Obama, swine flu, and sexting, oh my!

A countdown of the top education stories of 2009 and what they mean to you.

By GreatSchools Staff

7. Is Obama your mama?

Well, no, but this year he became a parentis ex machina nonetheless. First our papa in chief seemed to cast some sort of archetypal mojo after a study found that African Americans tested higher in the wake of his election — aka the much hyped "Obama effect." The study had serious flaws, so until more research is done, it's worth regarding the president's magic with some skepticism.

Then he raised consciousness (and hecka hackles) with his direct addresses to the nation's children: Aim high, do your homework, and never ever vote Republican (just kidding!). Finally, he exposed his daughter Malia's less-than-stellar grade on a science test — should humiliating your tween really count as a teachable moment? — to drive home the point that no parents get a free ride, even when they have the planet's most influential job.

Obama's attention to the profound impact of parental involvement, and not just to professional educators' "race to the top," is heartening. As parents, no matter what budget cuts and bureaucratic crises hit our schools, we still need to stay focused on what we can do: Help our kids day in and day out learn, grow, and think.

What's next — homework tips straight from the Oval Office? Last time we checked, the handle for "mrpresident" was still available on the GreatSchools Parent Community.

6. A new epidemic ravaging the nation

Hint: It's not an influenza associated with beloved childhood oinkers Babe, Wilbur, and Piglet. Stumped? It's called … overparenting. And according to experts, legions of loving parents have been positively stricken with this new social illness, which ultimately ruins their children. In the old days, the only thing that cured this widespread disease was what is traditionally known as a "chill pill," prescribed by teenagers with a roll of the eyes. Now there are classes, therapists, and books that attempt to pry parental talons from little ones' lives.

Is this all a blizzard in a blogroll? No doubt. On the other hand, with everyone from world leaders (see #7) to GreatSchools scribblers urging parents to become more involved in their children's education, it's only natural that some might go overboard and assume more is more. Are your kids giving you signs that you're helping too much for their own good?

Our diagnosis: Skip the classes and take a proverbial chill pill. Let your children learn some lessons the hard way — by making their own mistakes.

5. Cell phones: The new dens of iniquity

Sexting, high-tech cheating, and cyberbullying seized the slimelight this year, suggesting that all those cell phones issued to kids in case of a Columbine-like catastrophe are invidious enough to create their own private mayhem.

A new study by the Associated Press and MTV found that one in four teens have "sexted" — sent or received racy images or messages via text messaging. Another survey found that more than a third of all teens engage in some form of high-tech cheating. Still more research turned up this ugly stat: More than 40% of surveyed kids reported being bullied online. Lurid texting trends turned deadly in Florida when a 13-year-old girl committed suicide after naked pictures of her were spammed to her peers. Don't ask us to do the math — it's too depressing.

What's a parent to do about the potentially divisive incursion of social technology into teenage life? These tips can't hurt. Nor can realizing that this whole teens-are-out-of-control phenomenon has been around about 50 years. In 1959 sociologist Edgar Friedenberg noted that "the teenager seems to have replaced the Communist as the appropriate target for public controversy and foreboding." In other words, teens are a historical invention: dependent yet eager for freedom, sexually active yet immature, unemployed yet overscheduled, and, finally, surrounded by a culture that places them at the center of the universe. Add to the mix ubiquitous technology, and is it any wonder they create new ways to make their lives even more complicated?

4. Of tykes and tallow

We've all read about staggering rates of childhood obesity, but this year brought new poundage to the pile. One study found that one in five preschoolers is now considered obese. According to a CNN story, doctors are starting to see children ages 6 and 7 with type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, and musculoskeletal problems — obesity-related diseases commonly seen in 40- or 50-year-olds.

Worried your kid may tip the scale? Calculate your child's body mass index here. But don't freak out if he or she falls within the worrisome range: BMI testing can be misleading. Here's the skinny on why BMIs can lie.

3. Child, control thyself

Forget about figuring out your child's "learning style." Experts now say that politically correct theory won't necessarily help kids optimize their learning. What does every child need to succeed? A good dose of self-discipline!

We should have seen it coming. With a generation of beleaguered, dripping sippy cup-toting, Pirate Booty-strewn parents wondering why their fearsome, self-actualized, over-enriched children are so downright out of control, it's not surprising that the science of self-regulation has come to the rescue.

This year the story about a successful preschool program called Tools of the Mind got nationwide play, both in the bestselling, myth-busting book NurtureShock and a Paul Tough story in the New York Times Magazine. Thankfully, the new thinking about how to instill kids with a sense of self-control doesn't involve rods or rigid rules, but a curious synthesis of regimentation and free play. The idea is that kids learn how to work collaboratively and solve problems through imaginative play and that educators can accelerate this natural maturation process, not by just allowing it to happen (à la free hippie schools of the 1960s) but by setting up a structure that fosters communication and literacy in the context of pretend play.

The quintessential test for whether a child has internalized self-discipline — aka "Mischel's marshmallows," in which kids have the option of eating one marshmallow right away or two later — also resurfaced in the news. A group of charter schools announced they would participate in research about the relationship between self-control and academic success and whether this crucial character trait can be taught. If you only recall the test from the 1980s, this New Yorker story will bring you up to date. To see children struggling to resist the temptation of sugary egg whites, rip open a bag of mallows and watch this video. Wondering how your kid stacks up on the marshmallow-resistance scale? Give him or her the test tonight.

2. Hell no, we won't vaccinate!

Parental rebellion took on a strange form this year as huge numbers of parents ignored the CDC, the WHO, their local school districts, and the American Academy of Pediatrics and elected not to vaccinate their children for the H1N1 influenza. Had the flu mutated to a more virulent strain, this might have spelled a public health disaster.

Though hundreds of schools nationwide shut their doors when too many of their students and teachers called in sick, the novel flu remained mostly mild. By the end of 2009, some experts predicted that H1N1 would be the mildest pandemic in history — expected to kill an estimated 15,000 people rather than the previously anticipated 45,000.

The fears around pediatric vaccines are not new — some parents of children with autism have blamed preservatives in vaccines for causing their children's disorder, a theory widely disputed by researchers. Some of the pediatric H1N1 vaccines did end up being recalled, but not because of safety concerns: Some shipments lost strength over time. Whether you vaccinated your child for H1N1 or not, this story offers a glimpse into the controversy.

1. Rubber rooms and teacher accountability

With Obama making teacher accountability one of the central tenets of his "Race to the Top" competition between school districts, it's not surprising that horrendously bad teaching and the bureaucracy that enables it got some serious attention. And nothing embodies execrable educational standards more than the "rubber room," New York City's hang-out-and-get-paid zone for teachers accused of serious offenses but whose tenure largely protects them. This New Yorker piece shined a spotlight on the jaw-dropping absurdity of teachers getting paid to do nothing; not surprisingly, it also garnered a flood of criticism from teacher pundits. Thanks to a group of enterprising muckrakers, a documentary film is in the works.

Many other school districts (like Los Angeles's and San Francisco's) pay teachers awaiting misconduct hearings to bide their time, though not necessarily in a single holding tank. Wondering what happens to censured educators in your district? You can ask if it has a "temporary reassignment center" or some other program for those accused of wrongdoing.