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It’s been another big year for The Hechinger Report. We unveiled a new website, held a successful crowd funding campaign and published a record-breaking 652 stories.  If you found it hard to keep up with them all, fear not! We chose some must-reads to squeeze in before the ball drops. (And don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter, so you can keep up with all the stories we’ll produce in 2016.)

Our five most viewed stories of the year:

education stories

The graduation rates from every school district* in one map:  Previously, if you wanted to compare graduation rates across the country, you had to rely on state averages from the federal government. We decided that’s not good enough. Since we’re becoming a little obsessed with high school reform, Hechinger data editor Sarah Butrymowicz gathered district-level data and created a map that let’s you see how your town compares to others across the country.

As Mississippi delivers bad news to 5,600 third graders, stressed-out parents say there must be a better way: Our Mississippi coverage followed a tense year for education reform in that state, including this in-depth look at the ramifications of a new law that third-graders cannot be promoted without passing a test to prove they are adequate readers. Nearly 15 percent of the state’s third graders failed the test on their first try.                                                                                                                                                                  
Memorizers are the lowest achievers and other Common Core math surprises: Jo Boaler, a professor of mathematics at Stanford University, stirred up readers with her argument that “we don’t need students to calculate quickly in math. We need students who can ask good questions, map out pathways, reason about complex solutions, set up models and communicate in different forms.”

Want high schoolers to succeed? Stop giving them fifth-grade schedules: Who knew class scheduling could be so controversial? Nick Stoneman, president of Minnesota’s Shattuck-St. Mary’s school, attacked “the typical one-size-fits-all daily schedule known widely as ‘cells and bells.’” Instead, he argued, high school students should be allowed to manage their own time.

Common Core’s unintended consequence? According to many teachers, experts and advocates of the Common Core, traditional curriculum sources haven’t been meeting the demands of the new set of math and English standards that have been rolled out in more than 40 states in the past few years. More and more teachers are scrapping off-the-shelf lessons and searching for replacements on the Internet or writing new curriculum materials themselves.

Other great reads you may have missed:

Is the future of education robots bumping into walls? Blended learning fellow Nichole Dobo visited a school in Ohio where many teachers never set foot in the building because they teach only online courses. Most of the time, the remote teachers interact with their students through a computer screen or phone call, but there is also a “telepresence” robot teachers can use to roll around the classroom.

The lost children of Katrina: Hechinger marked the 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina with a piece in which Katy Reckdahl tells the story of an untold number of kids — probably numbering in the tens of thousands — who missed weeks, months, even years of school after Katrina. Only now, a decade later, are advocates and researchers beginning to grasp the lasting effects of this post-storm duress.

education stories
Glenn Farmer watches students play at Education Depot, which opened in 1997. The center needed extensive upgrades when Farmer took over. Credit: Jackie Mader

Why is ‘high quality’ so elusive in Mississippi’s child care centers? Mississippi bureau chief Jackie Mader reported that for many child care centers in Mississippi, especially those in poor and rural areas, improving quality is nearly impossible without outside assistance or private money. As a result, many children languish in substandard child care centers, many of which are unregulated. It’s also hard for parents to know where to go to get information about centers.

The gap between rich and poor schools grew 44 percent over a decade: Education by the Numbers columnist Jill Barshay used federal data to highlight how the richest 25 percent of school districts get 15.6 percent more funds from state and local governments per student than the poorest 25 percent, up from 10.8 percent a decade earlier.

California’s multi-million dollar online education flop is another blow for MOOCs: “Reinvent” was the giddy catchword of a plan by the University of California to create an all-digital “campus” that would revolutionize higher education by providing courses online for students shut out of the system’s brick-and-mortar classrooms at a time of high demand but falling budgets. Three years later, the Online Instruction Pilot Project has become another expensive example of the ineffectiveness—so far, anyway—of once-vaunted plans to widen access to college degrees by making them available online.

Are Common Core tests turning out to be a big success or a resounding failure? This spring, students across the country sat down to new tests tied to the Common Core, or at least that was the plan. Staff writer Emmanuel Felton’s coverage of the new standards included this look at the early problems the tests were having and what it meant for the future of the standards. Technical issues brought testing to a halt in three states, while in others, thousands of parents refused to let their students sit for exams.

How one observant Muslim girl persuaded her parents to let her go to Princeton: Hechinger staff writer Meredith Kolodner told the story of many Muslim girls who find themselves caught between two worlds — the American culture in which they’ve come of age and the culture of a homeland their parents both fled and cling to. The girls want to stay connected to their religion and where they come from, while breaking free of things from their parents’ generation that they find constraining. They see college as crucial to that journey.

education stories
Kilian Betlach, right, principal of Elmhurst Community Prep Middle School, monitors the lunch line on Monday, June 1, 2015 in Oakland, Calif. Credit: Alison Yin for Hechinger Report

Teachers wanted: Passion a must, patience required, pay negligible: Many of the factors that keep teachers from showing up at high-poverty schools are beyond the control of any single principal. Yet these principals still need to fill their classrooms with teachers. West coast correspondent Lillian Mongeau followed an Oakland principal as he worked on this seemingly Sisyphean task, knowing that if he doesn’t succeed he’ll risk his students’ fragile educational progress.

“Edu-speak” is a disease that undermines efforts to improve U.S. schools: Hechinger executive director Liz Willen took on a major pet peeve this year with a call to all education journalists for whom “cutting through the argle bargle is a full-time job that distracts from what we should actually be doing: telling stories about how children are faring in American classrooms. I’m more convinced than ever that we can’t improve U.S. education until we figure out how to talk and write clearly about it.”

This is how you start a high school: Contributing editor Sara Neufeld took readers inside a brand new Brooklyn school in this three-part series told through the eyes of the principal, a teacher, and a student and his family. Brooklyn Ascend High School is rolling out a liberal arts curriculum that promotes critical thinking over exam prep. The principal believes that this could have made the difference for her currently incarcerated son, along with other key attributes of the school’s design: an unconventional discipline and character-building system, stellar teachers and a beautiful building where every student is well-known.

The rich-poor divide on America’s college campuses is getting wider, fast and Black students are drastically underrepresented at top public colleges, data show: This pair of stories shed light on the inequalities in our higher education system. Hechinger Report higher education editor Jon Marcus teamed up with Holly Hacker, of the Dallas Morning News, to show how the stratification by income is worsening, with poor kids increasingly ending up at community colleges and regional public universities rather than elite private or flagship public campuses. Staff writer Meredith Kolodner explained how black students make up only 5 percent of enrollment at flagship public universities, despite often being a much larger part of high school graduating classes.

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