K-12

Viral math problems, unaccompanied minors and special ed in prison: A look back at Hechinger’s top K-12 stories of 2014

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It’s been another big year for American education. The Common Core continued to shake up classrooms, amid bitter political feuds and parent protests. Schools around the country are also rushing to prepare the technology for new online standardized tests that are paired with the standards. And digital devices in the classroom are increasingly popular, but faced high-profile scrutiny after the Los Angeles iPad rollout failed. As always, Hechinger reporters traveled the country to report back on what these, and other trends, mean for students and teachers.

It’s been a big year for our organization, too. We’ve doubled our full-time staff and are producing more content than even seemed possible when we started four and a half years ago. But as much as we’ve enjoyed 2014, we can’t wait for 2015. We’ll be launching several major new projects and will be showcasing our work on a new website coming in January. While you’re waiting for that, take a look at some of our top K-12 stories from the past year:

A longer school day in Chicago, but with what missing?

Sara Neufeld kicked off our year-long coverage of extended learning time with a close look at lessons learned from Chicago’s extension of the school day and year. According to interviews with dozens of teachers, administrators, parents and students, the longer school day has rolled out with a host of problems, primarily funding-related, and introduced some logistical nightmares.

Why is this Common Core math problem so hard? Supporters respond to a quiz that went viral

commoncoremathIn March, a frustrated father posted a subtraction problem from his second-grade son’s math quiz on Facebook with a note to the teacher calling it ridiculous, adding to a growing backlash against the Common Core. The Hechinger Report’s Sarah Garland asked a couple of the lead writers of the math standards why the problem was so difficult. Their response? Don’t blame Common Core. Blame a poorly written curriculum.

How does one of the top-performing countries in the world think about technology?

Students in Singapore give out scrapbooks to teachers on their national Teachers’ Day. The country was one of the highest performing in every subject in international assessment results released Tuesday. (Photo by Steel Wool)

Hechinger sent reporters around the globe in 2014 to bring back lessons for the U.S. from Japan, Australia, The Netherlands, and Singapore. In Singapore, Sarah Butrymowicz found that glitzy tech that serves no purpose other than being cool is frowned upon. Unlike in America, digital devices are increasingly viewed in Singapore as a means to bring students together in collaboration, rather than to separate them into personalized learning bubbles.

Have lessons about Mississippi’s violent past become optional?

In 1964, a summer campaign to register blacks to vote in Mississippi was marked by violence and murders of three civil rights workers. For the 50-year anniversary of what is now known as Freedom Summer, Hechinger reporters spent weeks traveling the state to see how communities were commemorating the tragic events and learned that despite state laws requiring teaching civil rights lessons in every grade, many students don’t learn about their state’s violent past until late in high school, if at all.

Why a New Jersey school district decided giving laptops to students is a terrible idea

Mothballed laptops locked inside a storage closet at Hoboken Junior Senior High School. School staff will inventory them and hire a recycling company to discard them. (Photo: Jill Barshay)

Mothballed laptops locked inside a storage closet at Hoboken Junior Senior High School. School staff will inventory them and hire a recycling company to discard them. (Photo: Jill Barshay)

As superintendents and principals around the country are cobbling together whatever dollars they can to buy more computers for their classrooms, Jill Barshay took a look at a cautionary tale from Hoboken, New Jersey, where an experiment with giving every student a laptop failed. After facing problem after problem, Hoboken abandoned the laptops entirely this summer.

When schools can’t get online

This year, Hechinger took a deep dive into the digital divide and added a blended learning fellow to cover digital education issues. In her debut piece, Nichole Dobo traveled to Maryland’s rural Garrett County where schools only recently installed reliable, high-speed Internet service. Teachers are using the new service to develop high-tech lessons that retain familiar agricultural themes, but there are still large needs for upgrades and training teachers at a time when money is scarce.

Will weak teacher training ruin the Common Core?

The Common Core marks a stark change in what American public schools will expect students to do in the classroom. But big changes are in store for teachers as well, as Alexandra Neason reported. Still, for the most part, on-the-job teacher training, which has long been criticized for its ineffectiveness, hasn’t changed much in response to the demands of the Common Core.

Pipeline to Prison: Special education too often leads to jail for thousands of American children

sped-to-prison1In Mississippi and across the country, the path to prison often starts very early for kids who struggle to manage behavioral or emotional disabilities in low-performing schools that lack mental health care, highly qualified special education teachers, and appropriately trained staff. Once in detention centers or prisons, the needs of special education students are rarely met. These students tend already to be academically behind, and encounters with the justice system early on only increase the likelihood that they’ll drop out of school or end up incarcerated as adults.

The painful backlash against ‘no-excuses’ school discipline

Following her analysis of corporal punishment in Mississippi, Sarah Carr examined harsh discipline in ‘no-excuses’ high schools, which, critics argue, contribute to a rise in racially skewed suspension and expulsion rates for low-level misbehavior. Many of the families involved come to appreciate the intense structure, but only if they also come to trust the mostly young educators who enforce it. As school leaders in New Orleans are discovering, forging that trust is far harder than teaching someone to say thank you and toe a line.

Unaccompanied minors bring hope, past trauma to American schools

Half of the 390 students at Oakland International High School have arrived in the U.S. from Central America in recent years. Many of them came without a parent or guardian. (Photo: Lillian Mongeau)

Half of the 390 students at Oakland International High School have arrived in the U.S. from Central America in recent years. Many of them came without a parent or guardian. (Photo: Lillian Mongeau)

In her first Hechinger piece, our new West Coast correspondent Lillian Mongeau traveled to Oakland to interview unaccompanied children who have recently come to the U.S. to flee wanton violence, to escape grinding poverty, and to reunite with family living in the U.S. Whatever their reasons for coming, the vast majority of the newly arrived children are now attending the one American institution legally bound to serve them: public schools.

Can a school district’s technology program lift a rural Alabama town out of poverty?

As part of our on-going look at technology in schools, Jackie Mader traveled to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains to visit the tiny Piedmont School District. In 2009, the district adopted a one-to-one laptop program in its oldest grades. In 2012 it installed a wireless network for the entire town, so that students can access the Internet at home. Unlike many school districts with technology programs, Piedmont has a broad mission: use technology to resuscitate a dying rural town.

A taste of victory, finally, for a struggling Newark school

A Scholastic sales representative dressed up as Clifford the Big Red Dog, and Newark math specialist Darlene DeVries played Clifford’s owner, Emily Elizabeth, at a book giveaway at Quitman in November. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

A Scholastic sales representative dressed up as Clifford the Big Red Dog, and Newark math specialist Darlene DeVries played Clifford’s owner, Emily Elizabeth, at a book giveaway at Quitman in November. (Amanda Brown / NJ Spotlight)

In December, Sara Neufeld wrapped up her nearly three-year-long series on Quitman Street Renew School, a failing school in Newark, New Jersey. Earlier in 2014, Neufeld told the story of two 12-year-old students. One, Nydresha, found a passion in cheerleading. The other, D’Andre, hopes that if he’s successful enough in school, his mother, a former drug addict, will want a bigger role in his life. In the final piece, Neufeld concludes that Quitman has turned a corner. Still, there are miles to climb. Quitman is testament to the fact that school reform done honestly takes a long time.

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