By Michael J. Petrilli
Advertisements for investment funds always say that past performance is no guarantee of future results; in the case of my forecasting skills, that’s probably a good thing. After all, in 2016 I claimed that Donald Trump would never become president, and a year ago I thought that 2017 might be the year of coming back together again. So in the spirit of third time’s a charm, not three strikes and you’re out, here’s what I see coming down the pike in 2018.
- NAEP. The release of the National Assessment of Educational Progress results is always big news, but I have a hunch that this one will be bigger than usual. That’s because it’s been a long time since we’ve seen significant progress on the Nation’s Report Card and analysts will consider this round a legitimate indicator of the success or failure of Obama-era reforms. I’ll admit to being worried that gains will be minimal. The headwinds of the 2008 recession and the changing demographic mix of the student population are significant. Still, if states’ higher standards and tougher tests are leading to real changes in the classroom—especially as schools adopt high quality curriculum like Eureka Math—we ought to start seeing a bump soon, at least at the fourth grade level. If not, color me worried. Meanwhile, state-by-state results will give us lots to chew on as well. Will Arizona continue to defy the doubters? Will Tennessee and D.C. continue their climb out of the cellar? And will curriculum-based reform prove its mettle in Louisiana? Stay tuned.
- The Janus Supreme Court case. I thought the Friedrichs decision was going to be the big ed reform news a few years ago—until Justice Scalia went and passed away. But its sequel is back, and barring another unforeseen event the forthcoming decision will likely place a significant curb on the fundraising abilities of the teachers unions. A majority of the justices are likely to rule that unions can’t charge “agency fees” to non-members—making it financially advantageous for more teachers to drop out of their union, and allowing non-members to cease paying into it. That’s especially likely for politically conservative teachers, who may be tired of supporting causes with which they disagree. Given that three in ten teachers nationwide voted for President Trump, it’s not hard to imagine the NEA especially losing a significant amount of revenue and clout. That in turn could weaken the relationship between the teachers unions and the Democratic Party, with big pro-reform implications, especially in blue states.
- Gubernatorial elections. I’ve given up on the notion that America’s political polarization will come to an end anytime soon. Both parties have too many incentives to play to their bases as the mid-term elections approach. But while the makeup of Congress will only have a marginal impact on education reform going forward, given ESSA’s devolution of power to the states, who wins the races for the governors’ mansions in the thirty-six states with elections this November could have major implications for the years ahead. California is the big prize; can reformers keep the union-endorsed Gavin Newsom from winning? In Colorado, can at least one of the reform candidates—Mike Johnston or Jared Polis—make it through the Democratic primary? Will a Democratic wave election spell doom even for popular, reform-seeking Republicans in deep blue states, namely Charlie Baker (Massachusetts), Larry Hogan (Maryland), and Bruce Rauner (Illinois)? And will reform ideas like accountability and school choice be more or less popular once all the electioneering is done?
- School discipline. 2017 ended with a flurry of activity and opining on the issue of school discipline, especially as it relates to Washington’s role in the matter. But while the Trump Administration has started to hear from both sides, it has yet to tip its hand about its intentions. As someone who wants the Obama-era policy on school discipline revised or rescinded, I very much hope we’ll see action on this front in 2018. Not that it’s easy, given the real conundrum involved in addressing racial discrimination without making our schools less safe or jumping to dubious conclusions from raw data on student suspensions. The fact that our president has a proclivity toward making racially divisive statements doesn’t help either.
- The first release of school ratings under ESSA. After years of debate and design, this summer will bring the debut of school report cards that reflect the new requirements and flexibility of the Every Student Succeeds Act. The greater focus on student growth versus mere proficiency in most states should make it somewhat likelier for high-poverty schools to get decent grades, but it could also result in many schools in affluent suburbs getting mediocre marks. It’s conceivable that this could spark an ed reform movement among soccer moms. Regrettably, yet another testing backlash is likelier.
So there you have it. Yes, it’s a mixed bag, with only glimmers of good news to look forward to. Then again, the dumpster fire that was 2017 turned out to be surprisingly kind to education reform; here’s hoping that 2018 will do the same.
