Nan Austin

Crystal ball dusty, but here are educated guesses for 2016

The Modesto Bee

January always feels like a beginning. The holiday clutter is cleared, the sweets stowed or passed along to the next self-discipline-lacking sap. All those pledges to be more organized, exercised, articulate – taller! – seem so possible.

In the spirit of eternal optimism, because kids keep learning and growing no matter what, here are my thoughts on what’s coming this year.

First, spoiler alert, I can tell you four topics that definitely will be in the news because I chose them for The Bee’s quarterly Eye on Education special sections. Last year, we tackled the tech revolution, preschool learning time, career classes and middle-school years. This year, we have four new topics on our radar. Teachers – please toot your own horn if your class has great examples for any of these!

1. Common Core math, planned for March 26: The shift toward reading nonfiction got a lot of criticism early on, but the bigger change has been in math. The hope is to improve higher-math skills by helping kids grasp the underlying concepts and use math skills interchangeably instead of in separate courses. Now in its second year for most districts, we will look for classroom teachers’ take on what’s working, what they’ve had to tweak and parent tips. Plus, we will invite pro and con views by guest writers.

2. Water science, planned for June 18: An EPA grant will help develop environmental science education around water, organized by the Tuolumne River Trust and piloted in Hughson schools. We’ll talk to the community groups providing the expertise for different grades in the program, and we will see what environmental science teachers already do, including wetlands, conservation, oceans and fish.

3. College bound, planned for Sept. 17: Online tools have made the application process easier for college and financial aid or scholarships, but it still takes an insider playbook to know the angles. We’ll ask admissions folks what they look for and talk to high school counselors about the deadlines, the SAT/ACT debate, class choices that keep kids’ options open and even early-grade extras to grease the wheels.

4. Arts in education, planned for Dec. 10: With the recession behind us (at least in school funding) and new flexibility in how schools spend their money, what arts programs are flourishing? Where has arts-infused teaching made lessons sing, writings rhyme, history repeat (to applause)? We will look for great examples to inspire.

In education news I do not control, there are still some fairly sure bets.

Money: With more to spend this year and next before Proposition 30 taxes start to expire, I predict there will be more public tussles over how to spend it. Right now, teacher raises are in the news because negotiations are at a fever pitch in several large districts. But by the end of the year, gains in administrative pay and staffing will be easier to see. Effective community activism on behalf of specific groups or concerns via local-control input sessions has had a slow start, but I expect it to gain steam.

Buildings: The change in financing campus maintenance and makeovers is like a kid switching from parents paying for everything to having their own apartment and needing to budget. The state used to pay half of all building costs – all the cost for high-poverty districts – and sent money that had to be used for maintenance. Getting to the top of the state list was not easy or sure, but once in the door everything was half off. With the state bowing out of school construction, local decisions have to be made between spending on the buildings or the people inside them. During the recession, maintenance was put on hold, so expensive, unglamorous things such as roofs and air conditioners are calling.

Technology: Look for more schools to send laptops or other devices home with students this year as parent expectations and industry deals press the coming wave forward. Tech-savvy folks not in the direct line of marketing fire advise not buying on the cutting edge – too many bugs in the beta phase. But more important than which brand or device is picked, is having a plan to pay for steady replacements every three to five years and enough tech support to keep them running.

Curriculum: After an utterly flawed start in the Common Core era, look for textbook publishers/test-makers (megacompanies are doing both) to up their online game this year. The best will offer materials with instant progress checks built in to help teachers see who got it or where kids missed the boat before they move on to the next lesson. Lack of ready-made teaching materials and a wait-and-see posture as districts figured out how soon they could get kids on computers left teachers scrambling to have lessons ready.

Black Minds Matter: That was the title of a statewide study by The Education Trust-West that found African American children are three times more likely to be expelled and twice as likely to feel unsafe at school than white children. Long-standing disparities in African American discipline statistics are not just an urban problem. Modesto City Schools is under state mandate to reduce its disproportionately high number of African Americans with disabilities suspended or expelled – small numbers, but year after year more than the norm. In a year when civil rights will be in the spotlight, I expect to see more push for change by longtime community voices this year.

Special ed: A state-commissioned blue-ribbon panel issued its findings last year. A set of reports offers practical, step-by-step paths to improve services and life prospects for the roughly 12 percent of students with disabilities, as well as the kids who fail to qualify for special education but still need extra help. Two key recommendations were to give all teachers more and better training to handle student differences, and to stop dividing resources between special and regular ed, what have become in many ways two competing systems. Despite the expense, California has among the worst outcomes of any state for these children. It takes real optimism to see significant reforms happening in this complex arena in 2016, but I include it with hope as my one pie-in-the-sky prediction.

Resolutions: Enough about getting thinner, the New Year’s resolution of 49 percent of people, according to a Harris Poll for Brandman University released Dec. 29. I pledge to put a higher priority on healthy eating and less sitting, goals I can reach every day.

For education coverage, I will bring back my goal of going to at least one school board meeting in every district I cover. There are about 75 of them, so wish me luck. If past experience is any guide, I will be the only attendee at most meetings, outside of union reps and administrators on the hook to give a report.

Which is why I keep haranguing readers to take an interest in how their school districts operate, or at least how they spend their money. It’s all public, but if no one is watching, what does that matter? Like electing who you think is the right guy or winning the lottery, “local control” does not happen without an action step.