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5 Big Education Stories to Watch in 2014

What will the future of education look like? These five stories will give us a clue.
 
 
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Photo Credit: Oksana Kuzmina via Shutterstock.com

 
 
 
 

For people looking to "disrupt” public education, it’s become requisite to bemoan the “educational status quo” — a phrase meant to evoke images of poor kids striving against the impediments of failing schools and incompetent teachers. Those who question these disruptors’ methodologies are cast aside as hidebound intransigents who likely have some vested interest in an ossified order.

But as a report from Bolder Broader Approach, a progressive advocacy group, noted last year, a new “status quo” has not so quietly taken root. “A popular set of market-oriented education ‘reforms,’” such as test-based teacher evaluation and public school choice, “look more like the new status quo than real reform.”

After more than a decade, such reforms have become the norm, and efforts to reverse them are no longer acts of resistance but of upheaval. While 2013 saw unprecedented boycotts of standardized testing, 2014 will see the implementation of the first coast-to-coast standardized tests aligned with the Common Core. Economic inequality has again become part of the education conversation, as states continue to cut funds for schools.

In 2014, several new and ongoing education battles will show whether the privatizing trends of the last decade will reverse in the years to come or simply stall. In courthouses, statehouses, and school communities nationwide, larger trends and crucial precedents are coming into view. These five stories will help define the shape of education to come.

The Sharp End of the Common Core: Assessments

By now everyone has a word to say about Common Core State Standards, the federally funded, foundation-backed set of “rigorous” and “internationally benchmarked” curriculum guidelines developed to make test scores comparable—and educational gewgaws marketable— across state lines. But fewer people can name the two testing coalitions tasked with bringing these standards in multiple-choice form to classrooms in 42 states this year.

These new assessments won’t come cheap or easy. The entirely computer-based new tests require costly technical capacities that many schools lack. For more than half of the coalitions’ states, testing costs will rise. By the coalitions’ own estimates, students will spend up to ten hours cumulatively at the testing screen.

The Common Core gets cast a monolithic entity, but it wouldn’t be a free-market reform if the undertaking weren’t composed of massive federal initiatives, dozens of interlocking nonprofit participants, diffuse state-level coalitions and scores of well-recompensed contractors. While the standards themselves were developed by two coalitions of state executives, the design and implementation of new tests has become the province of two new organizations: PARCC (the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers) and SmarterBalanced.

The Department of Education granted the coalitions a combined $330 million to develop computerized tests aligned with the CCSS. Each in turn subcontracted its test design and technological components to a bevy of private contractors. As is usual in matters Common Core, the professional connections and ulterior interests between the nonprofits, consultants and hangers-on approaches a level of complexity on par with quantum physics.

The tests emerge from this morass ready for implementation in 2014-2015. But several deep-red states facing mounting Common Core backlash, most recently Alaska, have backed out of the coalitions. Florida cited “excessive involvement by the United States Department of Education” in its decision to withdraw. But the new assessments will also meet a burgeoning, mostly progressive movement of parents and educators committed to opting their kids out of standardized tests in record numbers this year.

Reaction to these new tests, from how many states pull out to how many students opt out, will influence the fate of both the Common Core standards and US standardized testing.