Reflections on 2014 from New America's PreK-12 Ed Policy Team

It’s been another active year in PreK-12 education policy at the local, state, and federal level—from the expansion of pre-K in many communities and the reauthorization of the Child Care and Development Block Grant to the Common Core roller coaster and proposed teacher preparation reforms. In this post, New America’s education experts offer our insights on some of the most interesting, promising, or troubling developments, as well as some predictions and questions about what 2015 will bring.

NCLB Reauthorization Seven Years Overdue:

Under 2001’s No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), the most recent reauthorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), 2014 was the year for the goal that 100 percent of students to perform at grade level on state reading and math tests. Given that most schools are still far from reaching this goal—and with little sign of congressional ESEA reauthorization in sight—the U.S. Department of Education continued its ESEA waiver strategy by granting extended flexibility to states from particular provisions of NCLB in return for adopting key reforms. Of the 43 states initially granted waivers, 33 have been granted extensions to date. But two states, Washington and Oklahoma, fully lost their waivers in 2014. Washington’s waiver loss was due to its failure to require that student learning as demonstrated on state tests be a factor in teacher evaluations. And Oklahoma lost its waiver after dropping the Common Core State Standards, but then reclaimed it after the state higher education governance body confirmed that the current K-12 learning standards would sufficiently prepare students for both college and careers. Expect more NCLB flexibility confusion and drama to ensue in 2015 as states apply to renew their waivers, based on the Department’s updated guidance, before they expire at the end of the 2014-15 school year.

Passage of the Child Care and Development Block Grant: 

Nearly 20 years after its last update, Congress finally reached agreement and passed a reauthorization bill for the Child Care and Development Block Grant, which provides more than $2 billion in federal vouchers for low-income parents to access care. The bill, which was signed into law in November 2014, increased the safety standards of legally unregulated child care providers; revised existing burdens on parents and providers to reassess their eligibility for the program; and encouraged states to design better policies for reimbursing providers. It also added a relatively small amount of new money to help states meet the quality standards the law lays out. As the law takes effect next year, we'll be watching states for innovative or promising upgrades to their child care systems that may have been propelled by the law.

E-rate Reform: 

As we predicted at the beginning of this year, 2014 has been a landmark year for the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) E-rate program. With the push for greater use of digital materials and assessments nationwide, E-rate modernization and funding have been front and center in the President’s ConnectED initiative for schools. In July, acting on the notice for proposed rule-making posted in 2013, the FCC moved to modernize its E-rate program. Reforms included targeting investment on modern technologies such as high-speed broadband and Wi-Fi, and streamlining program administration; these measures were designed to increase program effectiveness and efficiency. Building on these reforms, this December the FCC voted to increase total program funding, raising the E-rate spending cap from $2.4 billion to $3.9 billion—the first major increase since the program’s inception in 1996. Moving into 2015, we’ll be tracking the details of the funding increase and continuing to advocate for policies that will not just connect schools, but also connect communities.

Pre-K Expansion: 

While trends in pre-K access and funding have been mixed in recent years, its political prospects remain relatively positive and constant. State and local leaders from both parties made new investments in a variety of pre-K programs in 2014. The biggest investment came in New York, where just-inaugurated Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio fought a pitched battle with the state over a rapid pre-K expansion. As it turned out, de Blasio's efforts led to a $360 million investment across the state, with $300 million going to 30,000 new pre-K seats in the city this year alone. It wasn't just Democrats: in Michigan, Republican Governor Rick Snyder secured $65 million in additional resources for pre-K across the state. In Indiana, Republican Governor Mike Pence started the state's first public pre-K program. And voters in Seattle continued pre-K's popularity streak at the ballot box, approving a property tax hike to fund a pre-K pilot program.

At the federal level, pre-K developments were less conclusively positive. The Strong Start Act, while bipartisan, didn't move far in 2014. The Obama Administration's Preschool Development Grants program, on the other hand, prompted considerable excitement and led to nearly $230 million in competitively awarded grants announced at the end of this year.

Pre-K also remained hot in the philanthropic world. The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation—disclosure: they fund some of our PreK-12 work at New America—announced that Ellen Frede (recently of NIEER and Acelero) will serve as its new deputy director of early learning beginning in 2015.

#ThanksCommonCore: 

This year, in the weird world of the Common Core State Standards, we’ve seen it all. Some states have backtracked from their commitment to the standards. The state assessment landscape continues to fragment, with more states partially or fully moving away from the two Common Core testing consortia. Some politicians have tried to back away from the Common Core, but their legislatures and schools boards have told them to, ahem, “go take a hike.” There have been anti-Common Core movies and protests, and even comedians have jumped into the fray, criticizing so-called “Common Core-aligned” math problems.

All that being said, in the states where the Common Core standards are being implemented with fidelity, and teachers are familiar with the standards and are participating in professional development, support remains high. This year, field testing of the new Common Core-aligned assessments from the two testing consortia, PARCC and Smarter Balanced, by all accounts went better than expected. In 2015, the vast majority of states still serious about implementing reforms will continue to make headway on implementation. We’ll be closely following state plans as they develop, change, and sometimes reverse course in the New Year.

