10 stories that defined K-12 education in the 2010s

Teacher evaluations. The Common Core. Betsy DeVos.

It’s been a tumultuous decade in education policy. The 2010s were marked by some sweeping efforts to change how schools function, from the introduction of new learning standards to a push to reduce school suspensions.

Many of these policy changes started with great enthusiasm but would go on to spark fierce resistance, in what journalist Dana Goldstein has dubbed education’s “hype-disillusionment cycle.” Some, like Common Core and charter schools, began with bipartisan support that has deteriorated as the decade comes to a close.

And while there is no question that our schools are different places than they were in 2010 in a few ways, what hasn’t changed much in a decade is American students’ scores on federal and international tests. In that way, it’s been a decade of stagnation, even as debates about how schools should change swirl on.

Here’s a look back at 10 storylines that shaped K-12 education this decade.

1. The racial makeup of America’s students has continued to change. America’s teachers, not so much.

In 2014, students of color made up the majority of public school students for the first time in U.S. history. According to the most recent data, 26% of public school students are Hispanic, 15% are black, 5% are Asian or Pacific Islander, and 3% identify as two more races. (In this, and some other cases, we’re relying on data that is a few years old, but is the most recent available.) Hispanic enrollment in particular is expected to continue to grow in the decade to come.

And yet about 80 percent of America’s public school educators are white — a figure that has barely changed in decades. There’s evidence that the share of college graduates of color entering teaching has actually declined, and certification exams and other requirements continue to keep out many prospective teachers of color.

This demographic divergence matters in part because a spate of research has emerged this decade directly linking teachers of color to higher test scores and graduation rates for students of color.

The country’s share of schools where almost all students are non-white has increased, thanks to those demographic shifts, district policy changes in response to a 2007 Supreme Court decision limiting race-based integration efforts, and the lifting of desegregation orders in many places. In 2016, 18% of schools were composed of 90% or more students of color, a slight uptick from 2011. The number of schools where students are predominantly white has declined even more rapidly.

Those shifts have helped push school segregation into the spotlight, along with high-profile fights over changing school zones and district lines, from Alabama to New York City.

2. The Common Core had a meteoric rise and a complicated fall. Now, it quietly persists.

As the decade started, states were adopting a new set of standards for what math and English concepts children should know. A brainchild of state leaders — juiced by substantial funds from the Gates Foundation and the federal government’s Race to the Top program — the Common Core was initially adopted by 45 states. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.)

It was a triumph of bipartisanship that some believed would encourage better teaching and eventually allow for better comparisons of students across the country. But the effort unraveled as the standards became a political flash point on the left and right.

A few states fully eliminated the Common Core. Others tweaked and rebranded it. A 2016 analysis found that in fourth grade math, 28 states were using the Common Core verbatim, 12 states had made minor changes, three had made major changes, and eight states weren’t using the standards at all. (Alabama and Florida have moved to change or scrap the standards since.) States have even more rapidly dumped Common Core-aligned tests, with just 16 using the federally funded Smarter Balanced or PARCC as of 2019.

There’s still been little research on how the standards affected student learning. One study released earlier this year, though, found evidence that the standards hurt math and reading test scores.

3. The prevailing narrative about teachers — and their unions — shifted in a major way.

In 2009, just 13 states used test scores to evaluate teachers. By 2013, 40 states and Washington D.C. required it.

Those new evaluations were the outgrowth of concerns that too many bad teachers were being allowed to stay on the job thanks to a combination of union protections and limited efforts to judge their performance — just as new research affirmed a teacher’s ability to affect a student’s life trajectory.

Teachers unions found themselves playing defense politically, as their usual Democratic allies promoted policies they opposed. Things grew so tense between the unions and Obama Education Secretary Arne Duncan that in 2014, one national union called on him to resign. The other sardonically put him on an “improvement plan.”

Today, though, conversations about America’s teachers are more likely to grapple with how to raise long-stagnant teacher pay — an idea that’s grown increasingly popular as teacher strikes and protests have swept the country. Democratic candidates for president in 2020 are pushing a similar agenda. The unions have also largely weathered an unfavorable Supreme Court decision that limited their ability to charge fees to teachers who don’t want to join.

And about those teacher evaluations: as of this year, 34 states still require test scores in evaluations — a large, but decreasing, number.

4. The backlash built over testing, then was translated into federal education law.

Continued concerns about the way testing was affecting classroom instruction, and the increase of tests being used to evaluate teachers, spurred many students to opt out of state exams by the middle of the decade. In most states this was a small percentage of would-be test takers, but in New York it reached about 20%.

When Congress rewrote the federal education law, it continued to require annual testing in grades three through eight. But it eased up on potential sanctions for schools with low test scores, leaving those decisions largely up to states. ESSA passed in 2015 with overwhelming support thanks in part to the bipartisan interest in getting rid of No Child Left Behind — ironic, since that law passed with overwhelming bipartisan support, too.

5. Charter schools continued to grow, especially in America’s cities.

About 7 percent of America’s public school students attend a charter school. But in a handful of places, like Washington D.C., Detroit, and New Orleans, charter schools now educate a much larger share of students.

By 2017, charters made up at least 10% of public school enrollment in more than 200 cities and communities, more than twice the number at the start of the decade.

