My Favorite Writing of 2015

By 01/07/2016

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As 2015 was coming to a close, I compiled a list of my fifty favorite reads of the year. You can find them all here.

Though most are article- or report-length, the subjects are all over the map. In total, they offer a glimpse of the big happenings of 2015 and—though this wasn’t my initial intention—show where my mind was during this eventful year. Here’s a smattering.

The end of the year was dominated by ESSA. The New York Times captured the historical importance of the new law. Rick Hess explained why it was a major conservative victory, and Politics K–12 detailed how it undermined Arne Duncan’s legacy. Chad Aldeman and Conor Williams wrote separately about why the Left should be unhappy. (I’ll have a follow-up piece shortly focused exclusively on ESSA reporting and analysis.)

But 2015 also had lots of great non-ESSA edu-writing. Marty West penned a smart piece on Uncle Sam’s role in innovation, and Joanne Weiss looked back on Race to the Top. Sara Mead explained early-childhood education in New Orleans, Kathleen Porter-Magee wrote about theCatholic-school reawakening, and The Economist reported on the heartening story of private-schools outside of the US serving low-income kids.

There were excellent critical pieces as well. Peter Greene wrote about what’s lost when education reform succeeds. Howard Fuller expressed skepticism about education savings accounts. Paul Bruno argued that educator evaluation reform and educator supply reform must go hand-in-hand. Robin Late chided a Stalinesque court decision, and Hess explained the key difference between reforming policy and reforming policy environment.

There were important pieces on the systemic reform of urban K–12. A McShane and Hatfield report showed the remarkable diversity among schools created via chartering. Because urban districts aren’t improving the way we need them to, the Broad Prize was brought to an end. RiShawn Biddle read the NAEP TUDA fine print and found a serious problem. Since systemic reform requires big changes in philosophy and policy, these three pieces were particularly welcome: David Osborne applied his steer/row framework to teacher empowerment in charters, Politico showed what D.C.’s robust charter sector is accomplishing, and Fordham offered a terrific taxonomy of state-level school governance.

I’m very interested in the geography of poverty, and four pieces on the topic stood out this year. The Washington Post published an infuriating article showing how cities used infrastructure to segregate. They also connected the dots between rural poverty, isolation, and violence. The Baltimore Sun ran a great series on city schools serving recent immigrants, and this Tampa Bay Times visual display of litigation, policy, race, and schools in Florida is excellent.

Because I trade in words and ideas, I was alarmed by the rise of speech restrictions on college campuses. And because I saw this phenomenon creeping into K–12 reform, I worried what it might mean for our future work. In an effort to understand what was going on, I read as much as I could about the subject, and four articles were especially helpful. In possibly my favorite article of the year, Haidt and Lukianoff explained why protecting people from disconcerting words and ideas is bad for education and mental health. John McWhorter examined the commendable intentions but harmful consequences of campus speech codes. David Brooks wrote on diversity of thought, limiting dissent, and terrorism. Caitlin Flanagan reported on idealistic college students’ mindset and process for choosing anodyne entertainment.

2015 sent tremors through American politics, potentially shifting the K–12 debate. Fortunately, there was a great deal of smart writing about both Left and Right. Michael Barone wrote a positively brilliant piece (spanning nations and decades) explaining liberal political parties, socialism, and historical trends. Similarly, Matt Yglesias astutely placed the Sanders insurgency in an international context. Molly Ball wrote about Bill de Blasio’s grand progressive ambitions and daily political blunders.

On the Right, George Will excoriated Donald Trump, while Peggy Noonan argued that the firebrand’s ascendance was a mystery to elites but not the rest of America—a theme picked up by Robert Pondiscio and Bill Galston. Due in part to Trump, 2015 also saw smart writing about the conservative frame of mind. Myers and Wallach wrote on the “conservative governing disposition,” and Peter Wehner discussed the relationship between ideological certainty and temperamental moderation. Yuval Levin wrote on the ideas catalyzing and the next generation of leaders advancing the new conservative agenda.

And because I believe great writing reflects great thinking, I’m always on the lookout for masters of the craft, regardless of the subject. Five pieces deserve a tip of the hat. This article on “lumbersexuals” is an exceptional discussion of the recurrent men-in-crisis theme in American letters. Ripped jeans are also an ongoing theme with social meaning. You might’ve ignored or scoffed at professional wrestling and Keith Richards to date, but read these before doing so ever again. And a Baltimore Sun columnist expertly made the case for why the search for Charm City’s next mayor should start by looking backward.

Here’s hoping 2016 brings health, happiness, and more great writing.

—Andy Smarick

This post originally appeared on the Fordham Institute’s Flypaper.

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