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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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Letters to the Editor

6 Letters

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  1. Wanted/Needed: Teachers Who BELIEVE At-Risk Kids Can Succeed

    The pool of at-risk children in America is expanding from urban, inner cities to suburban, outlying areas. What are the challenges of teaching and working with teachers in an American landscape that is filling with sporadic safety, patchy security, and erratic stability? I can tell you first hand how with stealth these actors can insinuate themselves into the spirits of some of our smartest educational workforce.

    One day as I was making my rounds of the schools, classrooms, and teachers I served as an instructional coach, a 10th grader approached me to inquire if I were that lady from the district office who made the lessons for the teachers to prepare them for “the test”. I replied that I was. He then pointed to a classroom that he had just exited, blurted out that the teacher in there didn’t believe in herself, so she couldn’t believe in the students. They weren’t going to pass that “damn test”. Disgusted, he wandered off. Suddenly, I felt weak, wilted. What did he mean? I was fairly acquainted with the teacher; she seemed smart and dedicated.

    Eye Opening Observation
    Steeped with concern, I entered her classroom and inquired with a smile in my voice as to how the lessons were working. She assured me that all was well and invited me to observe. Keeping a poker face and taking no notes in order to not raise her level of concern, I watched as she delivered a lesson I had designed. In time I began to hear and see what the young student shared with me. There was a slight tentativeness in her voice and an uncertainty in her smiling face that informed, “I’m not so certain that you are capable of learning this material, and I am not so certain I am capable of teaching it so that you can.” It was subtle, almost invisible, and I’m not certain whether or not I would have recognized it had the student not shared his concern.
    That day was the start an eye-opening journey of discovery: intellectual firepower, content expertise, certification, and credentials are not always enough to ensure that students master lessons that are carefully crafted. Just as a songwriter might craft a great song, it doesn’t mean he can deliver it to a paying audience.

    On my coaching journey, I would discover scholarly, white teachers who were uncertain of their ability to impact poor, white students who some deemed “poor, white trash”. I would coach certified, African-American teachers who were uncertain if they could elevate the skills of so many poor African-American students from so many troubled homes, and credentialed, Hispanic teachers who lacked faith in their ability to influence the future of Hispanic students. All of them lacked self-efficacy, a belief that their actions and efforts could or would make a difference.

    Unconsciously, overwhelmed and overworked teachers send signals through tone of voice, facial expression, body language that perhaps their students are incapable of learning the content, and the students who needed the most support pick up on this negative energy force or “scent” like the young male student who approached me about his teacher’s lack of faith.

    In the wake of the Sandy Hook School Tragedy, “Superstorm Sandy,” the “fiscal cliff,” and other bubbles, I wonder about the invisible impact of perpetual disasters on American teachers’ psyche as they face a firestorm of never ending demands on their emotions, intellect, and spirits from their students. When teachers see only a sea of poverty seated before them in their classrooms on a daily basis, see students who have experienced or witnessed recurring tragedies, how long will it be before suburban, like urban, teachers feel helpless, powerless, and subconsciously BELIEVE that they are incapable of delivering a more complex problem-solving, problem-seeking curriculum (Common Core) to an increasingly at-risk population?
    As we move forward in reimagining the teaching profession in America, we must keep in mind that that the safety, security, stability of more of our children are dissolving like spun sugar, and with it a potential meltdown of the self-efficacy of more of our teachers.

    What kind of disempowering “scent” will a wider swath of American teachers perspire daily that a wider swath of American students will pick up on?

  2. I taught in an urban school for almost 5 years after being a journalist for most of my life. I sought out a diverse high school because I believe all students can succeed and I wanted to give back to the community I live in. Now, I’m still subbing at the high school level while getting an MFA. I left the position I was in at the very high-risk high school not because of the students, but because students were being shoved through the system at least I would say 15 percent of them or more in the school or more, and administrators changed grades so the schools would look good and get money. In the last semester, I had 50 students in two classes of British Literature and some of the students were 19 and were not proficient at reading and writing! I had other classes with 30 to 35. While I tried to implement consequences I was not backed up by the administration nor were most teachers. This is in one of the most segregated school systesm in our country. I believed in these students and I had some wonderful students who were excellent at writing and others who were really trying. HOwever, teachers need support. Some students were being enabled by administrataors, so who would ever ask a teacher to pass a student who is failing , fails the final exam and therefore has no consequences? NOt a good administrator or even a teacher who would sink to this level. We do them know favors because I still beleive they can succeed if they try, ask for help an deliver. Yes, sad to say, some may need alternative schools.
    I certainly did not need any more material or people to give me lesson plans to teach (nor did most of my colleagues- what did I go back to school for and pay $40,000 when I had everything I needed at my fingertips, except administrative support, less collaborative meetings with people who never taught, and no consequences for the 15 percent who disrupted classes, fought in the halls, and used profanities, though I had implemented steps for each infraction. But again, what do you do if you’re a teacher doing your best, trying to follow some valid suggestions and no one is supporting your efforts?

    I just don’t understand why you would be making lesson plans for professionals who are teachers? I love doing lesson plans and as long as they meet certain requirements I don’t understandy why you woudl be taking over this role- actually we had a instructional coach at our school and she never made the lesson plans just advised. With all due respect to what you are trying to do, this is the last thing teachers need. What we need is support from the adiminstration and instructional coaches, and of course support for those who are off task and need help. and conseqences!
    I also find it hard to believe you listened to just one student. Also, did it occur to you that the lesson plan you designed was just not what the teacher really dreamed of teaching at least in the manner- it seemed again it was just for students to pass the test. — you designed it. These tests are the last things diverse students need, they must have in my opinion, not only tests which are fair to all students but also portfolios showing weekly progress.
    Again, I am just trying to point out the difficulties teachers are often dealing with now, particularly in some urban schools. But it is also happening in a different way in some suburban schools. It must stop. Teachers are professionals. I am not perfect at what I do, but I love diversity. I was raised by very open minded parents, and also have 4 children who were involved with diverse groups of students as they were raised. Teachers are my heroines and heroes- they need to have charge of their own classrooms, with some advice and support. I just wonder if that one teacher or another had designed her or his own lesson plan if you would have seen things differently. Truly, tihngs must change for teachers to meet the needs of All students. thank you.
    Cindy Crebbin –

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