12/18/2014 10:46 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

TNTP's Favorite Thinkers Review 2014


By Tim Daly

The holiday season is always a good time to reflect on a year quickly winding to a close. Like last year, we asked a handful of the most thoughtful, thought-provoking people in education to do just that. In the following pieces, our contributors let us know what they consider the most significant development in education this year, and predict the likely impact of that development in the year ahead. From Common Core to school discipline, immigration to the events in Ferguson, Missouri, each voice raises important questions about progress and challenges in 2014, and offers wisdom and ambitious goals for 2015. We thank our contributors for their thoughts, and all of you for reading. See you in January.


Our Contributors:

Jennifer Corroy, 2013 Fishman Prize Winner

Peter Cunningham, Founder, Education Post

Howard Fuller, Distinguished Professor of Education and Founder/Director, Institute for the Transformation of Learning, Marquette University

Dana Goldstein, Author, The Teacher Wars 

Whitney Henderson, 2012 Fishman Prize Winner

Kevin Huffman, Departing Commissioner for Education, Tennessee

Marcellus McRae, Lead Co-Counsel for Plaintiffs, Vergara v. California


Jennifer Corroy, 2013 Fishman Prize Winner and English Teacher, IDEA College Preparatory, Donna, TX

We got to know Jenny when she was a 2013 recipient of the Fishman Prize. I learned so much from her about how to teach high school literature. I also learned what it means to have a passion for teaching. In a popular blog post last summer, she explained that choosing to teach—and to remain in the classroom even when bombarded with offers to do other things—is not a martyr’s choice. It’s something she does because teaching is just that worthy, that demanding, and that meaningful. She is not “just a teacher.” Here, Jenny touches on one of the most under-discussed policy events of 2014: President Obama’s expansion of protections for young people who arrived in the US illegally. As a teacher in the Rio Grande Valley, Jenny is in a better position to assess implications than almost anybody.

It’s hard to believe that some of my students are already working on their renewal paperwork for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA). Recently, President Obama announced his executive action on immigration, and I find myself wondering again: What does this development mean for my students, my classroom, and my country?

The expansion of DACA eligibility means that more children can stop living in constant fear of deportation. Allowing the parents of citizens and permanent residents to remain united with their families removes a similar fear, and facilitates parental involvement in a child’s education. On a daily basis, these policies mean that more of our students show up to school every day better able to focus on developing the tremendous potential we know they possess.

Additionally, the way our nation’s leaders are responding to immigration reform is shaping the mindsets of a new generation of voters and citizens. Many of my current and former students are directly affected by these policies, and they are acutely aware of the extent to which our nation’s lawmakers are—or are not—helping them, their families, and their friends thrive.

We have a long way to go before I’ll stop wondering about whether or not all of my high school seniors can make the most of the futures for which they have worked so hard. DACA recipients still face many obstacles to obtaining and affording a college education and parents of DACA recipients are not included in the relief provided to parents of citizens. I have great hope that in 2015 more opportunities will be available for all students through inclusive scholarships, access to financial aid, in-state tuition rates, and the assurance that they and their families are safe in the country they call home. 


Peter Cunningham, Journalist and Founder of Education Post

One of the most common things I hear from journalists newly assigned to the national education beat is their surprise at how nasty it can be. This coming from people who have covered wars. They have a point. Peter Cunningham stands as one of the most compelling antidotes to that nastiness. After years of service in Washington as an advisor to Secretary Arne Duncan, this year Peter founded the Education Post, an organization dedicated to a better, more productive, and civil conversation about our sector. You’ve probably become a reader of their blog posts, tweets, and opinion pieces. Peter takes real positions but bases them in appeals to what we all agree on, not what divides us. It’s not an easy job but I would expect to see the Education Post take on an increasingly visible role in 2015.

As the calendar turns from 2014 to 2015, I focus increasingly on the level of public confidence in public education. Many surveys show satisfaction among parents with their own schools but declining confidence in the system as a whole.

The cause of the decline can be traced to many sources: politicians and media yelling about federal over-reach and Common Core standards; people and organizations opposing efforts to improve schools despite persistently unacceptable student outcomes; and reformers constantly highlighting the failures of the system as their case for change.

Interestingly, confidence is down as America has record-high rates of high school graduation and college enrollment. The problem is that barely a quarter of American high school graduates are really ready for college, according to ACT, and outcomes remain inequitable by income level, race and other factors.