In an important and mostly depressing New Year’s Day column in The Washington Post, veteran education journalist Jay Mathews describes the on-again, off-again “carnival ride” to “raise school standards” that he’s observed over the past half century. “We love making schools more accountable,” Mathews writes. “Then, we hate the idea.”
He cites a pair of recent setbacks. First, the striking decline in states that require high school students to pass a statewide exit test before receiving their high school diplomas. Five years ago, that was the practice in half the states. Today, as documented by the anti-testing group called FairTest, it’s a graduation requirement in just thirteen jurisdictions.
Second, Mathews notes the gloomy appraisal of State ESSA plans that was issued last month by Bellwether and the Collaborative for Student Success, which declares that “States largely have squandered the opportunity…to create stronger, more innovative education plans” and that many “proposed graduation rate goals that far exceeded proficiency rates by 20 percentage points or more, creating the potential for states to graduate students that are not adequately prepared for their futures.”
Although my Fordham colleagues, focusing on just a few key elements of states’ ESSA accountability plans, reached a cheerier conclusion, Mathews is struck by the country’s deep ambivalence toward the steps that would actually have to be taken to transform our education outcomes—outcomes that, as is widely known, have been essentially flat for decades for the U.S. student population as a whole, even as gains can be found on some metrics (e.g., NAEP results, SAT scores) for subpopulations.
It’s a big, diverse country, to be sure, and Mathews acknowledges some progress, albeit spotty and decentralized: “In every chapter of our long national education story, innovative teachers, often with parental help, have instituted deeper, livelier, more demanding lessons….Fortunately, our schools are still attracting many energetic and creative teachers who want to make a difference.”
Well said, and true, as far as it goes. Mathews is also bullish about Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate-type assessments that operate mainly in the private sector, are steadily growing, and aren’t much buffeted by politics. But the policy-driven reforms that typically derive from state or federal governments and are thus more vulnerable to shifting winds of public opinion and political game-playing, haven’t amounted to much when it comes to boosting achievement or holding schools accountable. “The rash of standardized testing after the No Child Left Behind Act became law in the early 2000s did not raise achievement averages very much,” he observes, but the backlash that has led states to ease back on testing isn’t being replaced by anything that’s apt to work better.
Whereupon, Mathews predicts, we’ll change course yet again, part of our pendulum-like approach to education reform: “This new decline of exit tests will almost certainly be followed by another burst of outrage and a renewed campaign to raise achievement.”
I’m often accused (especially by my friend Mike Petrilli) of Gloomy Gus–ness—and there’s some truth to that—but today I’m seeing a quintet of other worrisome trends that Jay Mathews didn’t mention.
- Because states are loath to institute multi-level diploma systems, fearing that they’ll be accused of having lower standards for some kids than for others, it’s impossible for even the most ambitious jurisdictions (e.g., Massachusetts) to set their high-school exit expectations at the level of true college-and-career readiness.
- The push to raise high-school graduation rates to all-time highs is—like most high-stakes structures—leading to all manner of dubious practices, including grade inflation, ersatz credit recovery “courses,” and outright finagling with student transcripts and records.
- Even places that have clung to statewide exit exams as a condition of high school graduation tend to get cold feet when reality hits—and then waive, defer, or offer workarounds such that not too many kids are actually denied diplomas just because they fail the test. In Ohio, for example, state leaders devised alternative graduation pathways for the class of ’18 based on such feeble criteria as attendance rates and course grades, in effect allowing allow students to leave high school without demonstrating actual readiness for anything that follows. Now those same leaders are weighing an extension of those workarounds for subsequent high school classes.
- Blurring the boundaries between secondary and postsecondary education has its pluses—such as acceleration opportunities for smart students—but some of what passes for “dual credit” in high school lacks any real collegiate quality control and some of what passes for corequisite courses on campus really is high school stuff and doesn’t deserve college credit. Along the way, programs with bona fide solid external standards, such as AP and IB, may get eclipsed by easier classes that guarantee such credit, and the term “college ready” holds ever less meaning.
- I’m no fan of NCLB and was a strong proponent of the ESSA approach to re-empowering states—and in principle I still am—but I also now find myself in a policy role (state board) in a deep-blue state (Maryland) where almost all the K–12 education shots are ultimately called by what Bill Bennett used to call “the blob,” i.e., adult interests that crave more for themselves but don’t otherwise want to disturb the education status quo. The Bellwether analysis of state ESSA plans suggests that something similar is happening in plenty of red and purple jurisdictions, too.
