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A Look Back at the Top 10 Education Stories of 2016

As 2016 comes to a close, Education World takes a look at the top ten most memorable education stories of the year.

1. A Change of Hands: New Education Secretary Sworn In, Next Education Secretary Announced

When Arne Duncan announced in October 2015 that he was resigning after being both one of the longest serving education secretaries and members of President Barack Obama’s cabinet with just a year left of Obama’s final term, the country was shocked.

On March 14 of this year, the Senate confirmed Obama’s next choice for the role: John B. King, Jr. The former commissioner of education for the state of New York and a previous social studies teacher, King used the year to address issues such as Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) implementation, diversity in America’s schools, school discipline and equality in education. 

On November 8, the country voted for Donald Trump as President-elect of the U.S., putting Trump in charge of the next education secretary pick. On November 23, Trump announced he would be picking long-time school choice advocate and mega-rich Betsy DeVos for the role, immediately highlighting the divisive nature of school reform.

As The Washington Post said: 

"Trump’s pick has intensified what already was a polarized debate about school choice. Advocates for such choice see in the Trump administration an extraordinary opportunity to advance their cause on a national scale, whereas teachers unions and many Democrats fear an unprecedented and catastrophic attack on public schools, which they see as one of the nation’s bedrock civic institutions."

This is without a doubt the top education story of 2016 because the end of the year has been dominated with speculation about how 2017 might mark a major shift in education policy under DeVos’ leadership. Read the facts you should about DeVos here.

2. Deciphering Fake News, Bullying Prevention and More Dominate Election, Post-Election School Climate

This election was a difficult one for the classroom because of particularly negative rhetoric that many say inspired unprecedented incidences of bullying in schools.

In April, the Southern Poverty Law Center coined the term "The Trump Effect" to go with its non-scientific survey that found 40 percent of teachers were hesitant to teach about the election due to the difficult topics that could potentially upset minority students—like immigrant and Muslim students. 

Following Trump's election, the Southern Poverty Law Center re-surveyed teachers to ask them about the post-election climate. Nine out of 10 educators said they thought the election had a negative effect on school climate.

In the weeks following the election, education website The 74 documented related instances of bullying, ultimately compiling over 500 separate occurrences submitted by educators. 

On a positive note, the election inspired teachers to take a leadership position in helping their students decipher fake news. Much of the country, even respected officials, fell prey to engineered "fake news" this election season, and teachers have opted to use the phenomenon to educate their students to be better at telling the difference. A plethora of new resources have been designed to help them in these efforts.

3. Putting the Final Touches on ESSA Implementation

The Every Student Succeeds Act was finally signed into law last December and many of the law’s provisions and requirements will begin going into effect by the 2017-2018 school year. For that reason, 2016 was a year of figuring out just how implementation should proceed. 

The Department of Education under the Obama Administration was busy releasing guidances designed to best help state leaders gear up for implementation. Guidances touched on many different parts of ESSA, such as its provisions to better help homeless students, foster youth and English Language Learners.

Final regulations for accountability, state plans, data reporting and assessments were released just last month, just in time before the administration switches hands.

State leaders have similarly been busy throughout the year holding public comment sessions to get public feedback on how they should best make changes to be in accordance with the new law.

Next year, the effects of these busy efforts into implementation plans will be seen.

4. Minecraft: Education Edition Arrives

After Microsoft announced it was acquiring Minecraft’s creator Mojang in 2014, everyone wondered what Microsoft would do about the product’s proven potential to supplement learning in classrooms.

Leaving no one disappointed, the company rolled out a beta version for educator testing in May of this year and released the final version for purchase in November. Now, the educator community is on the front lines to determine just what kind of potential there is for gaming in the classroom. 

5. States Divided Over Support for Transgender Bathroom Directive

In May, the U.S. Department of Education and Justice released a joint guidance that worked to uphold the civil rights of transgender students for the first time in the nation's history.

In doing so, the guidance directed all states to let transgender students use restrooms and school facilities in accordance with their preferred gender.

"This guidance...clarifies what we've said repeatedly—that gender identity is protected under Title IX. Educators want to do the right thing for students, and many have reached out to us for guidance on how to follow the law. We must ensure that our young people know that whoever they are or wherever they come from, they have the opportunity to get a great education in an environment free from discrimination, harassment and violence," said John B. King, Jr. 

