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Top District Stories in 2014: Spending, Testing, Principals, and Ferguson

Loyal District Dossier readers showed us in 2014 that they really loved reading about principals and school leadership. They also liked to know how school districts were faring—whether they were spending taxpayers' money wisely and making the best program decisions for students. Stories about how educators in the St. Louis area coped with fallout from the police shooting death of an unarmed black teenager and the remaking of the urban school district also attracted a lot of eyeballs. Posts about Philadelphia—its interminable budget woes, school tragedies, and union v. district showdowns—were also among the most read stories for the year. 

Top 10 stories that caught readers' attention in 2014. 

1. Is your school district spending its budget on the right things? What's the return on investment? Guest blogger Evie Blad reviewed three reports from the Center For American Progress  on school productivity that suggested that many schools weren't necessarily spending money in ways that resulted in higher student achievement in math and reading.

2. What really is the role of the principal in 2014? And what do they need to know to help students and teachers succeed? New school leaders standards—the first since 2008—were released for the public comment in October, and readers were eager to see what they contained.  The final standards will be published early in the new year.

3. Urban school districts are undergoing a rapid transformation, and the charter school sector is booming. Where is the workforce going to come from? A report by EdFuel forecasted an impending demand for skilled workers for the K-12 education sector in the coming years.  

4. Large district superintendents lay out their vision for ESEA renewal. Fifteen superintendents from the Large Countywide and Suburban District Consortium called for less standardized testing and more leeway for districts to set their own academic targets for students. 

5. The superintendent of the Montgomery County, Md., school district tells parents that upcoming state tests are useless. Superintendent Joshua Starr—a critic of frequent assessments—didn't hold back when he sent a letter to parents last spring saying that the Maryland State Assessment tests 3rd through 8th grade students were scheduled to take, which were not aligned to the Common Core (and were not really going to count anyway), were not in the best interest of the students.

6. Principals need more autonomy, support from the central office. The report, "Great Principals at Scale: Creating District Conditions That Enable all Principals to be Effective," from the George W. Bush Institute and New Leaders was among many in 2014 that put a spotlight on the challenges principals face and ways to make the job more manageable. Principals have long complained that their job was the loneliest one in the building. Seems like people are listening.

7. Ferguson-area schools will get advance notice of grand jury decision. Whether the schools actually were notified before the media is still unclear. When the reports started trickling out that the grand jury had made a decision in the Michael Brown case, we called up a couple of districts in the area. Officials there said they were following the news reports just like everyone else and were still waiting on official word from the office of the St. Louis County Prosecuting Attorney. Still, many of the districts chose to close in the immediate days following the announcement that Officer Darren Wilson would not be indicted in the August shooting death of teenager Michael Brown.

8. Philadelphia teachers' union issues response to district. In early October, the Philadelphia's School Reform Commission took the largely unprecedented step of canceling the teachers' union contract, mandating how much the union members will now contribute towards their health benefits. The move was supposed to save the district $43.8 million and came on the heels of months of uncertainty over whether the district would have enough money to open on time for the second straight year. The union, unsurprisingly, appealed, and won an injunction. 

9. Death of Philadelphia 1st grader energizes protests about budget cuts. No one knows whether the presence of a school nurse would have made a difference when a seven-year-old got sick at Andrew Jackson School, a South Philadelphia elementary school, and later died. However, coming after years of budget cuts in which nurses and school counselor positions had been slashed and the death in September 2013 of another Philadelphia student, a 12-year-old who also got sick at school and then later died, the death led to a major reexamination of the role of school nurses in schools and calls in the Philadelphia community for more funding for those positions.

10. National board votes to end principal certification program. Principals who had signed up for an advanced certification program offered by the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards found out that the board had abruptly shuttered the program

Other notable district news in 2014:

U.S. school enrollment hits majority-minority enrollment:  Last fall, America's public schools were on the cusp of a new demographic era. For the first time, the overall number of Latino, African-American, and Asian students in public K-12 classrooms were expected to surpass the number of non-Hispanic whites. 1-demographics-blog.jpg

New Orleans charter conversion:  In May, the Recovery School District became an all-charter school district, turning over the last five of its regular public schools to charter operators. The re-making of the school district started in early 2005 and accelerated after the devastation brought by Hurricane Katrina in August of that same year. 

Superintendents shuffle:  Former Los Angeles schools chief John Deasy was probably the most high profile big-city superintendent to lose his job this year. Bedeviled by the rollout of a 1-to-1 digital-device program that did not go as planned, a student information system that led to scheduling nightmares for some students, and an acrimonious relationship with some school board members and the teachers' union, Deasy took an early exit in October. 

Some changes were by choice. Austin Superintendent Meria Carstarphen decamped to Atlanta to help that city move forward from the shadows of test-cheating-scandal. (2014 also saw 12 former Atlanta educators stand trial for their role in the cheating scandal, a complex criminal case that will drag well into the new year.)

Jose Banda left Seattle (another district that has had a high number of superintendent turnovers in the last decade) for the top job in the Sacramento school district. And by year's end, it was announced that Minneapolis Superintendent Bernadeia Johnson was leaving. 

A focus on students of color: Federal civil rights officials in the U.S. Departments of Education and Justice released new guidance to school districts on school discipline in January to ensure that students of color are not disproportionately disciplined or suspended. Other initiatives included President Obama's My Brother's Keeper, which aims to increase opportunities for male students of color.

The Council of the Great City Schools signed on to My Brother's Keeper, and the majority of the council's member school districts took the pledge to ensure that their students of color succeed in K-12 and get to and through college. Some of those initiatives include increasing access to Advanced Placement courses, reducing special education placement, helping students sign up for college financial aid and reducing truancy and out-of-school-suspensions.

Photo: Students chat in an 8th grade social studies class at Valley Point Middle School in Dalton, Ga. The school's enrollment shifted to a majority of nonwhite students last school year. --Shawn Poynter for Education Week

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