Looking ahead to 2015, the best hope is that reasonable voices prevail over the more caustic voices on the extremes. Moderate Republicans are starting to push back on the Tea Party around high standards. The fact is, despite all the noise, just three states have officially dropped Common Core and it is well into implementation at the classroom level in over 40 states. Countless teachers have spoken out in favor of the standards. Every day offers more evidence that students are being challenged and inspired in new and better ways.

On the progressive side of the fence, organized resistance to accountability is growing, prompted partly by over-testing and partly by the use of test scores among other factors to evaluate teachers and principals. Again, despite the pushback, no one has offered a practical, responsible alternative to test-based accountability that truly protects all children at risk. Until that happens, some version of the current system will likely remain.

The issue will come to a head this year when the new Common Core-aligned tests are administered and scores come back showing how many young students are not on track to reach college. Parents may rebel and reject the tests and the higher standards or they will embrace the truth and come together around common sense reforms that better prepare young people for college, work, and life.

Both of the major trends of this year—resistance to standards and accountability—will also shape the fast-moving effort to update the Elementary and Secondary Education Act, also known as No Child Left Behind. Will extreme views prevail, will America retreat and will kids lose—or will the reasonable center hold? I’m betting on the center.


Howard Fuller, Distinguished Professor of Education and Founder/Director, Institute for the Transformation of Learning, Marquette University 

Public policy has a general tendency toward tribalism. You adopt the positions of your allies not because you necessarily believe them, but because these are your allies, after all, and you don’t want to be at odds. But tribalism erodes our debates and suppresses innovation. Enter Howard Fuller. He exemplifies the concept of thinking for yourself. His career is a long one that includes activism, district leadership, advocacy for school choice, and this year, publication of an outstanding book that documents it all: No Struggle, No Progress. Well worth reading. No one in education more consistently demands that we live up to our platitudes or question tribal positions like Howard. On the question of choice, he asks why, if we mean to increase access to good schools, so many choice advocates accept that private schools remain a choice only for the wealthy.

As we look forward to a new year, those of us who support parental choice for low income and working class families continue to deal with hostility from opponents and skepticism from people who should be our allies. Some of our opponents continue philosophizing about the need to protect the traditional public school system’s funds and institutional prerogatives, even as they put their own children in private schools. While some education reformers have said giving these families choice through efforts like vouchers or tax credits is a “distraction” or a “political liability.”

We have three sectors that deliver education at the elementary and secondary level—traditional public schools, charter schools and private schools. Why would those of us who say we want to close the “achievement gap” not want to ensure that our poorest children have access to all three of these sectors? When did fighting to empower poor people in this country become a “distraction”?

Consider the impact of putting the right kind of parental choice in the hands of families who have little or no power because they control no resources, no levers of influence over the decisions or the decision-making process that impacts their children’s education. Consider how this power could change the shape of the future for their children. And consider how the absence of this power may mean their children will be trapped in schools that more affluent parents who oppose parental choice would never tolerate for their own children. 

The right kind of parental choice programs will give a measure of equity to parents such as these who have long been denied a real voice in the educational affairs of their children. They provide access to educational environments that were inaccessible or did not exist prior to the programs. They provide a way out for children who need an escape hatch, while at the same time putting pressure on the traditional systems, public and private, to get better.

Parental choice programs and policies properly implemented can provide a measure of equity and enhanced accessibility, and by doing so increase the likelihood that many more children will be able to gain the skills needed to be effective participants in a democratic society. 


Dana Goldstein, Author, The Teacher Wars and Bernard L. Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation

It was a breakout year for Dana. A veteran education journalist, she published a well-researched book examining how many of today’s education debates echo those of decades and even centuries past. It will expand your understanding of the teaching profession much the way Amanda Ripley’s book last year changed what you knew about international comparisons. The Teacher Wars was appropriately applauded by many major media outlets and found quite an audience. Put it on your holiday reading list. Perhaps you won’t agree with every recommendation Dana makes, but that’s not the point. She asks the right questions and reminds us to avoid grabbing at the easy answers. Here, she suggests we turn our attention to matters of school discipline.

