Nan Austin

On Campus: Where we stand; what I see coming

Favorite 2014 photos: Arely Reya, 7, ranked 112th among women chess players in Northern California, plays a practice game at Bret Harte Elementary’s Chess Club after school April 2 in Modesto.
Favorite 2014 photos: Arely Reya, 7, ranked 112th among women chess players in Northern California, plays a practice game at Bret Harte Elementary’s Chess Club after school April 2 in Modesto.

For schools, New Year’s Day is more a midpoint than a fresh start. But the dawn of 2015 seems like a good time to look at big changes for 2014-15 – how the start went and some predictions on the months to come.

For most school districts, efforts to get teachers on board with Common Core State Standards ramped up to fever pitch in early 2014, and instruction started this fall. I asked districts to share their best examples of Common Core this year, tilting coverage toward those most enthused, energetic and excited about the changes.

Going into those classes is a real treat. Not only are the kids doing more creative activities, most can explain what they learned. Think of asking your middle-school child how school went today, and every day getting “Fine.” “OK.” “Good.” This year, your student actually chats about a lesson, describes a teacher, talks about who sat at their lunch table.

That is the difference I’m seeing in these high-functioning classes at every grade level. It is too soon to say if Common Core will be wonderful, but it holds out hope.

Still, not every classroom is a bastion of Socratic discussion and hands-on exploration. The shift to Common Core was nearly a 180-degree turn from memorize-and-parrot-back test prep, and it would be foolhardy to think every teacher and principal made the corner.

It is the thoughtful critics of Common Core that have the most to offer to improve education going forward. Among those who most embodied that earnest, well-informed worry was Dave Geer, who died Sunday. His passing silences a potent voice among local Common Core critics. While unswerving in his dislike of the new standards, he listened before he argued.

Hopefully in 2015, other voices ready to solve problems and move ahead, not just complain and turn back, will make the Common Core debate a more robust and useful discussion.

The other huge change, especially for this area, has been funding. First, there is more. Second, the public gets to weigh in on how to spend it.

California’s new funding formula is phasing in more dollars to serve poor kids and English learners, the children we have in abundance. Result: Most San Joaquin Valley districts are getting significantly more funding. For 2014-15 those larger budgets also had to fit local priorities for spending.

Big-ticket items funded under the fledgling plans this year look a lot like what schools would have done with or without public input. More teacher training. Internet upgrades and more laptops. Long-put-off school repairs and replacing aging buses. Bringing back administrative positions cut in the recession. Higher salaries – beyond restoring pay cut during the recession.

Strong teaching, brighter spaces, better oversight and morale, all benefit kids to one degree or another. But voters were told higher taxes for schools would mean more. Hopes for music, arts, field trips, elective summer school, more after-school slots and beefed-up sports programs are largely still waiting for more money.

It remains to be seen in 2015, as funding levels continue to climb, if community members will come together and press for such expansions.

Crystal ball gazing

Looking at 2015, here are some predictions from the peanut gallery:

1. Results from state testing using computer-adapted technology will be a shock. Any ups or downs from the prior test would be an apples-to-oranges comparison, but I predict people will compare them anyway.

2. Education funding will continue to rise, and there will be pressure to again raise salaries. I predict this year there may be bargaining units willing to trade part of a pay bump to get more teachers (lowering class sizes). Watch how this plays out in your district.

3. A state push to lower early-grade class sizes to 24 could mean a push over the next several years for school bonds to pay for new classrooms. Districts with declining enrollment got rid of their decrepit portables and stopped efficiencies like sharing space with after-school activities.

4. More schools will get laptops for students, necessary if they hope to use online textbooks, assign group homework and groom present-day presentation skills.

5. As Common Core becomes commonplace over the next year, I expect there will be less backlash (except during election cycles and contract disputes).

6. On many fronts, I think there will be a push to get back to the old normal after the churn of so many changes happening simultaneously. The window of opportunity for re-envisioning institutions, opened by the recession, is closing.

Bee education reporter Nan Austin can be reached at or (209) 578-2339. Follow her on Twitter @NanAustin.