Here are five of the biggest education stories of the year — and a look ahead to the issues that will drive 2020.
Stagnant Student Performance and Widening Achievement Gaps
The year ended with disappointing results on two big tests of student achievement. The National Assessment of Educational Progress, the gold-standard federal test of fourth and eighth graders across the country, found that only one-third of students were proficient readers and that student achievement in both reading and math had stalled over the past 10 years.
Separately, according to the Program for International Student Assessment, an international exam, American 15-year olds have been stagnant in both math and reading for two decades.
Perhaps most troubling, on both tests, the gap between low-performing and high-performing students has grown, despite decades of education reforms meant to close those divides.
The results have led to a vociferous debate over what to blame, from subpar reading instruction to poverty to uneven implementation of the Common Core, the decade’s most ambitious school reform effort. Expect that debate to continue in 2020, especially as several cases travel through the federal court system arguing that schools are failing to adequately prepare American children for citizenship and for productive lives.
A Crisis in Elite College Admissions
The most explosive education story of the year was undoubtedly Varsity Blues, the federal government’s investigation of a corrupt college admissions consultant, Rick Singer, and the dozens of parents who paid him to cheat and bribe their children’s way into elite colleges like Stanford, Yale and the University of Southern California. News of prison sentences for TV stars and business leaders who fabricated athletic records and standardized test scores for their offspring captured media attention. But the case was far more than just tabloid fodder. It called attention to deep-seated inequities in the college admissions process, from unequal access to quality advising and test prep to the ability of wealthy parents to essentially purchase disability diagnoses that can earn a student extra time to take the SAT or ACT exams.
There was also a renewed focus on the role of race. A growing group of colleges have made the SAT and ACT exams optional in an effort to diversify their student bodies. The sprawling and influential University of California system is considering whether it will follow suit as it faces a lawsuit claiming the tests have spawned a vast prep industry that discriminates against low-income and black and Latino students.
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All of this coincided with a closely-watched federal lawsuit in Boston arguing discrimination against Asian Americans in Harvard’s admissions process. The case was brought by Students for Fair Admissions, a group led by Edward Blum, a conservative legal activist who has long fought to overturn affirmative action policies and has successfully challenged the Voting Rights Act.
A judge ruled in Harvard’s favor in October, but Blum’s group quickly filed an appeal that may reach the Supreme Court in coming years. The case has called attention not only to potential biases against Asian Americans but also to the benefits that accrue to several majority-white groups, including the children of donors, the children of alumni and students from rural areas.
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Declining Trust in Higher Education
A four-year college degree remains valuable on the job market, but with increasing cynicism about admissions and high tuition costs — and with about a third of students who start college dropping out, often with debt — more Americans are asking whether college is worth it.
The concern cuts across political divides. On the right, a survey from the Pew Research Center found that 59% of Republicans and those who lean Republican believe colleges have a negative effect on the country.
Large majorities of those conservatives said they distrusted colleges because they did not prepare students for the workforce, did not promote free speech and because professors “are bringing their political and social views into the classroom.”
Democrats who responded to the survey were more likely to worry about the cost of college — an issue that has animated the Democratic presidential primary, with energetic debate over whether it makes more sense to provide free public college for everyone, or only for those whose families earn below a certain income threshold.
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President Donald Trump’s education secretary, Betsy DeVos, continued to draw criticism for rolling back oversight of for-profit colleges and weakening protections for bilked students.
Expect arguments over college costs to become even more politically salient as the presidential race speeds ahead in 2020.
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The Democratic Party Backed Away From Charter Schools
Under President Barack Obama, the Democratic Party embraced nonprofit charter schools, which are publicly funded but privately managed and serve disproportionate numbers of low-income black and Latino children. The schools educate about 6% of U.S. public school students. Charters in cities like New York and Boston have shown promising achievement gains. But the sector has come under increasing fire on the left for harsh discipline practices, contributing to school segregation and serving fewer students with special needs. Teachers unions tend to oppose the schools’ expansion, since most of them are not unionized.
This year, two leading Democratic presidential candidates, Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, promised to end federal funding for the growth of charter schools. Mayor Pete Buttigieg has said he would demand greater accountability from charters, while former Vice President Joe Biden’s education plan does not mention them at all.
The party’s shift has prompted a protest movement of black and Latino parents — core Democratic voters — who say charters are their children’s best option in a landscape of underperforming neighborhood public schools.
Charters’ continued expansion may depend, in part, on who is elected president next year.
Democrats Continue to Debate School Segregation
One of the Democratic presidential primary’s biggest flash points came in June, when, during a debate, Sen. Kamala Harris seized on Biden’s history of opposition to federal busing efforts aimed at alleviating school segregation.
That exchange focused on the 1970s, but school segregation remains a defining feature of the U.S. education system today, and a problem that all four of the Democratic presidential front-runners have vowed to address through federal action.
Yet even as the national Democratic Party coalesces around a vision of more integrated schools, Democratic voters in states and cities across the country often remain reluctant to embrace desegregation of their own children’s classrooms.
In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to admit more black and Latino students to elite public high schools failed amid intense opposition. In the suburbs of Baltimore, affluent parent protesters succeeded in preventing their neighborhood high school from being part of a plan to more equally distribute low-income students across schools.
There are some bright spots. Several diverse New York City neighborhoods are forging ahead with ground-up integration efforts that have been broadly embraced by parents. And in California, Attorney General Xavier Becerra announced an unusual desegregation settlement between the state and the suburban school district of Sausalito Marin City — part of a new wave of educational equity efforts that rely on the rights guaranteed to children in state constitutions.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times .