K12 education paves its own path

Students will have greater influence in 2019 even as high-stakes tests and other traditional tools persist

Choice—but not necessarily the controversial kind of school choice—will propel public education into 2019 and beyond. Educators and experts predict school leaders will capitalize on the increased flexibility offered by the Every Student Succeeds Act and other trends to give students more of a voice in how they learn and how their progress is measured.

An increasing number of schools will de-emphasize summative tests in favor of projects, portfolios, apprenticeships and other concepts that leverage students’ interests to engage them more deeply in college and career preparation.

Social-emotional learning will also become more entrenched in everyday instruction in 2019 as the concept catches on outside the classroom, the superintendent of one large urban district predicts. In the coming year, more policymakers, business leaders and parents will recognize that SEL promotes equity, safety and the economic success of communities.

However, some well-established conventions of public education—such as traditional grading practices and high-stakes tests—will remain hard to dislodge even as their efficacy falls into greater doubt, some experts and educators say.

Others fear that—due to funding, teaching shortages and other pressures—little progress will be made in ensuring that underserved and special education students receive an equitable education.

More outlook on 2019: Superintendents offer education forecasts

On the following pages, educators look on the bright side (and the not-so-bright side) to predict where public schools will make the most progress and where they will fall short in 2019.

Social-Emotional Learning

Meria Carstarphen, Superintendent, Atlanta Public Schools

Most progress: Organizations beyond school districts will make the social-emotional development of students a top priority. The forthcoming “Report from the Nation,” by the Aspen Institute’s National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development, will inspire researchers, funders, policymakers, business leaders, community organizations and families to collaborate with educators on SEL initiatives.

“We are already hearing of more districts engaging in SEL and finding many benefits for their students and schools—reduced discipline rates, increased academic performance, increased staff and student well-being, and more—not to mention the long-term economic benefits that have been tracked in recent years,” says Carstarphen, a member of the commission.

Every $1 invested in SEL programming generates $11 worth of workforce production and citizen engagement, she adds.

Read more from DA: SEL checkups at school

“This call to action will be for all of us to connect the dots in a commonsense way … so this work is done with fidelity and for the benefit of all children, regardless of zip code or circumstance,” Carstarphen says.

Fall short: SEL initiatives will fall short if educators and their partners don’t find common ground to focus on whole-child education. That means educators will need support from the state and federal levels. “We know what works; we just have to have the will to do it and not let up on the momentum that is currently happening in this space,” she says. “This is not a partisan issue, nor should it be. I think this work is too important to fail.”


Starr Sackstein, Director of Humanities, West Hempstead Union Free School District (N.Y.); author of Hacking Assessment (Times 10 Publications, 2015)

Most progress: Traditional grading, despite growing dissatisfaction, won’t disappear in 2019, Sackstein says. But thanks to flexibility from ESSA, more educators will shift to new assessment methods.

“Many people are starting to make choices that put more onus on the students to be a part of the assessment process by implementing self-reflection in determining what kids know and can do,” she says. The trend toward self-assessment should also allow more students to choose to take more advanced classes, rather than having to rely on teacher recommendations.

Fall short: Widespread adoption of self-assessments and other new techniques will face some hurdles. “Since standardized testing still plays such a large role in state and federal funding, it’s hard for teachers to go all the way,” Sackstein says.

Higher education will continue to have a big impact on transformations in K12 testing, as colleges and universities de-emphasize standardized test scores in admissions. “I’d love to see more portfolio assessment to replace testing, but I don’t see that happening soon enough,” she says. “Colleges and universities are starting to adjust admissions processes, and perhaps in the future, transcripts will look and function differently.”

Finally, continued inequity will reveal the need for more programs to support the achievement of a range of underserved students, such as English language learners.

W. James Popham, Professor Emeritus, Graduate School of Education and Information Studies, UCLA

Most progress: More educators, parents and policymakers will become “assessment literate,” Popham says. “My hope is there will be sufficient recognition of the critical role that tests play in influencing the nature of what’s taught and how it’s taught. For many, many years, we simply assumed the tests being used were the right tests. It’s an incorrect assumption.”

Assessment-literate people will increasingly demand proof that tests scores allow educators to make improvements and that student performance is being measured accurately.

Fall short: ESSA has relaxed some of the pressures around standardized testing, and district leaders have more flexibility as a result. But, Popham says, states may slide back toward a “soft” No Child Left Behind stance of higher stakes.

“I expect a continuation of the widespread but mistaken belief that ‘a test is a test is a test,’ whereby people assume that standardized assessments built at great cost can do anything—for example, help with teachers’ instructional decisions and evaluate the effectiveness of teachers or schools,” Popham says.

