Reflecting on Education Week's 10 Big Ideas of 2019

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Education Week opened the year with a second annual special issue titled “10 Big Ideas” with, wrote editor Elizabeth Rich, “the potential to define—or redefine—education in the year ahead.” Each includes a staff-written essay accompanied by a commentary penned by an outside researcher, practitioner, or advocate.

Some of the “Big Ideas” are fairly predictable. Colleges will keep striving to diversity their enrollments and to devise new ways of gauging applicants’ readiness. Annual testing will remain contentious. Students will continue to be frustrated by the seeming irrelevance of their classroom work to the “real world” outside. Effective school desegregation—and the narrowing of achievement gaps—remains a tangled web. Bilingual education continues to expand, boosted by the newish “Seal of Biliteracy,” but controversy continues around it and the proliferation of native languages spoken by kids in U.S. schools makes it next to impossible to universalize. And inevitably, in the #MeToo era, schools are being urged to “teach consent as a life skill.”

Three of the other topics caught my eye for different reasons.

Associate editor Christina Samuels pondered whether the absurdly overdue reauthorization of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) might lead to some rethinking of special ed, but she didn’t quite get the ball over the plate I hoped she was aiming for. Instead of going to fundamentals—why not individualize everybody’s education, how to rein in crazy costs, what to do about all the litigation, and how about all the kids who might not need special ed in the first place if they had been properly taught to read?—she bounced the ball, focusing instead on the shortage of special-education teachers and the uneven access of parents to the “rights” the present law confers on them. Usefully, she did urge better tallying of total special-ed costs.

Policy maven Andrew Ujifusa wrote thoughtfully about signs of mounting teacher mistrust of the major institutions in their work-lives: districts, the U.S. Department of Education, even their own unions and schools. Instead, he suggests, many are turning to “communities created and curated for and by teachers,” sometimes face-to-face, often via social media. He didn’t cite specifics, but curricular sites like sharemylesson.com are proliferating, as are grass-roots professional-development-and-networking venues such as ResearchED and APCentral. “As younger teachers exert increasing influence over their profession,” he wrote, “this sort of activism and professional development might solidify and become unremarkable.” It causes one to wonder whether declining trust in traditional institutions might, in this case, give rise to something better!

At least as provocative is the discussion of “innovation” appearing on several pages. EdWeek’s Research Center surveyed educators to get their views on “the introduction and/or creation of new ideas or methods,” and it yielded some interesting bits. While a majority of educators expect innovation to be a priority in their schools this year, that feeling is a lot stronger among district administrators than among principals and teachers—and administrators are the main source of pressure to innovate. Considering that “one new thing after another” was flagged in Ujifusa’s piece as a source of teachers’ mistrust of those above them in the hierarchy, it’s worth reflecting on the possibility that constant pushing to innovate can backfire.

Innovation fatigue may also cause schools to lose focus on fundamentals that need to be built and sustained. Staff writer Benjamin Herold’s thoughtful essay, dealing mainly with tech-based innovation, ends on a cautionary note: the need to balance and integrate “innovation and maintenance.” And the accompanying mini-essay by Lee Vinsel and Andrew Russell hits it even harder: “You wouldn’t be able to focus on the in-flight entertainment on an airplane if there was a good chance the plane will fall apart around you.” Exactly so.

Closing this issue of EdWeek, I also noted some of the hot issues that didn’t make it in. Nothing on any form of school choice (save for a bit tucked under desegregation). Nothing on teacher quality. Career and technical education. America’s flat-lining high schools. The shaky state of personalized learning. The uncertainties of ESSA. It’s easy to go on. Perhaps nobody had any “big ideas” for dealing with them. Or maybe ten just isn’t enough, considering all that we really ought to be thinking about.

 
 
Chester E. Finn, Jr.
Chester E. Finn, Jr. is a Distinguished Senior Fellow and President Emeritus of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.