It’s been a tumultuous year for America’s schools—one marked by an expanding minority-student population, an increasingly discontent teaching force, a backlash against standardized testing, and shifting understanding of education reform. It’s seen greater attention on areas traditionally dismissed as nonessential: things like early-childhood education, after-school programs, and project-based learning. It’s also seen evolving attitudes toward discipline, with tactics such as restorative justice starting to replace zero-tolerance approaches, including in high-poverty urban districts. Debates over how to address disparities in achievement have been highly politicized. The ed-tech market has continued to grow.
Education is often touted as a means for boosting social mobility and making communities more equal, but inequality in school funding and resources has made that difficult to achieve, especially amid increasing poverty rates. Segregation in districts, both tacit and explicit, is holding scores of children back, and performance on math and reading assessments has remained relatively stagnant. President Obama has just signed into law an act that will replace the widely despised No Child Left Behind, but whether it’ll succeed in its goals—boosting the attainment of disadvantaged students, reducing the amount of testing taking place in schools, promoting classroom innovation, and so on—is far from guaranteed.
We reached out to some of the leading scholars of, experts on, and advocates for K-12 education, and asked them what, as the year comes to an end, is giving them cause for hope and despair. Below are their answers, lightly edited for length and clarity.
Joshua Angrist, professor of economics at MIT
Reason for despair: “No Excuses” pedagogy is characterized by a long school day and year, an emphasis on traditional reading and math, extensive use of Teach for America interns, data-driven instruction (just as pro sports teams use data and review video), and an emphasis on discipline and comportment. Our research team and other colleagues have repeatedly and rigorously shown the power of this approach to produce life-changing gains for students who would otherwise do poorly (the “No Excuses” moniker refers to schools and not students: No excuses allowed for a failure to educate). I’m worried because the foundations of this success are under attack: The federal government and many districts now propose to limit the testing that provides essential feedback and accountability. And it has been regular, reliable testing that’s laid the empirical foundation for discussions of school quality and educational inequality. Also worrying: In Massachusetts and elsewhere, concerns about racial imbalance in school discipline are making it harder to use suspension to establish a structured and safe school environment (the primary beneficiaries of which are poor African American children).
Reason for hope: In the 21st-century, administrations from both parties expanded the federal role in education, encouraging reform and experimentation to an unprecedented degree. These policy explorations have been extraordinarily fruitful, yielding findings that are as clear and convincing as any in the history of social science. The most important of these findings is my reason for hope: Although charter schools vary in quality, schools adhering to “No Excuses” pedagogy (like KIPP, and many of the charters in Boston, Denver, New Orleans, and New York) consistently produce spectacular achievement gains for low-income minority students—enough to close the black-white achievement gap in a few years of enrollment. We see this in data from randomized admissions lotteries and from districts (like the New Orleans Recovery School District) that assign responsibility for failing schools to “No Excuses” networks. Research designs exploiting lotteries and takeovers take the guesswork and politics out of the analysis of education policy.
Charles Best, founder and CEO of DonorsChoose.org
Reason for despair: We already know teachers go above and beyond to give their students an excellent education, a lasting love of learning, and the self-confidence to succeed. But teachers can only do so much with the resources they have. More and more, projects on our site tell us that teachers face a large population of young people who go to school cold or hungry. In addition to school supplies, they are requesting food, warmth and care for their students. As a society, it’s time to confront that problem.
Reason for hope: More than ever, students understand that they have the power to shape their own education. We gave young people the access to do that through crowdfunding this year with an expansion into student-led classroom projects. After just a few months, hundreds of students have led the charge by posting projects that matter to their communities. At Ritenour High School—a 15-minute drive from Ferguson, Missouri—one group started a reading buddy program with younger students at their school. Their project, “Reader to Leader: Mentor Program,” delivered 300 elementary-school books for their initiative. It’s just one of more than 840 projects that students have successfully gotten funded on their own terms.
Eliza Byard, executive director of the Gay, Lesbian, and Straight Education Network (GLSEN)
Reason for despair: I despair over the growing number of so-called Religious Freedom bills that would grant licenses to discriminate—even for education professionals working with children—and at the schools that seek permission to discriminate by getting religious exemptions to their Title IX responsibilities. My mom was a teacher. She always told me being with people who are different than you, even if you disagree with them completely, is one of the most valuable aspects of school. You have to learn to articulate your ideas and defend your beliefs, and really listen to understand. “RFRAs” and religious exemptions are about withdrawing from that social contract. They also do real harm to youth—when an education professional, a counselor or a nurse, refuses to deal with an LGBT student, simply because of their sexual orientation or gender identity/expression, it sends a horrific message.
