Higher Education

The year in education—a look back at 2012

In 2012, new teacher-evaluation systems and merit pay spread across the country. Technology continued to transform classrooms, and presidential candidates made education an unexpected focus on the campaign trail. Yet widespread problems in America’s education system persisted, and the nation remained behind much of the international competition.

At The Hechinger Report, we traveled from coast to coast to examine new approaches to improving U.S. schools and to answer important questions about what’s working and what isn’t.

On the eve of 2013, we’ve selected 13—a baker’s dozen—of our top stories from the past year to highlight what we found in 2012. These stories provide insight into some of the most staggering problems facing U.S. public education today, and look at promising strategies for solving them.

1. In India, a college building boom

In 2011 and 2012, Hechinger reporters traveled the globe to find lessons for America from the higher-education systems of Canada, China, Poland, South Korea and other countries. In India, we found a massive college building spree under way. A third of India’s 1.24 billion people are under the age of 14. Acknowledging that the country’s youth could be an asset in efforts to become a world power or a disaster that drains resources and fuels social unrest, the Indian government has responded by rapidly expanding access to higher education.

2. New teacher-evaluation systems in Tennessee have rough road ahead

More than two-thirds of states are in the process of overhauling how they evaluate their teachers in an effort to ratchet up the quality of the teaching force. During 2012, Hechinger partnered with reporters across the country to look at how these reforms are transforming local schools and classrooms. Tennessee was one of the early adopters of a new evaluation system. We examined how teachers and principals are handling the changes there, and how the state is responding to their feedback—both positive and negative.

3. The little district that could: How one Kansas district keeps a near-perfect record on state exams

In the Waconda School District in north-central Kansas, nearly 100 percent of students pass state tests, graduate from high school and enroll in college. The methods behind the educational success of this school district, which encompasses four blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em towns stretched out on the plains, are in stark contrast to popular education reforms elsewhere in the United States. Waconda doesn’t link student test-scores to teacher evaluations; it has no plans to distribute iPads. The district’s approach is rooted in the basics, with a community that champions education, coupled with faculty dedication and a relentless focus on early intervention.

4. Despite massive budget cuts, there’s a building boom in U.S. higher education

A Hechinger investigation this spring uncovered a multibillion-dollar building boom at U.S. colleges and universities—despite budget shortfalls, endowment declines and seemingly stretched resources. In 2010 and 2011, schools spent $11 billion building new facilities on American campuses, more than double what was spent a decade earlier. This story is part of our ongoing coverage of the changing costs and value of a college degree.

5. College enrollment shows signs of slowing

Harvard, Yale and a few other selective universities may have announced record numbers of applications in the spring, but higher-education officials have begun to fret over signs that college enrollment is starting to drop. Many universities are offering serious discounts just to fill seats. Still, more than 40 percent of private colleges have reported enrollment declines. Even community colleges—which had seen double-digit growth in recent years—experienced enrollment dips in 2012.

6. Millions spent on improving teachers, but little done to make sure it’s working

Helping struggling teachers improve has become a big concern—and a big business—across the country. The federal government gives local districts more than $1 billion annually for teacher training. New York City’s schools spent close to $100 million last year just on private consultants. Yet even as districts increase accountability for teachers, few are monitoring the companies, universities and in-school programs that are supposed to help them get better. A Hechinger series investigated who was making money from professional development, and what teacher-training strategies yield the most success.

7. A Newark school prepares—again—to reinvent itself
A new feeling of hope pervades Quitman Street Community School in Newark, N.J. Quitman—a school of 493 pre-kindergartners through eighth-graders in Newark’s high-crime, high-poverty Central Ward—has become a symbol of Superintendent Cami Anderson’s new push to turn around struggling schools. But in recent decades, school and city alike have been beaten down and subject to wave after wave of so-called rebirths, renewals and reforms. The Hechinger Report partnered with NJ Public Radio and NJ Spotlight to share Quitman’s story, dispatching a team of reporters to cover its daily trials and triumphs as well as the lessons it provides for schools and communities nationwide.

8. New online tests hold promise, perils

As part of Hechinger’s continuing coverage of the rapidly expanding world of digital education, we asked whether schools are ready for the shift from pencil-and-paper standardized tests to online ones. Advocates are promising better tests, less frequent cheating and immediate feedback for both students and teachers. But some educators and experts point to a host of potential problems, including shrinking school budgets, increased testing time and network meltdowns.

9. Can the burgeoning world on online teacher training improve public education?

At a time when brick-and-mortar teacher training programs are under fire, thousands of new teachers enter the profession each year after having been trained in online classes. Hechinger reporter Sarah Butrymowicz joined 19 teacher-candidates in a virtual course offered by the San Diego-based National University to explore how well one online program is preparing individuals for the classroom.

10. Rich kid, poor kid: How mixed neighborhoods could save America’s schools

Efforts to rejuvenate urban neighborhoods and fix public schools have historically followed separate paths. Instead of attacking poverty, urban blight and failing schools in isolated efforts, a group of community activists and philanthropists in Atlanta took on all of these issues as one big problem. One of the results is the Charles Drew Charter School, which draws students from federally subsidized housing for impoverished tenants and from market-rate apartments that attract university students, young professionals and, increasingly, middle-class families.

11. Education Nation: Career academy puts emphasis on learning styles

As a partner with NBC for 2012’s Education Nation, we produced a series about education reforms that are working, from a parent mentor program in Chicago to a bilingual school in California. In Arkansas, we looked at a charter school where students are sorted by learning style and career aspirations. The 875-student school, nestled in the Ozarks, is based on two commonly accepted educational tenets: Every student learns differently, and students learn best when the material is relevant to them.

12. Why Mitt Romney’s Massachusetts education plan backfired

On the campaign trail, Mitt Romney often touted the John and Abigail Adams Scholarship Program he established in Massachusetts, which provides tuition at in-state public colleges and universities to students who score well on state tests. But research suggests the Adams scholarship and others like it do little to improve college access. In fact, such programs can widen existing income and racial gaps in college attendance. This story was part of a special months-long election series in which we took a close look at the education policies and promises of both Romney and President Barack Obama.

13. Private academies keep students separate and unequal 40 years later

This year, we launched a series about education in Mississippi, one of the poorest, lowest-achieving states in the country. One of the many problems the state faces is “segregation academies,” private schools started after the 1954 ruling in Brown vs. Board of Education to keep black and white students separate. It’d be easy to see Mississippi as an anomaly when it comes to education—hyper-segregated, fraught with racial and economic disparities, deeply divided over how much money to invest in schools—but in many respects, the story of education there is the story of education in America.

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