Apodaca: Big changes are ahead in 2014

2014 promises to be an eventful year in education.

Big changes are underway in everything from the way students are taught to the funding formula. The progression of technology and emerging social concerns will have a profound impact on learning. The struggle to develop fair methods to assess student and school progress will continue.

It's safe to assume that these issues, and the way they are dealt with, will provide us with a mixed bag of successes and failures. But as a new year dawns and hope is in the air, we can at least root for some positive movement in many areas of education.

Following is a short list of a few of the big stories to track in education this year. This is by no means a comprehensive list and some unforeseen developments will surely arise. But these are at least a few of the important initiatives, trends and developments to keep a watchful eye on for signs of progress, and — hint, hint — to anticipate the subjects of future columns I hope to write.

1). Reform: The big question in education this year is whether Common Core will produce exceptional results. The new state standards are changing how students are taught and tested, with an emphasis on critical thinking and analysis, and a promise of a national database to measure and compare progress. The rollout is underway in schools throughout California, with "field testing" taking place this spring in preparation for a full implementation of new standardized tests in 2015.

Newport-Mesa Unified School District Supt. Fred Navarro, just a year and a half into the job, has basically staked his career on Common Core, which he has embraced enthusiastically. Although there won't initially be any direct means of comparing the district's results on the new standardized tests, critics will surely pounce if scores don't live up to expectations. Not surprisingly, state officials are preaching patience and downplaying the significance of early results. Still, plenty of fingers are crossed that the implementation will go smoothly.

2). Inequality: The problem of haves vs. have-nots is at long last being discussed as a critical factor in education and the growing awareness will likely gain additional traction this year. Gov. Jerry Brown has already weighed in with his new funding formula, which sends additional money to districts with the highest concentrations of disadvantaged students. But look for individual districts, including Newport-Mesa, to further the search for remedies to the biggest obstacle to quality education.

3). Gender issues: A backlash is emerging to the long effort to elevate the treatment and prospects of girls, resulting in a renewed focus on the needs of boys. A rash of studies, data points, books and opinion pieces has already surfaced, and more reviews are undoubtedly on the way this year. None will settle the debate over whether we've overdone the concern over girls receiving equal treatment or if boys are now at greater risk of falling behind. But at least we might glean a greater understanding about gender differences and similarities, which could inform the way our children are taught.

4). Money: The perennial issue of education funding takes on a new flavor this year as California's budget picture improves after years of crisis management. Districts throughout the state that have been near insolvency aren't necessarily out of the woods, but at least they're not in immediate danger of more cuts thanks to a temporary tax increase backed by Brown and passed by voters in 2012.

Still, we've a long way to go, considering the decimation that's been wrought in public education. The counselors, science instruction, arts education, manageable classroom sizes and all the other programs lost over the last several years won't come roaring back. Indeed, although the funding picture has become less bleak, it's worth remembering that California's financial condition is always precarious, even in the best of times. Look for plenty of fighting and acrimony over how, and how much, we need to spend on education. In other words, business as usual.

5). Technology: Likely the most talked-about topic in education today, technology will receive even greater attention as we move forward. Hopefully we'll see fewer embarrassments along the lines of Los Angeles Unified School District's botched plan to provide every student with an iPad or some of the problem-plagued initiatives to launch digital classrooms. Instead what we might see is a more mature, reasonable effort to take advantage of the promise technology holds for education.

Indeed, we might be entering a stage when we look at technology less as gee-whiz gadgetry that we fall overly in love with, or conversely as a harbinger of the end of civilization. Instead we might be reaching a more comfortable equilibrium as technology increasingly becomes an integrated, organic part of education. So expect more efforts to fashion so-called "blended" classrooms, which call for combining online learning with traditional face-to-face teaching.

Other issues will no doubt be dissected and debated this year, from college affordability and debt to the merits of universal pre-K. I'm also confident that someone will write yet another best-selling book revealing the secret to successful parenting.

And if I'm right about that last one, you can bet that I'll sound off about it. Happy New Year.

PATRICE APODACA is a former Newport-Mesa public school parent and former Los Angeles Times staff writer. She lives in Newport Beach.

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