The 10 Biggest Education Stories of 2021

We Count Down the Most Important K-12 Education News From the Past Year

From a parent rebellion to a school choice breakthrough to teachers unions tying to rewrite history, these are the ten K-12 education stories everyone was talking about this year. Before heading into the new year, join us on our countdown of the 10 biggest education stories of 2021.

Exam-School Admissions Come Under Pressure Amid Pandemic

Naomi Schaefer Riley | Education Next

Lee Cheng graduated from San Francisco’s Lowell High School in 1985. He counts himself one of the lucky ones. Lowell High, which was the only local public school specifically for high-performing students, had a strict racial-quota admissions policy when he applied. No racial or ethnic group could comprise more than 40 percent of the school’s student body. The rule was aimed at desegregating the district, but even as a teenager, Cheng found it unfair. It meant that Asian students had to score higher on the entrance exam than white students, who in turn had to score higher on the exam than Black and Hispanic applicants. Cheng’s friend—his orchestra partner—was not admitted, though if he had been of a different race he might have earned a seat. The boy’s parents were poor immigrants—his father a waiter and his mother a seamstress. “He would have gotten in, but for being Chinese,” Cheng said. Read the Full Story

Letter Comparing Parent Protests to Domestic Terrorism Triggers Funding Fallout

Lachlan Markay, Stef W. Kight | Axios

The nation’s leading school board advocacy group is facing a critical loss of funding and membership after sending a letter comparing parent protests and threats to domestic terrorism.

Why it matters: The National School Boards Association has since apologized, but the fallout could be seven figures in annual funding. At least 17 state affiliates have severed ties with the group — and some are even considering establishing a competitor.

  • The 17 state affiliates accounted for more than 40% of annual dues paid to NSBA by its state association members in 2019, according to Axios’ analysis of documents detailing those contributions. Read the Full Story

The CDC’s Flawed Case for Wearing Masks in School

David Zweig | The Atlantic

The debate over child masking in schools boiled over again this fall, even above its ongoing high simmer. The approval in late October of COVID-19 vaccines for 5-to-11-year-olds was for many public-health experts an indication that mask mandates could finally be lifted. Yet with cases on the rise in much of the country, along with anxiety regarding the Omicron variant, other experts and some politicians have warned that plans to pull back on the policy should be put on hold.

Scientists generally agree that, according to the research literature, wearing masks can help protect people from the coronavirus, but the precise extent of that protection, particularly in schools, remains unknown—and it might be very small. What data do exist have been interpreted into guidance in many different ways. The World Health Organization, for example, does not recommend masks for children under age 6. The European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control recommends against the use of masks for any children in primary school.

Seen in this context, the CDC has taken an especially aggressive stance, recommending that all kids 2 and older should be masked in school. The agency has argued for this policy amid an atmosphere of persistent backlash and skepticism, but on September 26, its director, Rochelle Walensky, marched out a stunning new statistic: Speaking as a guest on CBS’s Face the Nation, she cited a study published two days earlier, which looked at data from about 1,000 public schools in Arizona. The ones that didn’t have mask mandates, she said, were 3.5 times as likely to experience COVID outbreaks as the ones that did. Read the Full Story

Where Are the Students? For a Second Straight Year, School Enrollment Is Dropping

Anya Kamenetz, Cory Turner, Mansee Khurana | NPR

The troubling enrollment losses that school districts reported last year have in many places continued this fall, as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt public education across the country, an NPR investigation has found.

We compiled the latest headcount data directly from more than 600 districts in 23 states and Washington, D.C., including statewide data from Massachusetts, Georgia and Alabama. We found that very few districts, especially larger ones, have returned to pre-pandemic numbers. Most are now posting a second straight year of declines. This is particularly true in some of the nation’s largest systems:

New York City’s school enrollment dropped by about 38,000 students last school year and another 13,000 this year.

In Los Angeles, the student population declined by 17,000 students last school year, and nearly 9,000 this year.

In the Chicago public schools, enrollment dropped by 14,000 last year, and another 10,000 this year. Read the Full Story

No Critical Race Theory in Schools? Here’s the Abundant Evidence Saying Otherwise

John Murawski | RealClearInvestigations

Mary Nicely, who is now second-in-command at the California Department of Education, went on her personal Facebook page this summer to denounce conservatives who oppose teaching critical race theory in schools as “yet another White right and education reformer distraction.”

Nicely also reposted a newspaper column in July defining critical race theory as a key used in law schools to expose racism in the legal system: “It is taught, if at all, in law school — not high school.”

Her claim echoed other education experts, like Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, who tweeted: “We could explain until our last breath that CRT is not taught in K-12, but the actual definition of CRT doesn’t matter anymore in these debates.”

