Education News: the Best and Worst of 2021

Most years, we might have wished that education was more present in the news. This year, though, gave truth to the old saying, ‘be careful what you wish for.’ Here are the best and worst pieces of education news in 2021, listed in no order of importance.

The obvious choice for worst piece of education news: the COVID-19 pandemic that sickened and killed countless numbers of our students and members of their families, along with many colleagues at our schools. And it’s continuing to do so as many schools choose to not implement mask mandates — or are legally prohibited from doing so — at the same time millions of people are ignoring the mandates that do exist. Of all the best and worst pieces of education news in 2021, this one is the most heartbreaking.

There’s little question that the best education news of the year, however, was the reopening in the spring of many schools that had been closed, and the return in the fall of the vast majority of students and teachers. These reopenings and returns resulted in large part because of mask mandates in many, though not all, places. The availability of teacher and student vaccines and changes facilitated by federal funds also played significant roles in reopenings. Even in some states where mask mandates were prohibited, there were districts that courageously defied those prohibitions and instituted them anyway. Though the return of students was the best news for most of us, it comes with a big asterisk — many educators, family members and children could have had the coronavirus transmitted to them while at schools (or on their way to and from them).

Best and worstA related piece of “best” news to help ensure that schools will remain safely open are growing teacher vaccine mandates and the beginning of mandates for students, with the state of California and individual districts there taking the lead and a majority of Americans supporting them.

An obviously related piece of worst news has been the threats and attacks on educators and school board members who have been adhering to and/or instituting mask mandates and other safety protocols to ensure the safety of students and school staff. It’s important to note that most of these attacks have come from white parents and other community members as families of color generally have supported school safety efforts.

Billions of dollars from President Biden’s American Rescue Plan were integral to the physical reopening of schools, and researchers are clear that this kind of additional financial school support can directly result in increased student success. The same law included many other measures to assist our students’ families, including expanding the child tax credit. Since countless studies have found that the majority of factors that affect student achievement exist outside the schoolhouse walls, these additional supports should have a major positive impact on student learning for years to come. Speaking of additional supports, the Biden administration also approved the biggest increase ever to food assistance benefits in the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (it’s hard for hungry students to concentrate on school).

But that’s not all the additional funding the Biden administration is planning to provide to education. Congress is on track to support a huge increase in moneys for Title 1 schools (those with large numbers of low-income students) and for programs to support disabled students. In addition, the roughly $2 trillion Build Back Better plan passed by the House provides funds directly for schools to support K-12 programs as well as creating universal pre-K programs to be at least partly provided by schools. Even though Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.) said he opposes the plan, he has also said he supports the expansion of pre-K programs.

Speaking of attacks on educators and school boards, Republican operatives initiated a full assault against schools teaching about systemic racism — and, in some cases, any kind of racism — using the smokescreen of “critical race theory” (which is typically taught in graduate schools, not in K-12). One group even announced a “bounty” for anyone who “caught” a teacher violating state limits on discussing anti-racism. A parent’s voice in education is critical to their child’s success in school. Many educators have pushed for years for the increased engagement of parents. Oftentimes, however, these fights against mask and vaccine mandates, and against teaching about systemic racism, have crossed the line into parent bullying.

One particular element of these kinds of attacks warrants its own bullet point under the worst list — major efforts by conservative Republican legislators, school board members, and/or parents to ban books that offer a different world view on human sexuality, race, or just about anything they disagree with. One school board member suggested burning them. In some areas, students are leading the fight against these book bans.

Teaching about systemic racism is under attack, and New York Times journalist Nikole Hannah-Jones’s “1619 Project” was a prime target. The related “best” news is that not only did she and her collaborators publish expanded books for adults and children, but the Pulitzer Center expanded their teaching resources about it and created a new website at 1619 Education. I’m sure it will become one of the most popular teacher resource sites on the Web.

Many aspects of the pandemic — including social isolation, school closures and distance learning — have had major negative influences on our students’ mental and social health. Research estimates that 140,000 children lost a parent or caregiver to covid-19. The past 18 months also have had an impact on what might be expected to be their academic growth in standard school curriculums. Though many schools have been trying to hire more mental health counselors, it has been difficult to find candidates in many places. The same problem goes for a strategy pushed by many to help students “catch up” on academics — hiring tutors.

School districts across the country are finally beginning to either overhaul or eliminate “gifted and talented” programs that have shut out many African American and Latino students for years. In addition, cities like New York City and Boston are changing their admission processes for select high schools to try to deal with similar disparities.

Many district leaders see their students and staff through the lens of deficits, not assets. This perspective can result in their missing practical “outside of the box” strategies to combat these challenges, including starting or expanding peer mentors and peer tutor programs, and leveraging accelerated learning techniques used effectively for years by teachers of English language learners.

Last year’s “best” news list included the University of California beginning the process to end the use of the SAT and ACT in its admission requirements. Not only has this change been finalized, but UC has just decided to eliminate the use of any kind of standardized test whatsoever in its admission process. This change should benefit many low-income and vulnerable students, especially English-language learners. This decision is likely to influence colleges and universities across the country. In fact, Harvard University just announced it would extend for four years a policy that allows applicants to apply without an SAT or ACT score.

California isn’t the only state that can be a model for others. Illinois passed a law requiring that Asian American History be a part of the public school curriculum. Speaking of California, the state has led in other education areas this year. It’s providing tens of billions of dollars in extra funding to schools, becoming the first state to require taking a high school ethnic studies class to graduate, passing a law that schools need to provide free tampons to students, and launching the largest free lunch program in the nation.

Teacher and staff morale is suffering across the country. There are so many actions that districts can take to support them and their students, but don’t hold your breath. Teacher shortages, bus driver shortages, cafeteria staff shortages, substitute shortages — everybody has a shortage! If you combine that with one concern that has materialized — fewer young people are pursuing the teaching profession — then the school staffing crisis could get worse. Will district leaders develop career paths for classified staff to become credentialed teachers? Recruit more teachers of color (and better support the ones they have now)? Make teachers genuine partners in decision-making?

Public school enrollment fell by more than 1 million students since the pandemic began. This isn’t good news for anyone who supports public schools, and it may create a potential major cash crunch for districts whose funding depends on a version of average daily attendance, which is the vast majority of them.

Gunfire is on the rise at schools. According to one study, there was more gunfire on school grounds this year than during any previous year. But few attempts are being made at making guns less accessible to children. There was one piece of good news in this area: — far-right broadcaster Alex Jones was ordered to pay damages to families of children killed in the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre for claiming the murders were a “hoax.”

It’s a definite plus to have a teacher, principal and former English Language Learner as U.S. secretary of education. Even though some educators felt that Miguel Cardona made the wrong call on requiring standardized testing last spring, still most educators would choose him over Betsy DeVos any day of the week. Of course, it also doesn’t hurt to have a practicing teacher living in the White House: first lady Jill Biden.

So there you have it: the best and worst pieces of education news in 2021. To read the best and worst education news of 2020, please click here. To read the best and worst education news of 2019, please click here.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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