Happy New Year, anyone?
To ring in the New Year, we at the Ohio Gadfly have a tradition—two years running!—of predicting the top issues in education for the coming year. Once again, the job has fallen to yours truly to peer into the crystal ball and see what’s on the horizon in our corner of the world. Some may be more under-the-radar than the usual topics that make headlines, but are nevertheless worth taking stock of. Without further ado, here’s my top five.
5. Parent Power via Homeschooling or Private Education
Parents can make their voices heard and their preferences known in various ways within conventional school systems. But families also seem to be taking even bolder steps in their children’s education—either homeschooling them or enrolling them in non-chartered private schools, which operate under even less oversight than more traditional private schools. In Ohio, the number of homeschooled children increased from 25,565 to 28,539 between 2014-15 and 2015-16 (the most recent data available). Meanwhile, the number of non-chartered private schools is also on the rise. In 2014-15, the Ohio Department of Education listed 312 non-chartered schools; in the current school year, there are 425 such schools. It’s not clear why these upticks have occurred, but news outlets are taking note of this trend, including a recent look at Columbus-area families who formed an “educational cooperative” and coverage indicating that African American parents are embracing homeschooling. Of course, not all parents will find such off-the-grid options as attractive or feasible. But as Millennials become parents themselves (gasp!), we may start to see more families taking greater control of their kids’ education beyond the well-worn choice pathways, including public charter schools, private-school scholarships, interdistrict open-enrollment, and more.
4. Remaking School Report Cards
For Ohio parents and taxpayers, annual school report cards are an important check on the academic outcomes of students in their communities. But shortly after the release of the 2016-17 report cards, several lawmakers suggested that it might be time to reconsider how ratings are assigned to districts and schools. In December, a State Board of Education member put forth a resolution to create committees that would explore ways to improve report cards. These are promising signs that, in the coming year, Buckeye policymakers will address several key trouble spots in Ohio’s school rating system. As this debate moves forward, we at Fordham suggest a focus on achieving two goals: 1) simplifying the report card so that Ohioans can gain a clearer understanding of school and district performance; and 2) creating a better balance between the state’s achievement-based metrics and growth measures. If Ohio policy leaders make the right course corrections, a simpler, fairer report card should begin to emerge.
3. The Next Governor of Ohio
The November elections will bring the Buckeye State a new governor as John Kasich leaves office due to term limits. During his tenure, Governor Kasich has led several praiseworthy school reforms, including policies that place an emphasis on early literacy and strengthen oversight in the charter sector. What role will education play in the campaigns? Expect the Democratic candidate to advocate for increased spending on K-12 public schools and the GOP nominee to press for deregulation and greater local control. Interesting also will be the way school choice and testing/school accountability policies are debated during this election cycle. Regardless who wins, we know that he or she will be in a position to shape education policies entering the 2019 state budget debate. We certainly have ideas on what the signature issues should be—e.g., reforms such as direct funding for choice programs and unwinding funding caps and guarantees should be atop any governor’s list. Stay tuned in the coming year for more commentary on what we think the next governor should tackle upon entering office.
2. High School Graduation Requirements
Last spring, policymakers backtracked on the state’s updated graduation requirements by creating various options that the class of 2018 could meet in order to receive a diploma. Given the debate at the recent State Board of Education meetings, it appears that at least some policymakers are ready to extend similar alternatives to the class of 2019 and beyond. Unfortunately, these options include softball criteria such as attending school regularly, accruing a modest number of volunteer or intern hours, or completing an undefined capstone project. Over the past year, we at Fordham (and a few others) have urged state leaders to maintain a high bar, though also suggesting possible tweaks that wouldn’t obliterate standards. Perhaps the only thing stopping policymakers from extending these options to future classes is educators who take a stand against carelessly promoting students. Some already are: In a recent NPR article, several teachers shared their disgust at this practice, with one commenting, “this culture of passing [ill-prepared students] is endemic.”