In 2014, I was relieved to see increased attention on student discipline in the media, from the Obama administration, and in school districts. As I researched the history of American public school teaching for my book, The Teacher Wars, I was surprised to learn how crucial discipline issues have been over time. In 1897, one of the founding demands of the nation's first teachers' union, the Chicago Teachers Federation, was the right to remove unruly students from the classroom. (At the time, urban classes were clogged with as many as 60 children.) In the years leading up to the disastrous New York City teachers' strike of 1968, the United Federation of Teachers had, similarly, pushed for the right to evict kids from class, which was seen by many parent activists as a racially biased policy. 

Today we know that 20 percent of black boys and 12 percent of black girls are suspended from school each year, compared to 6 percent of white boys and 2 percent of white girls. Students who are suspended experience academic delays relative to their similar peers who are not suspended, and become twice as likely to drop out and get involved in the criminal justice system. We've heard shocking stories this year of children being paddled and locked in isolation cells

This national conversation is long overdue. And yet, I feel a twinge of anxiety about calls for student discipline data to be included in teacher evaluation systems. Some schools, such as those that embrace either a "no excuses" or "restorative justice" ideology, provide teachers with a concrete set of strategies for dealing with misbehavior. But at most schools, teachers are left to learn these skills on their own. If we're going to hold teachers accountable for keeping disruptive kids in class and re-engaging them with the curriculum, we need to make sure that schools and teacher training programs are able to provide teachers with real professional development to help them move beyond the status quo. And the status quo, for many teachers, remains sending "bad kids" to the office, where they are apt to get suspended.


Whitney Henderson, 2012 Fishman Prize Winner and Assistant Principal and History Teacher, KIPP Central City Academy, New Orleans, LA

Whitney was among the five inaugural winners of the Fishman Prize in 2012. After migrating to New Orleans post-Katrina, she and educators like her have undertaken the herculean task of rebuilding a school system from scratch. You will not come across a more gifted teacher or advocate for children. Whitney is also a native of East St Louis, Illinois, a community not far from Ferguson, Missouri. We were grateful to Whitney for sharing some perspective on the tragic death of Michael Brown, an unarmed 18 year-old African American man, and the subsequent grand jury decision not to indict the police officer involved (we’re sharing an excerpt here, but be sure to read her piece in full). This issue hits home for her in so many ways. Her words hit home for me. The events in Ferguson and similar events elsewhere must be addressed in 2015. This wasn’t just something that happened. It’s something that keeps happening, over and over, and as educators we need to play a bigger role in making it stop.

Within minutes of the grand jury’s announcement, I heard bullets fired just blocks away from my parents’ home. Within a few hours, all over the city, the streets were filled with angry protestors exercising their first amendment rights. Others shared their opinions on social media, where it seemed like the worst in some people was suddenly revealed. One post in particular stood out in my Facebook feed: “Why are they destroying their own city? I just don’t get why they are so angry?!” 

I couldn’t bring myself to respond to such an utter lack of perspective on our nation’s history.  This lack of empathy is too often rooted in the way we teach history in our schools. History in the typical textbook is told through a lens of white privilege. It portrays the outraged colonists of the Boston Tea Party, for example, as heroes who channeled their anger into one of the greatest revolutions of all time. Yet through a different lens, masked protestors boarding someone else’s ship and destroying $18,000 worth of British tea could be seen as criminal. Our history is quick to glorify such demonstrations—when white people take the lead.     

Let me be clear: This does not mean I believe in teaching my students to embrace property damage or violent forms of protest. It means teaching students that, throughout history, demonstrations and free speech can look very different through different lenses. In teaching our first amendment rights, students of all backgrounds need to know that those rights apply equally to all. Including, equally, those who are advocating on behalf of Officer Wilson and those who believe an injustice has been done by failing to indict him.

As an educator of black children, my daily struggle is to toggle between the abridged and unabridged versions of history for the sake of my student’s self-worth, giving them different lenses to interpret history. Textbooks and the media too often reinforce a dangerous message for my students: America’s values—the very things this nation stands for—basically don’t apply to you. 

Yet in the words of Langston Hughes, “I, Too, Sing America.” And so do my students. I want them to understand history through a lens that is broad enough to include the experiences of people of color. I want them to understand how oppression and resistance have occurred in many ways throughout history, from masked colonists challenging colonial authority to thousands demonstrating in the streets of Ferguson and across the country.


