The new year brings to close a decade of stormy education policy debates, challenging issues for the nation’s schools, and the maturing of a new federal education law—the Every Student Succeeds Act.
Between 2010 and 2020, enrollment at U.S. public schools grew more diverse. The public narrative on the teaching profession swung between calls to fire ineffective educators and sympathy for those who must work two jobs to keep up with their bills. And U.S. education secretaries caused controversy like never before.
As the lawmakers soured on No Child Left Behind Act, concerns about overtesting and how tests were used dominated public conversations about education. And the shift between the Obama and Trump administrations showed dramatically different views on how to improve America’s education system, from sometimes prescriptive school improvement policies to persistent championing of school choice.
Here’s a list—in no particular order—of 10 education policy milestones and flashpoints from the last decade and a look at an additional issue that’s sure to drive conversations in the next one.
The Every Student Succeeds Act
The legal authorization for the No Child Left Behind Act, the main federal K-12 law, expired late in 2007, and during the next several years as lawmakers tried and failed to revamp the law, opposition to President George W. Bush’s signature K-12 accomplishment reached a boiling point.
The annual tests required by No Child Left Behind, and more specifically the ways that they were being used to evaluate teachers and schools with increasing and prominent frequency, became a focal point of significant backlash that didn’t fall neatly along party lines. The law seemed to channel frustration and criticism about a variety of issues, including the Obama administration’s policies, and ultimately in 2015 a variety of political actors combined to undo it.
What emerged in its place was the bipartisan Every Student Succeeds Act, approved at the end of that year. ESSA kept the annual tests in place but otherwise significantly restricted the federal government’s role in policies such as teacher evaluations and school improvement. From a political perspective, it was a landmark achievement for a polarized Congress.
Yet civil rights advocates and Democrats have worried that the law, especially in the way its been overseen by U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, will let many vulnerable students and struggling schools slip through the cracks. And even four years after its passage, ESSA still hasn’t fully gotten off the ground in many respects.
President-elect Donald Trump announced that he would nominate DeVos to be his education secretary roughly two weeks after his 2016 victory. But it wasn’t until her confirmation hearing in January 2017 that DeVos, a long-time school choice activist from Michigan and a political mega-donor, became a household name and one of the most divisive figures of the Trump era.
To ring in 2020, Education Week took a look back at the past decade—the memorable moments, most controversial issues, and the stories that stood out. Here are some highlights:
Senate Democrats grilled her about special education, civil rights, and testing, and at times DeVos stumbled over her responses. She was roundly mocked for stating at one point that a school in Wyoming might have firearms in order to safeguard against grizzly bears. Her appearance before the Senate committee triggered a torrent of criticism, online abuse, and late-night comedy fodder. A fierce push for senators to reject her nomination fell one vote short. She became a national story and lightning rod unlike any education secretary before her.
Other secretaries have been controversial for various reasons. But the controversy around DeVos has been unprecedented and has never really abated. DeVos has focused on rolling back Obama-era initiatives regarding student discipline and transgender students’ rights, among others, and she has made it clear she believes the previous administration’s aggressive use of federal dollars and authority to pursue policy goals was misguided.
Her supporters have hailed her nonstop push for Washington to bolster school choice and for trying to make the federal bureaucracy smaller and more flexible. Her critics continue to assail her as a narrow-minded, out-of-touch ideologue intent on undermining traditional public schools and teachers.
Obama Makes His Mark
The American Recovery and Reinvestment Act attracted attention for many reasons, including buckets of money aimed at helping states avoid recession-driven cuts in education funding. But tucked into the $831 billion 2009 stimulus bill under President Barack Obama were two federal initiatives that in several respects would help define the Obama administration’s education legacy.
The initial Race to the Top grants provided $4.3 billion to states if they agreed to adopt certain policies, such as using test scores to measure teachers’ effectiveness and–in what was seen as an implicit endorsement of the Common Core State Standards–adopting high standards. (Other Race to the Grant grants for early learning and districts followed.) Separately, School Improvement Grants were provided to districts that agreed to implement certain strategies to turn around struggling schools, such as firing principals.
The Obama administration and its allies said these policies forced states to act aggressively to improve student achievement. But its critics charged that these initiatives placed unfair pressure on schools and teachers, and that states raced to get the grant money without carefully thinking through what they would do with it.
Separately, as opposition to the No Child Left Behind Act mounted, the administration agreed to grant states waivers from the law’s requirement for all students to eventually show proficiency in reading and math, in exchange for agreeing to set goals that would significantly cut achievement gaps. Among other things, the waivers fueled a debate about the importance of proficiency versus growth among different groups of students.
Common Core and Testing
Perhaps no education issue generated more heat (if not light) over the last decade than the Common Core State Standards.
