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It’s been a busy year for The Hechinger Report’s k-12 team. Two of our staff members published books on education. We set up our Mississippi bureau. We added two new blogs – Digital EDU and Education by the Numbers. And we kept traveling around the United States to document the country’s triumphs and struggles in education.
There was a lot to report. In 2013, the Common Core State Standards were introduced into more classrooms – and controversy around them grew. New teacher evaluation systems began to have real consequences. The country continued to struggle with large inequalities in wealth and opportunity and poverty continued to plague too many schools nationwide.
Here are our top 10 stories from 2013:
Students at Newark’s Merit Prep are part of an educational experiment known as blended learning that combines computer software, individual instruction and small-group learning. Early in 2013, the school found itself embroiled in a controversy over how much children should be taught by computers. New Jersey’s biggest teachers union sued to shut the school down, arguing that charter schools couldn’t emphasize online instruction until the New Jersey state legislature evaluates and approves it.
Hechinger’s Sarah Garland traveled to St. Lawrence, a remnant of the land bridge that spanned the Bering Strait thousands of years ago, where half of students drop out of high school, and only 2 percent graduate from college. Two schools there have received federal funding to improve, but they still struggle with difficult questions. How should teachers make school relevant to kids who spend much of their time hunting and gathering berries, with limited exposure to people other than their white teachers who have achieved academic success? Can the community raise test scores and send more students to university, without sacrificing its desire to preserve Native culture and language?
We covered both non-contiguous states in 2013, heading out to the Aloha state as part of our coverage of teachers unions. Hawaii has traditionally been one of the most labor-friendly states in the nation, but teachers there worked without a negotiated contract for about 20 months and spent the winter of 2012-13 locked in an ugly dispute with the state. The situation showed how radically the nation’s education landscape has changed in recent years and the crossroads teachers unions find themselves in.
A growing body of research indicates that teachers are the largest in-school factors in affecting student achievement and there’s an emerging consensus that how teacher candidates are chosen and trained can make all the difference in developing effective teachers. As part of a three–state series, Jackie Mader detailed the state of California’s teacher preparation programs. Although the state passed ambitious legislation meant to strengthen these programs in 1998, there is little more than anecdotal evidence –and no hard data – to show whether the programs and the teachers they graduate have improved.
In his State of the Union address, President Obama proposed universal preschool for 4-year-olds from low- and moderate-income families. But with much of a child’s brain development occurring in the first three years of life, advocates say even that is too late. Obama’s plan would also provide $15 billion over a decade for home visiting, where mothers get help, advice and encouragement even before their babies are born. Sara Neufeld took an in-depth look at a successful Chicago-based program.
As the award-winning series we began in 2012 continued, Newark’s Quitman Street Renew School adapted to accommodate more special needs children and grappled with teachers quitting midyear. Principal Erskine Glover gave us rare access to understand the many competing priorities of an urban educator striving for a turnaround in a place that is perennially labeled failing. Will he have anything to show for his grueling hours? Stay tuned for new updates in 2014.
In our second year covering Mississippi, Sarah Carr detailed the troubles retaining teachers faced by Friars Point, Miss., a fading town of 1,200. It’s a place where the current approach to school reform in America – firing teachers and closing schools – won’t work. There’s no qualified teacher available to take the place of a colleague who does not make the cut, no charter school operator poised to swoop in and take the reins of a school defined as failing, and little left to keep the community alive if the school closes outright.
Mississippi’s students score among the lowest in the country on national science exams.
During the 2011-12 school year, just 59 percent of high-school students met or exceeded state requirements in biology. Only 62 percent of Mississippi’s students graduate from high school within four years—far below the national average of about 78 percent. Of those who go on to college, just 10 percent earn a degree in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields, according to the U.S. Department of Education. Yet within the next five years, an estimated 46,000 STEM-related jobs will become available in Mississippi, and most will require a two- or four-year college degree.
The resources the affluent are pouring into their children are also the source of a growing divide between academic outcomes of the children of the well-to-do and those of everyone else’s kids. That widening academic divide means that kids who are born poor and kids who are born rich are staying that way once they reach adulthood. The test-score gap between the children of the poor (in the 10thpercentile of income) and the children of the wealthy (in the 90th percentile) is now more than 50 percent larger than the black-white achievement gap.
Hechinger spent the last few months of the year taking a deep dive into the new standards adopted by 45 states and the District of Columbia in hopes of improving teaching and learning. In Kentucky, the first state to introduce the Common Core State Standards into classrooms and to test on them, state officials have expressed concern that the pace of improvement is not fast enough. Districts have also seen varying success in changing how teachers teach. So far, the state’s experience suggests it will be a slow and potentially frustrating road ahead.