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Education Reform: 6 Big Developments in Education in 2012

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This year saw a boom of innovation in education on both the K-12 and post-secondary fronts and also welcomed a host of new initiatives from the Obama administration to usher in improvements and innovations in areas that have long needed it. Below is a list of six big things that happened in the world of education in 2012:

1. The Rise of Ed Tech: To varying degrees, technology has been involved in education for a long time, but 2012 really saw a boom of start-ups emerge to focus on making the teaching and learning process more efficient, effective, and engaging. From BetterLesson, which allows teachers to share their materials and connect with fellow educators, to ClassDojo, which enables teachers to monitor and correct student behavior in real time via their laptop or smartphone, to Socrative, which engages students through interactive activities and games, to Always Prepped, which aggregates data from these various new platforms in a centralized location for easy teacher analysis, it seems there is a new company addressing almost every aspect of the teaching and learning process. Gone are the days of endless Google searching for that perfect classroom activity.  No more need to scold students for being on their iPhones in class when they can use them to respond to lecture questions. The new wave of ed tech startups promises to make one of the hardest professions around a little bit easier, so teachers have more time to focus on what really matters: figuring out which students need more help so they can tailor their curriculum and activities to each student's individual needs. And for students, education is beginning to catch up to today's tech savvy kid. Who can't say that this is a good thing?

2. Enter MOOCs (Massive Open Online Courses): 2012 welcomed the popularization of a new acronym in higher education: MOOC. Through websites like CourseraUdacity, and edX, some of the most reputable universities in the world began offering free courses online to anyone with access to a computer. Millions of students all over the world are now enrolled in hundreds of courses offered from universities like Stanford, Princeton, and Harvard. While the MOOC movement is just getting started, it promises to address the access and affordability problem that has long been a barrier to higher education and provide meaningful feedback to improve teaching and learning on the college campuses offering online courses.

3. The College Scorecard and Financial Aid Shopping Sheet: Based off of an idea Obama brought up in his State of the Union address in January, two Obama administration efforts aimed at making the college choice process more transparent were unveiled this year: the College Scorecard and the Financial Aid Shopping Sheet. The College Scorecard is a form intended to be a resource early in the college search process that contains standardized information about important indicators, such as cost, graduation rate, student loan debt, and earnings potential. Done in partnership with the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, the other administration effort, The Financial Aid Shopping Sheet, has so far been adopted by more than 500 institutions of higher education and provides a standardized award letter allowing students to easily compare financial aid packages and better make informed decisions on where to attend college. Both efforts aim to centralize crucial information available on colleges in a standardized way so the comparison and selection process is easier for students and their parents.

4. No Child Left Behind Waivers: After Congress failed to pass a revised version of No Child Left Behind (NCLB) in the fall of 2011, the Obama administration announced that it would begin granting waivers from specific aspects of NCLB to states that could present their own plans for improving educational outcomes for all students, closing achievement gaps, increasing equity, and improving the quality of instruction. This year, 34 states and the District of Columbia were granted reprieve from some of the most unrealistic and punitive aspects of the 2001 law, which requires 100% of students to be proficient in English and math by 2014 and implements such a high standard for adequate yearly progress goals that more and more schools were joining the ranks of the failing each year. While criticized by some, this move allowed the administration to amend the law without waiting on Congress' action. Although, the waivers are temporary, and the hope is still that a Congressional re-authorization of the bill will go forth at some point in the future.

5. Renewed Hope for the Dream Act: The reelection of President Obama was a huge relief to supporters of the Dream Act, assured that the President will make immigration reform an administrative priority in his second term. While the original Dream Act is a decade old bipartisan piece of legislation, it has failed to pass both houses of Congress. Most recently, it failed in the Senate in December 2010 thanks to a Republican filibuster. Immediately following the November elections this year, Republicans introduced a Dream Act-like bill called the Achieve Act in the lame duck session of Congress. The Achieve Act is essentially a watered down version of the Dream Act, providing a way for illegal immigrant children to attend college and get a job but providing no path to citizenship unlike the Dream Act does. While the Achieve Act did not get anywhere in the lame duck, it does signal renewed interest in immigration reform on behalf of Republicans – particularly after they lost the Hispanic vote so badly in the November elections — and perhaps another go at passing the Dream Act in the 113th Congress.

6. Race to the Top District Grants: In August, the Obama administration announced it would be expanding its Race to the Top grant program to school districts, which could compete for $400 million in local grant money. Sixteen winners were announced in December from 11 states and the District of Columbia. As opposed to the statewide Race to the Top grant competition, this district-wide approach is to be used to support more micro-level local school programs to improve teacher effectiveness and student achievement. However, much like its larger counterpart, the Race to the Top District grants seek to promote innovation through monetary incentives awarded based on a peer review system that looks for the best proposals for seeking improvements around certain target areas.

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