The English/language arts and math curriculum standards were introduced by state education chiefs and governors in 2009, but their roots can be traced back at least to a 1989 meeting in Charlottesville, Va., between President George H.W. Bush and governors that set the stage for standards-based education reform. The majority of states agreed to adopt the standards, along with aligned assessments developed by state-level consortia.
But the consensus around the standards soon began to deteriorate. Some critics alleged that the common core did not in fact represent a step forward for standards. Others claimed the Obama administration crossed a line separating encouraging states to adopt them to coercing them. And still others said the way common-core tests would be used for teacher and school accountability was inappropriate, fueling broader skepticism about how standardized tests were misused by policymakers.
Confusion and mistrust about the standards were legion, from the mistaken assumption that they were a new curriculum to fears about their backing by groups like the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. The number of states participating in the consortia-backed tests fell off a cliff.
The standards themselves have proven more durable, even as many states loudly distanced themselves from them. But they still crop up as boogeymen for conservatives looking to establish their political bona fides. Meanwhile, recent U.S. student scores on international exams have once again called into question for at least some critics just how effective the common core has been.
Tumultuous Times for Unions
It was a volatile 10-year period for teachers’ unions, including a major setback in the Supreme Court.
The start of the wild ride for unions began in Wisconsin, where in 2011 Republican Gov. Scott Walker signed legislation known as Act 10 that severely restricted collective bargaining for teachers’ unions and other labor groups. A challenge to the law in the state’s courts ultimately failed. It was a huge shift in a state with a long history of robust union politics. Similar moves to restrict unions’ bargaining power subsequently unfolded in states like Michigan and Ohio, with varying degrees of success.
Unions also suffered a setback before the U.S. Supreme Court in 2018, when the justices ruled 5-4 in Janus v. AFSCME that unions could not compel nonmembers to pay “agency fees” (the costs of representation in collective bargaining) to the unions. The ruling also required workers to affirmatively opt in to the union before those fees could be deducted from their paychecks. It was a landmark defeat for teachers’ unions. However, its long-term impact on their membership and political strength is still to be determined.
School Shootings and Safety Debates
In December 2012, a gunman at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn., shot and killed 26 people—20 children who were 6 and 7 years old, as well as six educators.
The scale of the shooting—the deadliest ever at a K-12 school in the U.S.—and the age of the victims instantly vaulted it onto a sad list of household names, along with Columbine and Virginia Tech. It also sparked new conversations about school safety and re-ignited divisive debates about gun laws, school police, and responding to the needs of disconnected and emotionally isolated students.
After months of tearful testimony and activism and a task force led by Vice President Joe Biden to push for new gun control measures, Congress failed to pass any new gun laws or to close loopholes in the background check system. But there was action at the grassroots level as nascent advocacy groups took advantage of the ability to quickly share information and form communities through social media, creating tools to track gun incidents in schools and keep the issues at the forefront online.
In 2018, the public’s fears were stoked again by large-scale mass shootings at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Fla., and Santa Fe High School in Santa Fe, Texas, where a combined 27 people died. The events sparked a new youth activism movement around gun violence prevention. And President Trump formed a federal school safety commission, chaired by DeVos, the education secretary, that recommended schools consider arming educators.
While school shootings are statistically rare, surveys show that public concern for students’ safety at school has grown in recent years. This has left policymakers struggling to respond, while also being mindful of issues like student privacy, civil rights, limited budgets, and concerns about creating overly fortified school buildings.
Student Enrollment: Two Tipping Points
U.S. public schools hit two major demographic tipping points in the last decade as data showed growing racial and ethnic diversity among the nation’s students, as well as increased poverty.
• In 2014, for the first time fewer than half of U.S. public school students, 49.5 percent, were white, Education Department data showed, with a new majority collectively formed by students in all other racial and ethnic groups.
• In 2013, also for the first time, 51 percent of public school students qualified for free and reduced-price meals, a common indicator of poverty in education.
Those changes added urgency for policymakers and educators to address changing student demographics. Among the responses from educators and anti-poverty groups: a drive for community schools and wraparound services to address students’ needs. And racial justice organizations sounded the alarm that schools need to diversify the nation’s majority white teacher workforce to better serve all students.
The shifts have spurred policy discussions at all levels, from local school boards hiring consultants to help teachers recognize their own biases, to state lawmakers debating the causes of racial disparities in discipline, to presidential candidates’ proposals to team with historically black colleges and universities to train and retain more black teachers.
Pendulum Swing for Civil Rights Enforcement
Schools saw big swings in how civil rights laws were enforced as Washington transitioned between two presidential administrations with very different philosophies about federal oversight.