A lot depends on the federal guidance given to states as they update testing regimes. Flexibility is more likely to remain in the higher grades as colleges de-emphasize SAT and ACT scores.

“Beyond that, I think we’ll see the usual grade 3 through 8 testing being very similar in large measure because people don’t know how else to do it,” he says.

Grading & Homework

Cathy Vatterott, Professor of Education. University of Missouri-St. Louis

Most progress: The shift toward standards-based grading that more clearly reflects learning will accelerate. Another old model that will fade—due, in part, to parent activism—is homework. “We are moving away from a time when homework was assigned as tradition, with little thought given to how the task related to the ultimate learning outcome,” Vatterott says.

Read more from DA: Homework overhaul in schools

More district leaders will require relevant and age-appropriate homework that doesn’t necessarily have to be graded. Educators—particularly those at “pressure-cooker” schools—will revise grading and homework with an eye toward students’ emotional well-being.

“I see a movement afoot to focus on the mental health of K12 students and how our educational practices unwittingly contribute to the general stress level of students,” she says. “It seems ludicrous that we are talking about the need for work-life balance for K12 students.”

Fall short: Schools will still try to teach too much. “Our curriculums are so glutted that teachers don’t have time to focus on deeper learning or to give students the time they need to master concepts and skills,” Vatterott says.

Instructional transitions from low-level factual content to higher-order thinking skills will take time because educators may not get the training they need to differentiate instruction. Districts will also struggle to make the scheduling and staffing changes required to provide this type of PD. “After all these years of knowing it is the right thing to do, many teachers still aren’t sure how to go about it and how to find the time needed to reteach,” she says.


Andy Trujillo, Director of Student Services, Strongsville City Schools (Ohio)

Most progress: Educators will make strides in assessing threats against their schools. “Up until now, the response has been more reactionary in terms of what can we do to decrease casualties,” Trujillo says. District leaders will improve their ability to distinguish credible threats from baseless schoolyard banter—such as when quarreling friends taunt each other on the playground. “Students might say the same words—‘I want to kill you’—but the context matters,” he says. District leaders, working closely with police, will learn to determine when a student shows signs of following through on a violent threat.

Fall short: Districts can’t rely solely on technology to keep schools safe. Everyone in a school, from principals to teachers to custodial staff to students, will need to be better educated to spot real threats. This work includes beefing up social-emotional initiatives to identify and intervene when students appear to be at early risk for lashing out. “We need to be able to reach people in new ways as society changes,” Trujillo says.

School Reform

Jeffrey Benson, Consultant and Author of Hanging In (ASCD, 2014) and Teaching the Whole Teen (Corwin, 2016)

Most progress: Restorative-justice disciplinary initiatives will expand as research continues to show disproportionate suspension rates for boys of color and also “the failure of suspensions to prevent more suspensions,” says Benson, who spent 40 years as a teacher and administrator.

Districts will increasingly adopt interventions that seek to repair harm, rather than determine which rules were broken. These methods will catch on more widely because they’re effective in repairing relationships between students and teachers. “Repairing relationships—through restorative circles and dialogues—dovetails with social-emotional learning initiatives,” Benson says.

“And brain science tells us again and again that we learn best when we are in healthy relationships with our teachers.”

Fall short: The nation will continue to fall short of funding schools to adequately educate every child. “Critics of public education will say it’s not about the money, but public schools have never seen the real money needed,” Benson says. “In 2019, we will again demand too much of public school teachers with too many students and not enough resources.”

In 2016, for example, schools spent an average $12,296 per student. The average cost of a nonsectarian private high school was over $25,000 per year, with some surpassing $40,000, he says.

“Those elite private school tuitions are our best indicator of what we need to spend on every child.”

Design Thinking

Alyssa Gallagher, Consultant and Former Administrator

Most progress: Design thinking will catch on as district leaders seek new tools to empower teachers to solve problems and to encourage students to become a bigger part of the learning process.

Read more from DA: Design thinking in education

“It is grounded in empathy, which should be the driving force behind changes made in our schools,” Gallagher says. “It can be a catalyst for changing the culture of powerlessness that exists in many schools today.”

By devising their own solutions, educators can innovate to improve instruction more quickly than can federal or state policies. “Design thinking offers a lens to not only think through our challenges differently, but to act on them in an iterative way, creating solutions that are desirable, feasible and attainable,” she says.

Fall short: Considering external pressures around accountability, some schools and district leaders may hesitate to adopt design thinking.

“Design thinking is messy and nonlinear, which can make it challenging for educators to embrace,” Gallagher says. “Its open-endedness can feel counterintuitive in a world that is often driven by mandates, top-down decisions and rigid rules.

