Education Reform Developments to Watch For in 2018

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.

flickr/Howard Pulling

1. 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.

2. 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.

3. 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?

4.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.

5.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.

— Mike Petrilli

Mike Petrilli is president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, research fellow at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, and executive editor of Education Next.

This post originally appeared on Flypaper.


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