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The 8 biggest education stories of 2015

With a contentious superintendent search in Minneapolis and an ugly school board race in St. Paul, 2015 saw a lot of waiting to see where chips would fall.

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In terms of education, 2015 was a year of transition. Transition in both Minneapolis, where the school district has been conducting a contentious superintendent search, and St. Paul, where an ugly school board race surfaced division, transition within many Twin Cities education advocacy organizations, transition in this very blog. There was a lot of waiting to see where chips would fall.

Looming over it all: Uncertainty about what the policy playing field would look like at the year’s close. Would Congress break its gridlock and pass a new version of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act? Would a new law spell the end of the era of accountability? Where would the “levers” for change be located in a post-No Child Left Behind world?

Forthwith, an 8-part review of the year in education:

1. The passage of the Every Student Succeeds Act
On Dec. 10, President Barack Obama signed a new guiding education law into place. ESSA, as it was shorthanded even before passage, was widely heralded as a really good compromise. Republicans and teacher unions got a rollback of the feds’ role in education while civil rights organizations and accountability proponents got a continued mandate for assessment data. Accountability is now the purview of the states, which is good news or bad depending on where you live and what you want it to look like. In Minnesota, Gov. Mark Dayton and Education Commissioner Brenda Cassellius are mighty proud of the accountability system they created in recent years. Leaders in schools with high numbers of kids of color and data geeks aren’t so sure. Expect a fast and furious legislative session with all the hot buttons — teacher evaluations, charter school autonomy, what kind of tests will be given — on the table and ripe for rollback.

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2. Dayton’s push for universal preschool
It seems so long ago that Dayton called for a special session over the Legislature’s failure to fund universal preschool for 4-year-olds. The early childhood community, long promised that a budget surplus would be directed to a scholarship program for impoverished kids ages birth to 5, howled. The only major player in education that supported the idea was Education Minnesota, which, because the preschool in question would be school-based, would have gained an extra grade of classrooms to be helmed by unionized teachers. Expect this one to come back, but look for signals Dayton may be more open to considering a two-pronged approach. 

3. #BlackLivesMatter
Lots of people go into teaching or become active in education to change lives. Outrage over continued societal inequities and violence against people of color swept schools over the last year. Students walked out, died in and got themselves arrested on freeways. Their teachers cheered. Principals attended to the emotional well-being of students from neighborhoods where the unrest was front and center. Now that the school-to-prison pipeline has been thrown into stark relief, expect discussion to continue. Also expect many of those protesting peacefully now to begin feuding in the new year over whose agenda is the true equity agenda.

4. Madaline Edison
Despondent about the scope of the challenges in education, four years ago kindergarten and first grade teacher Edison began asking educators to join forces to think about how to raise their voices in policy discussions. She found no shortage of kindred spirits and in 2013, the Minnesota chapter of Educators4Excellence was born with 300 members. This year, the group boasts more than 1,000 members. Minnesota E4E teachers Holly Kragthorpe and Ben MacKenzie were at the U.S. Capitol talking about ESSA. And Kragthorpe was at the state Capitol talking about holding teacher preparation programs accountable. Many more E4E members blogged and tweeted and generally shared their lived experiences and hopes for their students. And you know what? They got heard.

5. St. Paul blows up
How to cram this contretemps into a paragraph or two? Tensions over Superintendent Valeria Silva’s strategies for erasing racial inequities boiled over, providing a focal point around which the St. Paul Federation of Teachers organized parents to elect a new school board majority. In the process, smart, committed and well-intended people tore into each other. What about 2016? Election day has come and gone and the controversy and associated invective have not abated. With teacher contract negotiations ongoing, don’t expect that to change any time soon.

6. The 10th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina
This goes on the list because education advocates and policymakers throughout the country spent a good swath of 2015 focused on New Orleans, where a mostly charter school district rebirth was propelled in part by the flood. Depending on their vantage, ideologues declared the experiment a success or failure. Researchers mostly agreed things are better, but not great. Amid the white noise, school leaders and the families populating the classrooms are attempting to figure out how to give people of color more power in the process of pushing for accelerated progress.

7.  In 2015, students of color became the majority in U.S. schools
For anyone who cares about kids, justice or even just the economy, head in sand is no longer an option.

8. Conspiracy theories that sundered lifelong friendships, torpedoed plans and careers and rattled around the Internets
Minneapolis Public Schools was wracked by news that a “little book” about Lazy Lucy, who could not be motivated to clear her hut in Africa, had been purchased. No amount of context or community engagement soothed the grassroots rage the chapter sparked. Almost exactly the same thing can be said about efforts to debunk the rumor that MPS was disbanding special ed services for fragile autistic students or the one about teacher-led efforts to convince families to opt out of standardized tests. Expect continued disdain for long explanations on each of these fronts.