Reason for hope: I get hope from the dedication and goodwill of great educators everywhere. I have seen it time and time again: When education professionals learn about how discrimination and violence hurt their LGBT students, they want to know what they can do. During my tenure, as GLSEN has raised awareness of these challenges, we’ve seen an explosion in adult support for LGBT youth in schools. In 2001, only about 60 percent of LGBT students could identify a single supportive adult in school. Today, more than 95 percent can. Good people want to do the best by all the students they work with. When we show them what they can do, they’re ready to act. And great teachers make all the difference in a students life—when they have that support, they do better in school, feel better about themselves, and feel more hopeful and determined about their own future. It’s a joy to see, and a privilege to support educators in making that difference.
Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education emeritus at Stanford University and president of the Learning Policy Institute
Reason for despair: Fifty years after passage of the Voting Rights Act and 60 years after the Supreme Court decided Brown v. Board of Education, America’s education system is still one of the most segregated and inequitable in the Western world. The most advantaged public schools spend many times more than the poorest, and resource allocations exacerbate race and class inequities in many states. While some students attend schools in palatial settings offering small classes, expert teachers, and high-tech computers, others attend a growing number of apartheid schools serving low-income students of color in crumbling buildings, where a revolving door of substitutes and untrained teachers try to teach in overcrowded classrooms lacking enough desks, not to mention books and learning materials. In the last few years, matters have gone from bad to worse: As poverty levels for children have grown to one in four nationwide, and the number of homeless children has doubled, states have been cutting funds for both education and social services. In 2015, at least 30 states were funding their schools at lower levels than they had before the Great Recession, with those serving the neediest students often the hardest hit. Because of the aggressive neglect of so many our children, the United States has slipped to the level of many developing countries in virtually every category of child welfare and education. This situation is perhaps the greatest threat to our national security. In today’s knowledge economy, we need every young person to be well-supported and well-educated, able to find a good job and pay taxes to pay for the social security and health care of the growing number of seniors if our social contract is to survive.
Reason for hope: This month, Congress passed and the President signed a new federal education act into law—one that could begin to change our current landscape of inequitably funded schools, too often focused on a low-level curriculum unsuited to our 21st-century needs. The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) replaced No Child Left Behind, a much-criticized law whose emphasis on high-stakes testing frequently narrowed the curriculum to the content and format of low-level multiple-choice reading and math tests, especially in low-income schools. Under this law, inequalities in educational access grew, while achievement stalled and then dropped on measures assessing higher-order thinking skills, like the international PISA tests and the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The new law encourages states to focus on students’ opportunities to learn (the resources and quality of curriculum and teaching they receive), as well as a broader range of outcomes—such as graduation rates, completion of college-and-career-ready coursework, and richer measures of student learning that evaluate the critical thinking, collaboration, and problem-solving skills essential for success in today’s society and workplaces. If this law is successful in rekindling state innovation, while focusing them on educational quality and equity, it could provide the shot in the arm the nation needs to reclaim the American Dream for the next generation of young people and their families.
Lily Eskelsen Garcia, president of the National Education Association
Reason for despair: I don’t despair; I’m an educator, so I live in a constant state of hopefulness. But I am frustrated and angry about the inequality that denies many of our students a great education. Here’s just one example of what this means: overcrowded classrooms, like the class of 39 fifth-graders I taught in Utah. In those conditions, students don’t get the individualized, one-on-one time they need to thrive. We are [one of the richest nations] in the world, yet we have not ensured that all students, regardless of ZIP code, have the well-staffed and well-resourced schools they need. We know a well-rounded education offers students a way out of poverty, yet the schools serving the poorest students are often impoverished. We say every student who’s able and has the desire should have access to college, yet we don’t make higher education accessible and affordable. These disparities are immoral and costly for our nation. But fighting for equity is our calling as NEA members. Our frustration and anger just make us fight harder.
Reason for hope: What gives me the most hope right now is that everyone is focusing on education. “No Child Left Untested” was such bad policy that it got people’s attention, and it was the law for more than a decade. It created a crisis in public education, but we can use this crisis to move forward. President Obama signed a law that ends test-and-punish policies and opens the door for real teaching and learning. We finally have an opportunity for transparency and an opening to make every school a place that inspires students’ curiosity, imagination, and desire to learn. We will have meaningful indicators to show us in black and white what educators have been saying all along: Not all students have what they need for success. And we can finally begin addressing these opportunity gaps. This could be a new golden age for education, but we’re not just hoping it happens. We’re organizing with parents, business leaders, and communities to make it happen.