These denials, which have been amplified by many news organizations, are at odds with overwhelming evidence – documented by class lessons, school curricula, focus groups, teacher surveys and public statements by educators – that CRT is not only taught in class, but is also heavily promoted by the K-12 education establishment. Read the Full Story

Amid Growing Parent Backlash, Teachers Unions Keep Trying to Rewrite School Reopening History

Mike Antonucci | The 74

Give American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten a platform and she will deliver this often repeated claim about shuttered school campuses and the pandemic:

  • March 19, 2021: “We’ve been trying to reopen schools since last April.”
  • November 3, 2021: “When you see people say that teachers closed schools, don’t let that lie stand. We, the AFT, put out a plan in April 2020 and worked very hard to reopen schools safely.”

One part of those statements is accurate. The AFT did put out a plan in April 2020. The rest, however, is easily refuted by looking at what AFT and its affiliates actually did during almost a year-and-a-half of widespread school closures due to COVID-19. Read the Full Story

The Federal Government Gave Billions to America’s Schools for COVID-19 Relief. Where Did the Money Go?

Annie Waldman, Bianca Fortis | Pro Publica

After the pandemic shut down schools across the country, the federal government provided about $190 billion in aid to help them reopen and respond to the effects of the pandemic. In the year and a half since millions of children were sent home, the Education Department has done only limited tracking of how the money has been spent. That has left officials in Washington largely in the dark about how effective the aid has been in helping students, especially those whose schools and communities were among the hardest hit by the pandemic.

“We’ve been in the pandemic now for nearly a year and a half,” said Anne Hyslop, the director of policy development at the education advocacy group Alliance for Excellent Education. “There is a responsibility to the public to make sure the funds are spent responsibly, but also make sure that the funding that is spent is accountable to supporting students and educators.”

Provisional annual reports submitted to the federal government by state education agencies underscored the dearth of clear, detailed data. Agencies classified how the funds were spent using six very broad categories, including technology and sanitization. According to a ProPublica analysis of more than 16,000 of the reports covering March 2020 to September 2020, just over half of the $3 billion in aid was categorized as “other,” providing no insight into how the funds were allocated. Read the Full Story

Remote Schooling Led to Catastrophic Learning Loss, New Study Finds

Alexander Nazaryan | Yahoo! News

Remote schooling during the 2020-21 academic year contributed to “highly significant” learning loss, according to a new study published Monday by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER). The findings are based on scores from standardized tests administered to American students last spring, and come as some school districts revert to closures once more, for reasons including student maladjustment, teacher burnout or concerns about rising infection rates.

Students who continued to attend school also saw some decrease in scores, but those drops were much less pronounced than they were for students whose classroom consisted of a computer screen.

“In-person school is crucial to effective teaching and learning,” says Natalia Mehlman Petrzela, a historian of education who was not involved in the study. “This is more than a retrospective ‘lesson learned’ from the pandemic, but essential information to consider as some districts continue to reduce in-person days as a way to deal with staffing shortages and mental health strain, or institutionalize remote learning in other ways, such as canceling snow days and holding online sessions instead.” Read the Full Story

School Choice Advances in the States

Alan Greenblatt | Education Next

Remember the Red for Ed movement? Three years ago, teachers in West Virginia massed on the state capitol by the thousands, demanding salary increases and seeking to stop legislation that would have brought private-school choice to the state. For the most part, the teachers succeeded. They got their raise and prevented all but the creation of a few public charter schools. Their tactics soon spread to other states, with large teacher protests leading to salary hikes in Arizona, Indiana, Kentucky, and Oklahoma.

Teachers in West Virginia not only reveled in their success but also vowed to punish their enemies. In last year’s primaries, they helped unseat a pair of state senators who were prominent supporters of school choice. Overall, however, teachers suffered political losses in the state. Republicans won supermajorities in both legislative chambers, and they wasted little time before passing one of the most expansive school-choice laws in the country. Read the Full Story

It’s Not Just Virginia: Education and Critical Race Theory Are on the Ballot Across the US in 2022

Ledyard King, Mabinty Quarshie | USA TODAY

Ronda Nassib found herself among fed-up parents wanting to know how she and a small band of Northern Virginia activists took on the local school board and sparked a movement that help turn Virginia from blue to red last month.

The parents trekked from suburban communities in Arizona, Texas, Florida and other parts of the country to a retreat in Washington, D.C., in part to hear Nassib and other Fight For Schools members from nearby Loudoun County, Virginia. They wanted to channel parents’ outrage over critical race theory (CRT), curriculum and COVID mandates into political action, the way it had propelled Republican businessman Glenn Youngkin into the Virginia governor’s mansion last month.

“There were parents that were in the same boat as I feel I am, that are fighting the same cause,” said Nassib, a real estate agent and mother of an eighth grader, while sitting at a Starbucks on Leesburg’s busy Market Street. “This is a movement that’s not going to slow down. Parents are never going to be quiet again. We are never going to be asleep at the table when it comes to our children, to their education, to their upbringing.”

Fight For Schools started two years ago by parents who were concerned the school district’s efforts to promote racial equity would dilute the system’s emphasis on academics. But it grew to include other issues, including COVID-19 mandates, concerns that school board members were violating open meetings laws, and the safety of students after a sexual assault in a high school restroom. Nassib joined the group earlier this year, distraught that some books that were added to the curriculum were too graphic and inappropriate. Read the Full Story

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