President Obama’s Education Department quickly exhibited an aggressive approach to civil rights enforcement.
• In 2011, officials issued guidance on the obligations of K-12 schools, colleges, and universities to respond to reports of sexual harassment and assault.
• In 2014, the administration issued guidance on reducing disproportionately high rates of discipline for students of color.
• In 2016, it asserted that Title IX’s protections against sex discrimination in schools covered transgender students as they used the restrooms, locker rooms, and pronouns that correspond with their gender identity.
The directives were met with applause from civil rights groups. But critics said the documents amounted to federal overreach and that the Obama administration was creating new law under the guise of interpreting what was already on the books.
After President Trump’s election in 2016, DeVos quickly set to work reversing or revising those directives. In her first act in office, she rescinded the guidance on transgender students. She retracted the discipline directive after critics said it made schools unsafe. She proposed new rules on sexual assault and harassment that allowed schools to raise the burden of proof for accusers. And she changed civil rights investigation procedures to focus more narrowly on individual complaints, rather than scanning data for systemic patterns. DeVos said those changes were necessary to respect local decisionmaking and to respond to complaints more speedily. But critics said she’d left vulnerable students without needed protections.
Battles Over School Choice
As the charter school movement entered its third decade, arguments over school choice—its role in improving outcomes, its successes, and its limits—grew into a roar.
Organizations like teachers’ unions and the NAACP said that while charter schools had once provided a promise of innovation, they had grown without the appropriate regulations to ensure they don’t have negative impacts on traditional, district-run schools.
But charter advocates pointed to stagnant academic outcomes in the U.S. to justify their push to provide alternative options. And the debate grew more complex as virtual charters presented new regulatory questions and, in many cases, failed to deliver for students.
As the charter school movement took root, Democrats proposed tripling them in their 2000 platform. But as presidential candidates competed for the 2020 Democratic nomination, some pushed to end federal funding for charter expansion.
On the other end of the spectrum, Secretary DeVos sought to reframe the debate, using the phrase “education freedom” to suggest that maybe families shouldn’t have to pick one school at all—whether a charter, private, or “government school.” She also championed state and federal tax-credit scholarship proposals that would allow students to attend private schools or pay for supplemental services, like tutoring.
But critics contended that, at best, the push by DeVos and other vocal supporters of school choice is a distraction from the hard work of improving the traditional public schools that a majority of U.S. students still attend.
Teachers in many areas won public support as they collectively pushed for higher pay, more education funding, and changes in district policy, even in states without strong union presence.
Teachers in states including West Virginia, Oklahoma, and Arizona wore matching red shirts and launched strikes and walkouts to call their legislators to invest more in their classrooms. The movement spawned a hashtag, #RedforEd, in support of the educators.
In tearful testimonials, educators shared stories of driving Ubers, giving plasma, and tutoring overseas students online to supplement their paychecks, and they shared photos of dated textbooks and deteriorating classrooms on social media.
The educator activists were met with public sympathy. But voters didn’t always support the measures proposed to meet their demands. In Los Angeles, for example, voters rejected a property tax increase that would have helped cover policy proposals pushed by striking teachers. And policymakers struggled to address complicated related issues, like public employee pension systems that weren’t expected to meet their obligations over time.
Buoyed by public sympathy, grassroots teachers organizations tested their political influence, and some chose to run for office themselves. In Kentucky, teacher activists who’d sparred with Republican Gov. Matt Bevin planted yard signs and knocked on doors with an “anyone but Bevin” message, successfully calling on neighbors to elect his opponent, Attorney General Andy Beshear, who thanked them in his victory speech. “To our educators, this is your victory,” Beshear said.
Bonus: ‘Whole Child’ and SEL
A push for a “whole child” focus in schools that started decades ago matured into a full-blown movement as philanthropy groups, policymakers, and researchers encouraged schools to rethink the way they approach students’ social and emotional needs.
They encouraged schools to embrace social-emotional learning and found more systemic ways to integrate it into education policy.
Social-emotional learning advocates pushed schools to directly teach students strategies related to traits like self-control and responsible decisionmaking. They urged them to encourage group work and projects centered around nurturing students’ passion and sense of purpose. And they advocated for policy changes around issues like family engagement and student discipline.
The Aspen Institute created a national commission on social, emotional, and academic development, seeking to bring together a host of policymakers, researchers, and educators interested in issues like student motivation and relationships. And dozens of states set out to draft social-emotional learning standards alongside their academic ones.
Critics argued the movement was moving too quickly to change the work of schools without clearly identifying effective strategies or ways to measure success.
And, as the decade wound down, social-emotional learning proponents continued to wrestle with questions about how to best integrate the idea into teacher preparation, if and how to measure student progress in SEL, and how to support schools in the work.