Anya Kamenetz, lead education blogger for NPR and the author of The Test
Reason for despair: The continued tacit acceptance of deep racial and social segregation across most of our school system, from prekindergarten through colleges and grad schools. All this year we have been hearing eruptions of despair across the country from students who have climbed the heights of elite education only to brave chilly winds of hostility and aggression. Some members of the highest court in the land seem to believe that the status quo is just and right. I believe this comes from a basic confusion about the nature of excellence in education. A high-performing institution can’t be defined any longer by who is barred from its doors.
Reason for hope: The requirements of No Child Left Behind, with its insistence on math and reading benchmarks, have been softened. Thanks to the work of countless researchers, policymakers, and educators, I see real and serious attention being paid to cultivating and measuring the human tasks of education: communication, collaboration, empathy, creativity, self-awareness, and self-management, to name a few.
We have a lot to learn, but it seems that schools that excel in building these qualities are places where students are loved and supported by highly engaged teachers, where they work on getting along better, play together, satisfy their curiosity, make art, try new technologies, and explore new ideas. I believe this work will continue to build momentum. Measuring what matters can help tug schools in the right direction.
David Kelley, founder and chairman of IDEO and founder of Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design
Reason for despair: In my work across different domains and disciplines, one of the biggest sources of frustration for me has been the dismal state of K-12 education. Today’s public-school system is the same one we’ve had since the Industrial Revolution, and it’s no longer relevant. Sure, there are great ideas and initiatives scattered here and there, but they’re not making a large enough dent in the system as a whole. And one of the main reasons the current system is not working is because we don’t value teachers enough. Though we all collectively say we value education and that we value our kids, somehow that esteem is not reflected in the reality of the salaries and status of our educators. And when we don’t value teachers, the system as a whole suffers. Plus, with more emphasis on grades and test scores, we don’t make the necessary time and space for the things we actually want for our kids—things like social and emotional skills and creativity.
Reason for hope: As a designer, I have had the great pleasure of seeing the impact of design on some of the most important innovations of our time. The biggest surprise for me was realizing that the innovations themselves are not the most exciting outcome of design—it’s seeing what happens when people are able to unlock their creative confidence. Whether it’s a business leader, a politician, the head of an NGO, or a student, anyone who has opted out of believing that they’re creative, it’s exciting to see that sudden spark of realization. We see that glimmer in their eyes and they’re thrilled by the ability to flex those creative muscles to solve just about any challenge. With a little help, that confidence grows, and it can have a profound affect on their lives and what they are able to accomplish. From where I sit, the more people who have confidence in their creative abilities, the more hope I have for our future.
Amanda Ripley, Emerson Senior Fellow and the author of The Smartest Kids in the World
Reason for despair: Countries around the world have become measurably smarter in recent years—which should be a reason for hope, I know. But bear with me. Fifteen years ago, teenagers in Poland scored below their American peers on the PISA test of critical thinking; today, Polish students perform well above our kids (despite Poland’s significant child poverty and political dysfunction). A greater percentage of Polish kids now graduate from high school than our kids. So what’s wrong with that? Well, it’s fantastic for Poland, but over the same time period, the U.S. has not budged. We remain subpar in math and science, and average in reading. Even our richest kids do worse in math than rich kids in 27 other countries. I’d feel better if we were trying our hardest and not succeeding; but we are not. We still don’t do the few things we know help all kids in every time zone: make teacher colleges serious and selective; offer all kids quality pre-k; and for God’s sake, stop tracking young kids into different schools and academic programs based on their alleged abilities. I am waiting for one U.S. state—just one—to do those three things with relentless focus. I hope I live to see it.
Reason for hope: Washington, D.C., where I live and where my child attends public school, has done something almost no other U.S. district has managed to pull off. The city has turned teaching into what appears to be a serious profession. For real. You can earn $125,000 in fewer than 10 years on the job here. You can coach other teachers and influence policy and curriculum. Teachers I know spend more time talking about the intellectual challenges of the craft than most teachers I meet in the rest of the country, where many school systems are still too broken for such conversations. It’s also true that D.C. still has a very long way to go, and I could list a hundred things that could be better. But I have to admit it: This city has proven that it is possible to treat teaching with something close to the respect it deserves—even in America. And that change is always going to be Step 1. Nothing else will work. Now just 99 more steps to go.
Diane Ravitch, historian of American education and author of Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools
Reason for despair: In my field, public education is under unprecedented attack by a bipartisan coalition that calls themselves “reformers.” It includes the Obama administration, the Republican leadership, the Gates Foundation, the Eli Broad Foundation, the Walton Family Foundation, hedge-fund managers, ALEC, and rightwing governors. They seek alternatives to democratically controlled public schools, such as privately managed charters, for-profit charter schools, virtual schools, and, in some states, vouchers for religious schools. The reformers’ excessive reliance on standardized testing as both the measure and goal of schooling has corrupted education. Because of the reformers’ attacks on teachers, experienced teachers are retiring early, and the number entering teaching has dropped sharply.
