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Education remained a hot topic in 2013

By Camilla Benbow

(Originally printed in The Tennessean on December 19, 2013)

As 2013 nears its close, let’s take a look back at the year in education. It’s a safe bet that many of the topics energetically discussed over the past 12 months will continue to surface in the year ahead.

The most exciting news of the year for Tennesseans came via the state’s latest scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Tennessee was one of the fastest-improving states in the nation in reading and math, handing Gov. Bill Haslam an early victory for one of his stated goals.

Despite its pace of improvement, however, Tennessee’s NAEP scores trail many other states’. Worse still, the achievement gaps between Tennessee’s poor students and students with higher incomes — as well as gaps between minority students and white students — remain stubbornly wide, with little to no improvement since 1992. Clearly, we have much more work to do.

Early in the year, the Haslam administration floated a school voucher proposal intended to help a limited number of students from low-income households move to private schools, where they might have a better chance of success. There is no research consensus that vouchers work, but that didn’t stop state legislators from attempting to hijack the proposal and expand its coverage. The overreach failed, but we will probably hear more about vouchers.

In the summer, the Peabody Research Institute released the second report in its ongoing study of the state’s Voluntary Pre-K program. The results showed a drop-off in earlier learning gains after kindergarten or first grade, and improved behavior was demonstrated by fewer children held back at the end of kindergarten. Previous studies have indicated that noncognitive classroom skills show up later as positive social and educational outcomes. The study of Tennessee’s program is ongoing, although Metro Nashville Public Schools plans to add more preschool slots on its own.

More recently, we’ve heard lots of complaints about Common Core. Groups that loosely overlap with the tea party worry that the new standards represent a federal grab of local curricular control. Of more immediate concern, though, is whether teachers can adapt quickly enough to teach the new standards, and whether the new testing regimes will prove to be a nightmare for parents, students and teachers alike. The concerns about Common Core are not only local but national in scope. Is the Common Core simply NCLB 2.0? Stay tuned.

To our west, Memphis is a hotbed of reform, drawing national attention. With 140,000 students in a newly merged district, 41 charter schools, 13 Innovation Zone schools, and 12 schools in Tennessee’s Achievement School District, researchers and reformers will be watching Memphis closely for years to come.

Charter schools, of course, remain controversial here in Nashville as MNPS seeks to accommodate their growing numbers and budgetary impact. Along with vouchers, a proposal to establish a state authorizer for charter schools also failed in the legislature this year.

The anniversary of the Newtown massacre reminds me that I’ve written several times this year about bullying and school violence. Here’s my wish for 2014: May there be peace in our schools.

Camilla P. Benbow is Patricia and Rodes Hart Dean of Education and Human Development at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College. Her column on education appears every other Thursday in The Tennessean Local section.