Blog: The Educated Reporter

The 2015 Education Beat: Common Core, Testing, School Choice

Students at New York University work on a computer programming project. More interactive learning is expected to be a hot topic in the coming year on both the K-12 and higher education beats. (Flickr/Matylda Czarnecka)

There’s a busy year ahead on the schools beat – I talked to reporters, policy analysts and educators to put together a cheat sheet to a few of the stories you can expect to be on the front burner in the coming months: 

Revamping No Child Left Behind

While the reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (a.k.a. No Child Left Behind) is eight years overdue, there’s more optimism than we’ve seen in quite a while that Congress will finally take action. Indeed, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan is testifying today before Congress on the White House’s priorities for replacing NCLB.

This year will be the 50th anniversary of the law, which should trigger some retrospectives – and draw attention to the need to revisit its premise when it comes up for a likely vote in the spring, said Anne Hyslop, a policy analyst at the nonprofit Bellwether Education Partners.  

“The education field will be wrestling with the fundamental theory behind the 2002 law– and whether standards, testing, and accountability are still our best, most viable reform strategy to improve educational outcomes for kids,” Hyslop told me.

Lauren Smith Camera, co-author of Education Week’s influential Politics K-12 blog, says she’s expecting “a dramatic swinging of the proverbial pendulum” when it comes to the reauthorization. “Lawmakers will try to take an education system heavily influenced by the federal government and roll that back as much as they can,” Camera said.

The Common Core

The coming year is a crucial one for the Common Core. First, the standards are sure to face a major political test as some states have taken steps to review or repeal them, and more are likely to follow suit. Watch this debate closely, and be sure to pay attention to what exactly states actually seek to change in the standards. Remember: Much of the criticism from politicians has been about how the standards were developed and adopted, rather than the specifics of the grade-level expectations.

Meanwhile, many educators are more concerned about how Common Core-aligned tests will be used (e.g. teacher evaluations, high school exit exams). This brings us to the second major issue with the standards. This is the first year in which many of the participating states will start testing students using Common Core-aligned assessments for English language arts and mathematics. Typically when a new test is rolled out, the percentage of “proficient” students drops. That’s what’s predicted for the Common Core-aligned assessments, as well. But even though local districts are doing what they can to soften the ground from a public relations perspective, parents aren’t expected to cheer the results. 

At our recent seminar for reporters in Washington, D.C., educators and analysts debated just how big an influence the Common Core will be in the upcoming election cycle. (It was a mixed verdict.) With the phrase “Common Core” now triggering an almost automatic negative response in some circles, proponents are expected to launch major rebranding efforts to emphasize the standards are a state-level initiative, rather than a perceived federal mandate.

Reporters need to be cautious when reporting on polls about the Common Core, said Rick Hess, a senior fellow with the conservative American Enterprise Institute. (This is something I’ve written about recently, and it’s also advice you’ll find in our Reporter Guide to using polls in education reporting.) Take note of who’s conducting — or paying for — the polling, and whether they have a stake in the fight, Hess said. As for Hess, he told me he expects enthusiasm for the standards to vary widely in the coming year depending on an individual’s point of view.

“You can still find a lot of inside-the-beltway education advocates (and) reform organizations and advocacy groups excited by it,” Hess said. “But the polling shows a steady erosion in support among people who aren’t in education full time.”

However, support is relatively stable among educators, and those working in states furthest along in implementation are the most optimistic about the standards’ chances of improving student learning. (Read more about that here.) 

“Familiarity tends not to breed contempt in public polling,” Hess said. “If you take some of these (poll) numbers at face value it could mean the Common Core is awesome once you get up close to it.”

Rise of the Machines …  and Charter Schools?

Over at the Eduwonk blog, Andrew Rotherham  — founding partner of Bellwether Education and former domestic policy advisor in President Clinton’s White House — has a lucid list of education issues to watch in 2015. Not surprisingly, the Common Core and teacher preparation are among them. Rotherham is also expecting a breakthrough year for education technology – specifically, blended learning – a mix of direct instruction with students working independently on computers. (Another important read on this issue from education writer Annie Murphy DePaul: Why technology alone won’t fix schools – or help students.)

“I’ve been a technology skeptic but we’re moving from a lot of hype to some really good models out there for personalized learning,” Rotherham said. “People are starting to wake up to the real potential.”

Rotherham’s hope for 2015 education coverage: more nuanced stories about charter school performance. A 2009 study by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes (CREDO) — which found charters on average didn’t do much better than traditional public schools – has been widely cited. But a follow-up study in 2013, which found that certain charter models were having successwith historically underserved student populations, received significantly less attention. (EWA will be tackling many of these issues in February in Denver at our seminar for reporters on charters and choice.)

Higher Ed: Accountability and Access

On the higher education beat, 2015 is also promising to be a crucial year. (Hear predictions from reporters Katie Mangan of The Chronicle of Higher Education and Collin Binkley of the Columbus Dispatch over at EWA Radio.) Observers are predicting stories about more interactive learning environments for college students – including competency-based instruction, and Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs). 

Sexual assault on campus is also sure to see a continued focus. But, as Scott Jaschik, editor of Inside Higher Ed told me, it’s important not to automatically frame this issue as a “new” problem or suddenly on the rise.

“I think this has been a serious problem for a long time, but is just receiving more attention – from leaders of colleges and the media — than before,” Jaschik said.

Indeed, experts say an increase in campus incident rates should be viewed as a positive development, because it means individuals are coming forward and their cases are being taken seriously.

Another higher ed story to watch: While the preliminary framework of the White House’s college-ratings plan was rolled out in December (more than a year after President Obama first touted the plan) the details remain sketchy, Jaschik said.

Among the questions to be answered, said Jaschik: Will the framework actually provide students and their families with the information they need to make informed choices about higher education? And how will the ratings further the debate over the inherent value of a college education? 

A key challenge for the proposed ratings system, Jaschik noted, is “a Republican-controlled Congress whose education leaders have indicated they really don’t like this idea. There are parts of this (White House plan) that don’t require legislation. But can the administration make this a reality before it moves into lame duck status?”

Late last week President Obama announced his intentions to make the first two years of community college free for “”for everybody who’s willing to work for it.” I took a closer look at that proposal, and its Tennessee roots, here. We should expect to hear more details, including a preliminary price tag for Congress, during the president’s State of the Union address later this month.