Special Education

Laurie VanderPloeg, President, Council for Exceptional Children

Most progress: Educators across the country will go into the new year with high expectations for improving instruction and outcomes for students with special needs. Strategies will impact pre-K all the way up to high school, and run the gamut, from enhancing curriculum and assessments to reducing absenteeism.

“One area where we anticipate seeing improvement is the overall graduation rate of students with disabilities,” VanderPloeg says. “There’s a higher emphasis on work readiness, and making sure there’s a strong balance between the core curriculum and soft- and hard-skill development, so students have a higher level of employability and can meet graduation requirements.”

SEL programs for students with disabilities should also advance, as districts upgrade PD and implement a multitiered system of supports, positive behavioral interventions and supports, and similar programs. “There will be a lot of very intentional emphasis around SEL and school climate across the nation,” she says.

Fall short: Special education will continue to struggle with a worsening shortage of qualified teachers. “We are very challenged within our programs to maintain high-quality special ed and early intervention when we don’t have staff who are experienced or certified,” VanderPloeg says.

In response, the Council for Exceptional Children and similar organizations will work to recruit more teachers by collaborating with higher education to enhance teacher preparation programs. The council will also expand updated PD programs to retain special ed teachers.

Project-Based Learning

Bob Lenz, Executive Director, Buck Institute for Education

Most progress: Project-based learning will become even more entrenched as educators seek ways to engage students more deeply in skills development and in solving personal and community challenges. “There’s a growing realization that the world has changed dramatically since most of us who are leading schools were in school,” Lenz says. “But for the most part, most of the ways we do school haven’t changed dramatically in the last three or four decades.”

The quickening shift to PBL will be driven, in part, by ESSA and the greater degree of flexibility it has given schools and states to measure achievement with portfolios and other tools that aren’t high-stakes tests. “You don’t have to completely redesign schools or classrooms,” he says. “Educators continue to look for solutions that are simple enough that every teacher can make it happen so every kid has a chance to do some deeper-type learning.”

Fall short: However, enthusiasm for project-based learning may stall if district leaders don’t put adequate professional development behind it or set standards for the knowledge and skills PBL should convey to students. The latter will require establishing a “graduate profile,” Lenz says. “Educators often fall short of creating the culture of respect and trust—and of having a shared set of agreements for learning together—that indicates a safe place to innovate,” he says.

In collaboration with other education organizations, the Buck Institute is developing a framework for high-quality project-based learning.


Thomas C. Murray, Director of innovation, Future Ready Schools

Most progress: The zeal of district leaders to solve problems inspires hope, Murray says. “They continue to run through walls on big issues such as equity,” he says. “They find ways to do more and more with less and less each year.”

In 2019, educators will experiment and innovate as ESSA allows more flexibility in driving achievement than did No Child Left Behind. “Educators can make better decisions about what kids need at a localized level,” he says.

A focus on the whole child and social-emotional development—rather than just test scores—will be another positive result of the transition from NCLB. “Districts are more than ever before leveraging student interests, passions and unique talents to empower student agency,” Murray says. “Districts understand that utilizing a one-size-fits-all, sit-and-get approach is educational malpractice.”

Fall short: ESSA, however, comes with some counterproductive side effects. NCLB revealed some wide achievement gaps. Ironically, with ESSA’s increased autonomy, a dozen states have stopped dividing student achievement and other data into subgroups (such as low-income students), and more may follow suit, Murray says. “We don’t want to see local districts and states making decisions that negatively impact underserved students because of the removal of the accountability piece,” he says. “Without needed guardrails, we don’t want to see disparities increase.”

Somewhere in between: High school graduation rates are likely to increase again in 2019. However, educators will have to focus on the quality of those diplomas, Murray says. “When you talk about large graduation rates, you’re comparing apples to oranges when comparing states,” he says. While the graduatiobn rate has risen above 80 percent, less than 40 percent of those students are prepared for post-secondary education, research has shown.

Special Education

National Association of Special Education Teachers

Most progress: Districts will provide more PD to general education teachers so they can better serve students with special needs who are joining their classrooms, the organization says. This PD will cover classroom management strategies, curriculum design and working with parents of students with special needs, among other topics. Concerning the shortage of special ed teachers, the organization also believes more college students who graduate with general education degrees will go on to pursue masters degrees in special education.

Fall short: There is no urgency at the federal level to reauthorize the Individuals with Disabilities Education Improvement Act. That means federal special education guidelines or best practices are unlikely to be updated.

Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick
Matt Zalaznick is a life-long journalist. Prior to writing for District Administration he worked in daily news all over the country, from the NYC suburbs to the Rocky Mountains, Silicon Valley and the U.S. Virgin Islands. He's also in a band.

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