That growth was made possible by the federal government, major philanthropies like the Walton Foundation (a funder of Chalkbeat), the architects of several state takeovers of school districts, and mayors of major cities like New York City, Los Angeles, and Chicago.

It’s cities where charter schools have proven most successful academically. Overall, though, they perform similarly to nearby district schools — and districts have come under substantial financial strain when students depart for charter schools.

Recently, charters have seen their growth slow as they’ve faced setbacks politically. A number of leading Democratic candidates for president in 2020 have been critical of charters and promised to impose new limitations on them.

6. School spending fell, and then recovered, with major consequences for students.

School spending was on an upward trajectory for years. Then the Great Recession happened. The Obama administration’s stimulus package cushioned the blow temporarily, but per-pupil spending was falling as the decade began.

Research found those spending cuts really hurt students, leading to lower test scores and graduation rates. That dovetails with a number of studies released this decade that found a clear link between more school spending and better outcomes for students.

In real dollars, spending returned to previous highs by the 2015-16 school year, though the share of the country’s GDP devoted to K-12 public schools has not recovered.

7. Technology is even more present in classrooms, but there still isn’t much evidence that it improves learning.

As the decade comes to a close, virtually every public school in the country has high-speed internet, a major increase from 2013. District leaders and teachers report that their schools are filled with “digital learning,” but what that means is ambiguous — and so is whether all of that tech is helping students learn more.

Teachers have mixed feelings. An Education Week survey found that while half of teachers believe that technology can help customize instruction, nearly three-quarters also fear that students are spending too much time in front of screens. That’s a persistent concern among parents, too.

Major philanthropies, including the Gates Foundation and more recently the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, have funded efforts to bring technology tools into schools as a way to “personalize” learning. (Gates and CZI are Chalkbeat supporters.)

Exclusively online schools, particularly virtual charter schools, have also grown in number. They have generally produced dismal test scores, and some states are trying to more tightly regulate them.

8. A school discipline overhaul reduced suspensions across the board.

At the start of the decade, high-profile reports drew attention to the fact that black students were much more likely than other students to be suspended from school — and that being suspended is correlated with dropping out of school. This research, and pressure from civil rights groups, led federal, state, and local officials to push schools to reduce suspensions, including a directive from the Obama administration.

Federal data has shown declining suspension rates, and the drop has been dramatic in several cities. In New York City, suspension numbers were cut nearly in half between 2011 and 2017. In Los Angeles, they plummeted by 75% during that same period.

These efforts were sometimes controversial. Some districts failed to report true suspension rates, and some teachers said reducing suspension made classrooms more difficult to manage. Civil rights groups countered that reducing suspensions was a necessary issue of racial justice, and that poor implementation was likely the result of limited resources. Other teachers said the new approach had been successful in fostering a warmer school climate.

The issues became wrapped up in a debate about school safety after it emerged that Parkland shooter Nikolas Cruz had gone through a police diversion program for school-based misdemeanors. Although Cruz had been suspended multiple times, the Trump administration used the Parkland shootings — and broader fears about school safety — as justification for eliminating the Obama-era school discipline directive in late 2018.

9. The education secretary became the subject of national ridicule, even as her signature issue, school choice, gained traction locally.

The nation’s secretary of education isn’t typically a household name. That changed with Betsy DeVos, whose widely viewed confirmation hearing in 2017 helped make her one of President Trump’s least popular cabinet members.

DeVos has rolled back regulations put in place by the Obama administration, including ones related to school discipline and integration. But DeVos has been much less influential in shaping the country’s elementary, middle, and high schools than Arne Duncan, one of her less famous predecessors.

On the federal level, DeVos hasn’t made progress on her signature issue of school choice, particularly through tuition vouchers meant to help low-income families pay for private school. At the state level, though, this idea has been on the rise. In 2019, nearly 500,000 students used a publicly supported voucher — more than double the number using vouchers in 2010. Still, that’s a tiny share of all American children. Overall, private school enrollment held steady through 2015 after a substantial decline between 2000 and 2010.

10. More students are earning a high school diploma. But student performance on national and international tests has stagnated.

The decade was marked by a lot of policy change and not a lot of movement on federal NAEP and international PISA exams, after the country made big improvements on the NAEP math test between 2000 and 2009.

Today, large disparities by race and socioeconomic status persist, and individual states’ results are closely pegged to their child poverty rates.

What explains the disappointing trends on national exams? There aren’t easy answers. One likely culprit is the Great Recession. The impact of the frenzy of policy changes this decade remains hotly debated.

But there is some good news: U.S. high schoolers performed better than students in most countries in reading and science. A 2015 exam also showed younger U.S. students stacking up well internationally in math and science.

And perhaps the most positive trend in American education since 2010 has been the rising high school graduation rate and declining drop-out rates, particularly among black and Hispanic students.

The graduation rate reached an all-time high of 84.6% in 2017, the most recent year with data available. In 2011, the number was 79%, and more kids staying in school is good news.

This increase has been clouded by suspicion that the gains are due less to schools helping more students and more to schools loosening graduation rules and awarding credits through less-rigorous programs.

Chalkbeat recently found that the disconnect between states’ test scores and their graduation rates is growing — another piece of evidence that graduation rate gains aren’t because students are learning more.

“If states and local districts allow all sorts of other factors to come into play (credit recovery, lower standards, outright fraud), then over time high school graduation rates will grow more removed from academic achievement,” researcher Mark Dynarski explained.