The guidance was issued after North Carolina officials controversially signed into law a bathroom bill that bans transgender state residents from using the bathroom of their preferred gender.

North Carolina, however, was not the only state to push back against the guidance, and nearly a dozen states immediately filed a lawsuit against the federal government for overreach. 

In August, the Supreme Court dealt a powerful blow to the guidance’s legitimacy after "the justices put on hold a groundbreaking court ruling requiring a Virginia school district to accommodate a transgender high school student's request to use the boys' bathroom," said Politico.

The hold allowed the student's high school to continue denying his request to use the boys' bathroom, but signified that the Supreme Court will likely take on the issue of transgender facility rights in the court's next term.

6. Explosive Investigation Exposes Denial of Special Education Services in Texas

The U.S. Department of Education is now involved in what started as an investigation launched by one determined reporter at The Houston Chronicle.

In September, the Chronicle released the work of Brian M. Rosenthal, who found significant evidence that the Texas’ Department of Education was denying thousands of students access to special education services to limit special education enrollment to an arbitrary percentage picked seemingly without any rhyme or reason.

Countless interviews and data inquiries led Rosenthal to find that in 2004, Texas Education Association (TEA) officials randomly decided to enforce an 8.5 percent limit on special education enrollment to the disadvantage of thousands of in-need students.

The U.S. Department of Education is now spending the month of December holding listening sessions alongside TEA officials to hear from parents, educators and other residents who can provide insight so further actions can be taken.

Read the full report DENIED: How Texas keeps tens of thousands of kids out of special ed here.

7. Early Educators Suffer in All 50 States

A first-of-its-kind report that took a look at early education in all 50 states and the District of Colombia found that early educators suffer from low pay and long hours in all 50 states, resulting in a crisis of quality nationwide.

Researchers from the Center for the Study of Child Care Employment (CSCCE) at the University of California, Berkeley released in July the Early Childhood Workforce Index, which found that the median wage for early educators is just $9.77 an hour, and a result 46 percent of the early educator workforce relies on public assistance to make ends meet.

More recently, a report on the quality of the federal program Head Start supported these findings after determining that the quality of Head Start programs vary from state to state in part because of significantly low educator pay.

Perhaps 2017 will be the year that policy makers and other thought leaders address these concerns to once and for all improve the quality of early education in the U.S. 

8. Tech in the Classroom: What Actually Works?

The question of how technology influences and supports the average classroom is still up in the air. 2016 in particular saw quite a battle against what was previously perceived to be everyday classroom instruction's saving grace: the iPad. 

Earlier in the year, Maine's Department of Education worked with Apple to exchange iPads after concluding they provided little educational value. Ouch. The Department instead agreed to switch the tablets out for MacBooks—not as bad as throwing in the Apple towel all together, but still nasty publicity for the formerly revered tablet. 

More recently in Cupertino, the home of Apple headquarters, parents began a petition to limit the use of iPads in district schools because of health concerns as well as feelings that the technology is more of a distraction to learning.

2017 will certainly be an interesting year for seeing how debates on what educational technology works flesh out.

9. Connecticut Judge Delivers Landmark Education Ruling

After years of education advocates calling for change, a Connecticut judge delivered a landmark ruling that determined the state's education funding system to be unconstitutional—and gave state officials 180 days to fix it.

That 180-day clock was stopped after state officials were granted an appeal, but the case nonetheless put the battle of equitable education in the national spotlight.

"In the long-running case, Judge Thomas G. Moukawsher of State Superior Court in Hartford found...that Connecticut was defaulting on its constitutional duty to give all children an adequate education because the state was allowing students in poor districts to languish while those in wealthy districts excelled," The New York Times said of the case. 

The case cast a light on the many problems that exist when education is inequitable—like the fact that in an urban city in one of the wealthiest districts in the country, 95 percent of students are not proficient in math, or that parents in this urban area are forced to make a choice between having their students walk a mile to school or having the appropriate instructional support in their classrooms.

10. Improving Computer Science Education Becomes Part of National Agenda

Improving computer science education became part of the national agenda this year thanks to a federal initiative from President Obama and an overwhelming support from business leaders, policy makers and the like.

Read: How the U.S. Improved Computer Science in 2016 to find out more.

Nicole Gorman, Senior Education World Contributor

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