missed? Any errors in judgment on the ordering? What do you think the issues for 2010 will be? Time to kibitz!

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Posted in Education policy on December 31, 2009 1:20 PM |