Reason for hope: The reasons for hope are two-fold: first, the public doesn’t want to abandon its community public schools. No district or state has ever voted to privatize its schools. Second, every so-called “reform” has failed to promote better education or equal opportunity for the neediest children. Neither charters nor vouchers consistently get better results for children, unless they exclude the weakest students. Measuring teachers by student test scores has been a costly failure. The great majority of the public admires their public schools and their teachers and wants them to be better, more equitably funded, not eliminated. If democracy works, these misguided “reforms” will be consigned to the ashcan of history.
Dale Russakoff, reporter for The Washington Post and author of The Prize: Who’s in Charge of America’s Schools?
Reason for despair: My primary reason for despair is the polarized state of relations between reformers and defenders of the status quo in public education. As these two groups make war over everything from the growth of charters to the role of test scores in teacher evaluations, critical issues for children go unattended. One example is the dire financial state of school districts in cities where charter schools are growing rapidly. When children leave traditional public schools for charters, the dollars leave with them, and districts are unable to downsize as quickly as the money exits. Districts in Newark, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Detroit, are facing budget crises that have major consequences for learning, and they still educate more than half the children in those cities. The only way to address this issue is for every force in education—politicians, unions, philanthropists, reformers, parents, community activists—to make difficult compromises and commitments necessary to stabilize school districts in the face of charter growth. Polarization makes this impossible to contemplate, and children are the losers.
Reason for hope: I find hope in the growing attention of politicians and policymakers to forces outside K-12 classrooms that impinge on learning, particularly for the poorest children. The mounting emphasis on early-childhood education, the renewed interest in community schools—with services for adults and neighborhoods as well as for children—and the movement to create trauma-informed classrooms for children exposed to violence all reflect this trend. The education-reform movement argued that poverty was an “excuse” for failure, but these developments embody a shift in perspective: America may not have to solve poverty before improving education for the poorest children, but we definitely have to address it.
Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers
Reason for despair: It’s easy to despair when politicians stoke fear and hatred, and ignore the millions of Americans struggling to get by. Poverty, wage stagnation, income inequality, violence, discrimination, lack of opportunity—all of this impacts our kids. For many, school has been a way out, a safe sanctuary to grow in the face of incredible odds, to get the skills they need to succeed in life. But the recession dealt a heavy blow to our schools and working families, No Child Left Behind took the focus off equity and put it on testing, and privatizers swooped in to capitalize on a system struggling from swift, unbridled change with little support, financial or otherwise. After more than a decade, we know that this “test, punish, and privatize” strategy hasn’t worked to help all students succeed.
Reason for hope: Today, the tide is turning in public education. Policymakers on Capitol Hill, heeding the calls of parents and teachers, have rolled back high-stakes testing and put the focus back on logical decision-making, listening to those closest to kids and targeting funding to support the children who need it most and the public schools they attend. States have the chance to take the ball and move plans that let teachers teach and students learn. We know that high-quality early-childhood education, additional pathways like career-and-technical education, community schools that provide wraparound services, and changing instruction to include project-based learning are ways to engage students, address poverty, and make every public school a place where parents want to send children, educators want to work and kids are engaged. We need the resources and support to get there. And by doing so in 2016, we can bring back the joy of learning and widespread economic opportunity. When we do that, we will help kids, families, and communities get ahead and stay ahead.
Eric Hanushek, senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University
Reason for despair: Improved education is the key to the future for the U.S., as our economy depends on having a highly skilled workforce. While most people give lip service to the desire to improve schools in order to invest in the future, they often stop short of endorsing any significant changes in the schools. This reflects, in my opinion, two factors—an imperfect understanding of just how important quality schooling is for the country and complacency with the current situation. The complacency enters from the fact that the U.S. remains a wealthy country, leading to a sense that maybe it is alright just to keep going along as we are. From this complacency springs a myopia that is difficult to overcome but that could harm the future of the country.
Reason for hope: Over the past five years, my sense of hope and optimism has actually overtaken despair with U.S. schools. First, there is now broad recognition that quality teachers can lead to revitalized schools that are competitive internationally. Second, there is a new willingness by legislatures in a majority of states to push actively for more flexibility in hiring, paying, and retaining teachers and for improved teacher evaluations so that we identify the teachers that we want to nurture and retain. By focusing attention on the effectiveness of teachers in raising student achievement, these progressive states are setting the stage for U.S. schools to climb out of their doldrums and to compete with the top schools around the developed countries of the world. For the first time in the past half century there appears to be a strong possibility that we will serve all of our students and that we will restore the strength of the U.S. workforce.