1. Rebirth of a Liberal Arts Education
Technology and career-oriented training seems to be fashionable in education circles these days. In many regards, this is a positive trend: An education well-grounded in STEM and/or technical fields is critical for young people who will compete for the jobs of the future. And technological advancements can unlock personalized learning opportunities for students. But has the pendulum swung too far? Various commentators seem to think so. My last prediction—or perhaps it’s wishful thinking on my part—for the new year is that K-12 schools will start moving towards a proper liberal arts education—making certain that all students have the opportunity to learn broadly (and deeply) across areas such as literature, history, civics, geography, and the fine arts starting in the early elementary grades. The humanities are where students learn to reflect and think clearly about what is right and just; true and honorable; good and beautiful—all things that are of equal importance for vibrant civic, professional, and family life as learning how to type, code, or weld. We’ve already seen several schools across the nation committing deeply to a classical liberal arts education; it would be great to see more schools like these take root in Ohio. Moreover, all schools—no matter their focus—can implement rich, knowledge-based curricula that allow students to thrive academically. With any luck, 2018 will mark the first year of a renaissance for the liberal arts in K-12 education.
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These are the five education topics that might make waves in our neck of the woods. Of course, other important topics will almost certainly make headlines, including the possible resolution of the ECOT court case, debate on teacher licensing and evaluations, the continuing evolution of the charter sector, potential improvements to Ohio’s voucher programs, and more. What do you foresee? The comments are open—and yes, Happy New Year.
On this week's podcast, special guest Chris Minnich, who is stepping down after five years at the helm of the Council of Chief State School Officers, joins Mike Petrilli and Alyssa Schwenk to discuss the future of state education policymaking in the ESSA era. During the Research Minute, Amber Northern highlights the best research studies of 2017.
Amber’s Research Minute
Amber Northern highlights the best research studies of 2017.
A November report from Georgetown’s Center on Education and the Workforce examines the changes in the job market from 1991 to 2015, specifically the number of good jobs without a bachelor’s degree nationally and by state. Defining “good jobs” is subjective, of course, but here they are defined as those that pay at least $35,000 annually for workers under the age of forty-five (or $17 per hour for a full-time job) and $45,000 for older employees (or $22 per hour full time). In 2015, these jobs had median earnings of $55,000 annually.
The report uses annual survey data administered by the U.S. Census Bureau called the Current Population Survey Annual Social and Economic Supplement for years 1992 to 2016. Data for workers between the ages of twenty-five and sixty-four are used to estimate employment by state, as well as the level of educational attainment, industry, and occupation.
In looking at the national breakdown of good jobs, 55 percent of those workers hold at least a bachelor’s degree. And of the 61 percent of employed adults who don’t have a bachelor’s degree, 40 percent have a good job. But this differs between states. In Wyoming, for example, 62 percent without the credential have good jobs.
Overall, the share of good jobs for workers without a bachelor’s degree declined from about 60 percent of workers in 1991 to 45 percent in 2015. But variation among states is wide. Thirty-four states (mostly in the South and West) added good jobs for these workers over the nearly twenty-five years covered by the study; sixteen states and the District of Columbia had fewer, and they are mostly located in the Northeast and Midwest—areas hit hard by manufacturing declines.
The loss of jobs in traditionally blue-collar industries, including manufacturing, transportation, utilities, construction, and natural resources, is largely to blame for this decline. Nationally, blue-collar employment has fell 30 percent since 1991, driven primarily by drops in the manufacturing sector. But that trend doesn’t hold in all industries in all states. In thirty-eight states, for example, blue-collar jobs in non-manufacturing industries like construction and transportation are on the rise. And many blue-collar jobs have increasingly been replaced by skilled-service jobs, such as those in the healthcare and financial services fields.
Moreover, prospects differ based on whether workers without a bachelor’s degree have earned an associate’s degree or attended at least some college. Good jobs held by high school graduates who have no higher education have declined by 8 percentage points over the last quarter century. But the share of good jobs held by those with an associate’s degree has increased in every state, and has gone up 9 percentage points nationally. In Minnesota, for instance, associate degree holders increased their share of good jobs by 31 percentage points in nearly twenty-five years.
The bottom line is that the best economic outlook for those without bachelor’s degrees are now found more often in skilled-services industries, such as healthcare and financial services, but even in those areas, workers increasingly need at least some college education.
SOURCE: Anthony Carnevale et al., “Good Jobs that Pay without a BA,” Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce (November 2017).