Top stories of 2018: School safety and mid-terms drive activism

School shootings, teacher strikes and social-emotional learning topped 2018 headlines in K12 education

School violence and teacher strikes dominated education news during 2018. But last year also saw empowered students voicing their frustrations: Youth activism surged around gun control, safer schools, immigration, voting and LGBTQ issues. Adults and politicians, meanwhile, countered with contradictory calls for gun control and arming school employees.

In the midterm elections, educators ran for office in high numbers and some won—most notably two Midwestern governors and Connecticut’s first black member of Congress. How will these and other issues develop in 2019? Perhaps we can find guidance by taking a look back.

Equity: Academic and emotional gaps

Achievement growth began to take precedence over standardized test scores as educators worked to close academic and wellness gaps between students of different socioeconomic backgrounds. In California, for example, a handful of districts began tracking students’ year-over-year performance more aggressively in an effort to better understand the effectiveness of instruction.

From a federal standpoint, the U.S. Department of Education awarded five-year family engagement grants in 11 states, including over $14 million for statewide family engagement centers in Arizona, Nebraska and Kentucky. These facilities train educators in literacy and engagement initiatives for disadvantaged students, and they include online learning activities and adult skill-building.

Educators also worked to eliminate disparities in school discipline that result in more frequent and stringent punishment of minorities.
“Closing in on Discipline Disproportionality,” a report published in School Psychology Review, examined professional development programs that reduce inequities in discipline. Models such as Double Check and Greet-Stop-Prompt promote restorative justice and consider how trauma causes bad behavior, the report found.

A YouthTruth student survey of 160,000 students, many from high-poverty, urban schools, found that 1 in 3 students reported being bullied in the 2017-18 school year. Yet researchers indicated that simply punishing bullies may not always be optimal.

For instance, schools can add counseling and mediation to promote self-awareness and prevent aggressive behavior, says Jonathan Cohen, a psychologist and an adjunct professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College.

Health: Battle against e-cigarettes

Though nowhere near late-1990s levels—when more than a third of high school students reported smoking—use of cigarettes by teens rose again in 2018.

Over 8 percent reported smoking last year, compared with 7.6 percent in 2017, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Youth Tobacco Survey.

Educators and parents blame e-cigarettes for the increase. Nearly 10 percent of teens ages 15-17 reported having vaped, according to a national survey published in Tobacco Control in October 2018.

Read moreSchools crack down on vaping and e-cigarettes

The Juul Labs brand in particular has been in the sights of parents, schools and regulators because its flavors are popular with students and its devices are easy
to conceal.

In fall 2018, the Food and Drug Administration demanded that five e-cigarette companies, including Juul, submit plans to reduce teen usage. In early November, regulators said they will work to ban e-cigarette sales at gas stations, convenience stores and other retail locations, and also institute age-verification requirements for purchasing e-cigarettes online.

Juul then announced on November 13 that it was suspending most flavored e-cigarette pod sales in over 90,000 retail stores and specialty vape shops to combat underage use. It also stopped social media promotions, and implemented additional age-verification steps and bulk shipment restrictions, according to the company.

At the same time, parents nationwide pushed to have their children treated with marijuana at school for symptoms such as intractable nausea, epileptic seizures and severe muscle spasms. Three states, Colorado, New Jersey and Maine, now have standards for medical marijuana administration on school grounds.

Read moreMedical marijuana pushes boundaries in school district policies

Politics: Educators, teens get involved

Student activism, especially in high schools, surged after 17 students and educators were killed at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, last February. A group of Parkland survivors became familiar faces in the media, and students organized gun control marches around the country.

That activism led to an estimated 31 percent of 18- to 29-year-olds voting in the 2018 election, versus 21 percent in the 2014 midterms, according to the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement.

A large majority of the additional voters supported Democratic candidates, according to Tisch College’s Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University. Overall, more than two-thirds of voters under 30 cast ballots
for Democrats.

Last year was also a year of record-breaking political involvement. The National Education Association estimated that nearly 1,800 past or present educators ran for office in the 2018 midterms, and about 1,000 won, including:

    • Wisconsin Gov. Tony Evers, a former district superintendent and state superintendent of education
    • Minnesota Gov. Tim Walz, a congressman and former high school teacher
    • Jahana Hayes, a 2016 teacher of the year who was elected to Congress from Connecticut

Read moreMidterm election results: What’s the impact on K12 education?

Teachers: Labor unrest spreads

Teachers campaigning for increased pay and benefits walked off the job in several states in 2018. This began in February in West Virginia: A two-week strike led to a 5 percent pay raise for all school and state employees.

In April, Oklahoma saw its first major teacher strike since 1990. Shortly thereafter, nearly 20,000 Arizona teachers walked out. On May 3, Arizona’s governor agreed to increase salaries for teachers and support staff, and reduce student-to-counselor ratios.

In the fall, 13 school districts in Washington state picketed, delaying the start of school for nearly 125,000 students. In November, after three state mediation sessions, the teacher’s union in the 640,000-student Los Angeles USD authorized a strike for January if negotiations fail.

The summer delivered some uneasy news for teachers’ unions. A U.S. Supreme Court decision in Janus v. the American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees prohibited public-employee unions from gathering collective bargaining fees from workers who decline union membership.

Safety: Software and guns

Facial recognition software generated more controversy. In July, Seattle-based RealNetworks offered a free facial recognition tool that could be downloaded and integrated into school camera systems. But adoption of this and other facial recognition tools has been sluggish because of privacy issues and allegations that software misidentifies people of color and women more frequently than it does white men.

With the first school shootings of 2018 taking place in Texas and Kentucky in January—followed by an average of one shooting per week—education leaders continued to search for ways to stem the violence. A small but growing number of districts considered arming teachers
and employees.

Rural districts in areas of Missouri, for instance, already arm employees due to their schools’ distance from first responders and limited budgets for school resource officers. Several districts in Georgia and a few in other states followed suit.

In August, the National Association of School Psychologists strongly opposed a proposal from Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos that would allow schools to use federal Title IV, Part A funds to purchase firearms.

The association instead called for better access to mental health services, investments in threat assessment practices, and efforts to foster more inclusive school environments.
Many teachers also pushed back against the idea of being armed. On social media, they used the #ArmMeWith hashtag to ask district administrators and legislators to “arm” them with more school supplies and resources.

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