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Top 10 Education Trends to Watch in 2015 and Beyond

The winds of education change were gusty in 2014: declining and inequitable public funding, a new demographic future, advancing technology, rethinking accreditation, the credit hour and the needs of a tough job market.
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The winds of education change were gusty in 2014: declining and inequitable public funding, a new demographic future, advancing technology, rethinking accreditation, the credit hour and the needs of a tough job market. While most agree that our nation's economic health and capacity to innovate depends on a vastly improved education system, the "how to" is still unfolding. As you head off for holiday vacations, we've compiled 10 education trends to watch in 2015 and beyond. Some are existing trends and others are aspirational, challenging us to make 2015 a year of quantum education progress.

1. The rise of the "data whisperers." Foundations want to know whether their grants are working, but they also want to continuously learn what works in education to advance America's economic and social mobility. That means continuously measuring and analyzing data with more sophistication and thoughtfulness. At a recent meeting of philanthropy's greatest thinkers, foundation leaders shared their metrics and impact strategies. They are noteworthy for the actionable information they provide and their commitment to getting better at getting better. For example, the Robin Hood Foundation, New York's largest poverty-fighting organization, uses 163 different formulas to help determine how much each grant will increase New Yorkers' future earning and income. One of New York's largest charter schools -- New Visions for Public Schools -- has a six-person data team that provides educators with tools and training to analyze student performance, diagnose problems and design solutions to that help students succeed. For the data whisperers, data aren't cold bits of information, but living, pulsing insights to act on to continuously improve.

2. Accountability 2.0. The wave of Republican wins in the midterm elections means education accountability will be front and center on the political agenda at state and federal levels. The smartest elected leaders will adopt an Accountability 2.0 - identifying and calling out underperformance, and using the information to improve. This work to uncover what's going on behind the numbers will mean the difference between problem solving and paralysis.

Accountability 2.0 won't be content to blame or punish. Accountability 2.0 will help answer: "What are we going to do about it?"

3. "Big data" right-sized. "Big data" is still all the rage, but we're becoming much more discerning and demanding evidence. Merriam Webster defines evidence as "1) something which shows that something else exists or is true. 2) a visible sign of something." When data qualifies as evidence, it can be a guide for making improvements that help students succeed. This is particularly the case when the evidence comes to us in time to act. Increasingly educators are realizing that we need the right data available at the right time to truly understand and meet students' needs.

Metrics like graduation and even persistence rates tell us about problems after it's too late to help students. We can do better by focusing on what matters: those metrics that are early indicators and predictors of success.

4. Data privacy and the opportunity/cost equation. During the White House "College Opportunity" summit, Twitter was abuzz with calls for a federal "student unit record" system, which would allow for the collection of individual students' educational records throughout their education careers. The push reflects the tension between those impatient for more student outcome measures and protecting student privacy. Privacy concerns should never be taken lightly, but neither should the value good data used to improve and personalize student learning. Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which are not bound by federal privacy rules, may help us find the balance between protecting privacy and leveraging the value and power of student data used to personalize and improve teaching.

5. The collaboration imperative. You can't force change top down and bottom up is too slow. It's a sticky wicket. Just ask Joel Klein and John Deasy, leaders of the nation's two largest school districts who faced a debilitating public backlash to proposed education reforms. To move faster, sometimes it pays to start slow. Those closest to the students should be asked to provide input in the design of the data-collection and -reporting tools used. Create regularly scheduled opportunities for teachers to gather and strategize about students who are struggling. Building trust and creating habits of collaboration might take some extra time, but it is worth the investment.

6. College completion as a collective responsibility. You hear it all the time. Employers grumble about graduates not being prepared for jobs. College faculty blame high schools for sending them students who can't do college-level work. The signaling system about what is expected at each level of education is clearly broken, but repairs are underway. More education leaders are recognizing the imperative of K-12 and post-secondary faculty working together and aligning what is taught to improve student success in college and beyond. Both sets of educators realize they share the same students, just at different junctures in the education journey and the same responsibility for helping them improve. This is especially salient as Common Core State Standards move to full implementation in the majority of states.

7. Embracing our demographic future. For the first time, the overall number of Latino, African-American, and Asian students in public K-12 classrooms surpassed the number of non-Hispanic whites. This growing diversity is America's biggest competitive advantage, but only if we vastly improve the educational outcomes for this new and diverse majority of American students. California's community colleges, embracing this fact, are in the throes of developing "student equity plans." The plans outline areas where equal opportunity is available to disadvantaged populations. Each college develops specific benchmarks and actions to address disparities that are discovered. The plans are a key component of the state's "Student Success Initiative" to ensure that at least 250,000 additional students complete their two-year degrees or transfer by decreasing the amount of time they spend taking remedial courses.

8. Beyond labels. Data in context. A consortium designing assessments for the Common Core State Standards (CCSS) released data projecting that more than half of students will fail to meet benchmarks tested in English/language arts and math. Poor performance on these tests should not be a surprise as most schools are still implementing curriculum and teaching practices aligned to the new standards. But we're far enough into the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and standardized testing era to know that labeling underperforming schools and poor test scores is not an effective improvement strategy. The reporting of results should provide educators, parents and the public with context about what is expected of students, why and where more work is needed to help students meet the new performance targets. California is leading the way in reporting test scores in ways that provide a fuller picture of what test scores mean (and don't). In a memorandum, the state board of education stressed that cut scores and achievement categories "should serve only as a starting point for discussion" about student achievement and "should not be interpreted as infallible predictors of students' futures."

9. Supporting the troops with college credit. To help the largest influx of veterans since World War II successfully return to college and civilian life, more states are requiring colleges to give veterans credit for their experience and knowledge gained serving our country. The challenge and opportunity is figuring out how many credits military training and experience is worth. Engaging all levels of higher education and military leaders in evaluating degree paths yields major breakthroughs and creates clarity and consistency about what is taught on American college campuses and how it aligns with career and life success.

10. Failing and learning as a badge of honor. Among some Silicon Valley startups, entrepreneurs are openly sharing what went wrong with their ventures, when and how. In a recent New York Times article, the founder of FailForward said, "failing intelligently is an increasingly important skill." The key is using the information to learn and change. This could be a powerful idea in the education world, where methods fail all the time but stigma, a lack of courage or both keeps us from learning and changing.

Education should embrace the opportunity to learn what does and doesn't work in a more intentional way. As the Fordham Institute's Andy Smarick notes, too often reformers are so enamored with the "new," they fail to implement tried and proven methods.

In the spirit of the season, working in the field of education is a gift. We are truly in the "opportunity making" business. A New Year is a great reminder of the powerful lift off education provides for each student. What are your observations and predictions for education in 2015 and beyond? Let's show 2015, we're ready for it.

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