Kevin Huffman, Departing Commissioner for Education in Tennessee

You may know Kevin as the departing Commissioner for Education in Tennessee—a man who guided his state’s implementation of new standards and greater accountability for educators. You may also know that Tennessee achieved jaw-dropping gains on national assessments on his watch. He leaves behind a track record that is the envy of many state chiefs across the country. What you may not know about Kevin Huffman is that in a previous life, he was named America’s Next Great Pundit by the Washington Post. Few are better at cutting to the heart of an argument. In this piece, he looks ahead to the re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act by the new Congress and the widely expected right-left coalition that will lobby to end annual assessment of students.

One of the most notable developments in 2014 was an emerging alliance between the far right and far left. It took Common Core to bring them together, but other battles await.

The Tea Party claims to care about government spending, yet its opposition to the Common Core regularly leads to waste: creation of new, unneeded standards; wasteful amelioration of training and curricular resources. Indeed, this opposition—which too often trades in misinformation and conspiracy theories—is a direct barrier to conservative reforms. The lack of strong standards and effective assessment prevents states from measuring teacher and school quality, implementing performance pay, highlighting the need for family choice, or effectively managing $600 billion of taxpayer investments.

Interestingly enough, if you read much of the far right’s alarmist rhetoric on education, replete with guilt-by-association conspiracies and corporate fear-mongering (here’s a classic example), it is virtually indistinguishable from that of the far left.

The unions and the far left oppose meaningful accountability for adults working in education. Admissions that teachers and schools can—and, therefore must—improve American schools impedes other political goals. Inconveniently for these groups, meaningful assessments aligned against benchmarked standards might lead to reasonable inferences about the adults responsible for our education system.

In 2014, the far left regularly stood in the way of the implementation of high standards and high quality as well as rigorous assessments with corresponding accountability. Eagerly embracing conspiracy claims, their writings on this topic are virtually indistinguishable from those of the Tea Party. In fact, the far left and far right regularly cross-post each other’s education musings, with seemingly no sense of irony.

In 2015, this alliance will square up against annual assessment in ESEA. The only question is whether the civil rights community and the business community—the voices of reason within both two party bases—can push back for the good of the country. Will the civil rights groups fight to continue the progress African American and Latino students have made since 2000? Will the business community ask to ensure some return on investment for the federal government’s tens of billions of dollars?

If not, expect the extremists on both sides to hold their noses, hold hands, and yell, “Local control!” And prepare for a decade of stagnant performance for poor kids in America.


Marcellus McRae, Lead Co-Counsel for the Plaintiffs, Vergara v. California

The Vergara trial was one of the biggest stories of the year and ended with a verdict that says some state laws are preventing students from receiving the education guaranteed to them by the state constitution. If you watched any footage of the trial (it’s worth checking out), you know that Marcellus McRae was the showstopper. As one of the plaintiff’s attorneys, he put on one clinic after another cross-examining defense witnesses. He coaxed several admissions on the witness stand that showed up in the judge’s ultimate verdict. What was perhaps most impressive however, was McRae’s closing argument: some of the most passionate, forceful, reasoned thinking on educational equity you’ll ever hear. You can check it out here.

By many accounts, the trial and ruling in the education equality case, Vergara v. California, significantly contributed to resetting the conversation where it should have been all along: recognizing that teacher quality matters and the purpose of our education systems is first and foremost to ensure all students are provided a quality education. The Vergara case challenged California’s permanent employment, dismissal, and “last-in, first-out” education statutes. The evidence presented at trial was overwhelming to the point where nobody—not teachers’ unions, not legislators in Sacramento, not members of the media—could ignore the fact that the challenged laws are profoundly harming our students, especially low-income and minority kids.

In 2015, Students Matter and the Vergara legal team will defend the Superior Court victory as the case enters the appellate phase, with a record that is backed by mountains of evidence and a legal imperative to ensure all our kids are given a chance to succeed. And while the fight continues in the courtroom, we anticipate the California legislature will be under pressure from special interests to legislate a “band-aid solution” to a truly broken system. We urge lawmakers to resist knee-jerk legislation that falls short of what the California Constitution demands. California needs common sense teacher employment laws that protect the interests of both students and teachers, rather than ignoring the educational needs of our children. Anything less is contrary to the spirit of Vergara, and will be strongly opposed by Students Matter and all those who know that it’s time we stop short-changing our kids.

The coming year also presents more opportunities to generate change and continue the movement toward education equity in geographies outside California. Because every student—regardless of economic standing, race, circumstance or geography—deserves a quality education.

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