Widespread State-level Implementation of Kindergarten Entry Assessments: 

Spurred by the  Race to the Top- Early Learning Challenge, more states have been planning, developing, and implementing kindergarten entry assessments (KEA). Although some states were already implementing KEAs to understand what new kindergartners know and are able to do, because of RTT-ELC and another federal competition focused on KEAs in 2013, a significant number of states chose to revise their test. However, federal and state policymakers hopes for creating better informed kindergarten instruction through baseline data was sometimes difficult to implement as an increasing amount of pushback arose from different stakeholders, including teachers and parents. This year allowed most states to create their own kindergarten assessment and test it through various pilot programs. In 2015, we’ll be watching to see whether statewide implementation plans are actually successful and how the new assessment data are being used to improve outcomes for children.

Teacher Prep: 

State and federal policymakers increasingly focused their attention on improving the quality of teacher preparation in 2014. Many states implemented new policies to raise entry requirements into teacher preparation programs—in a national review of state policies, the National Council on Teacher Quality found that 16 states now require a GPA of 3.0 or higher for admission into programs—up from just seven in 2013. Some states, such as New York, introduced more rigorous tests for becoming certified to teach in the state—which has not come without controversy, as fewer prospective teachers are passing the tests than previously.

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education published its long-awaited proposed regulations for parts of Title II of the Higher Education Act (HEA). As written, the regulations would require states and institutions of higher education to move away from reporting solely on “inputs” to teacher prep program quality (such as whether they have a GPA requirement for program entry) to “outputs,” such as graduates’ employment outcomes, on-the-job performance, and survey results of graduate preparedness. States will also be required to develop a quality rating system, based at least in part on these measures, and assign ratings to all programs. But the proposed rules give states significant leeway in doing so which could jeopardize any comparability across programs, although comparability is one of the Department’s stated goals for the new regulations. The Department is seeking public comment on its proposal and is expected to issue final regulations in fall 2015. Outgoing HELP Committee Chairman Harkin’s proposed reauthorization of HEA also included a focus on teacher preparation, but the proposal does not appear to have as strong of a proponent in the new Congress—we will also have to wait until 2015 to see how teacher preparation plays out should any serious movement on HEA reauthorization take place.

Revisiting Equity in School Discipline Practices: 

This year marked the release of a new report from the U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights on nationwide school discipline practices. The report's results showed inequities in suspension and expulsion rates between various demographics of students (by race, gender, and socioeconomic status), leading the Department to release several discipline guidances and a "Dear Colleague Letter" to state and district policymakers. Additionally, the report revealed the shocking practice of pre-K suspension and expulsion. Some districts, including Chicago, Washington D.C., Minneapolis, and Baltimore, have created or begun to create legislation banning suspension and expulsion for all young children--pre-K through 2nd grade. Continuing to work towards more developmentally appropriate discipline practices, U.S. Education Secretary Duncan and U.S. Health and Human Services Secretary Burwell released a policy statement on expulsion and suspension practices in early learning settings, at The White House Summit on Early Education. Increasingly, more stories about unequal application of discipline practices appear from around the country. Addressing the most developmentally appropriate ways to maintain classroom order while ensuring that every child has access to education will continue to be an important policy decision for states in 2015.

Growing State Momentum on Dual Language Learner Policy Reforms: 

This was an exciting year for dual language learner (DLL) policy. Minnesota passed a new law that includes DLLs’ home language development in a variety of educational systems from teacher training to professional development, literacy assessments, family engagement, data collection, and more. For our brief on Minnesota’s Learning for English Academic Proficiency and Success (LEAPS) Act, click here. That’s not all. New York reworked the state’s guidelines for how districts should meet the needs of language learners of all ages, and the state also negotiated commitments from New York City to improve how the Big Apple serves these students. And California passed a law that will let voters decide (in 2016) whether to allow districts to provide bilingual and dual language programs for more students—a contentious issue in a state that passed an “English-only” ballot measure in 1998. Could we be seeing an improvement in states’ chaotic approach to DLLs? Stay tuned.

Tenure Reform: 

This year saw an uptick in education reform through the courts. In addition to tackling school finance, states are increasingly turning to reforming teacher protection laws, which can make it difficult to dismiss ineffective teachers, in order to ensure that all students have access to effective teaching. In June, a California judge struck down the state’s tenure, dismissal, and seniority protections as violating low-income and minority students’ rights to an equal education under the state constitution. The governor and the state’s two teachers unions have filed appeals so it remains to be seen what effect the judge’s ruling will have on California’s teachers and students. But the high-profile case has resonated and gained momentum among other states. A similar lawsuit was filed in New York this fall and advocacy groups in other states are gearing up to file new lawsuits in New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, Minnesota, New Mexico, and Oregon. 2015 will be the year to watch how tenure reforms play out and proliferate nationwide.

The Reemergence of School Finance Lawsuits: 

With growing educational transparency, 2014 brought renewed attention on inequities in school funding and finance. High-profile school funding lawsuits in Texas and Mississippi, among others, highlight state funding cuts since the recession and unfair school finance formulas. The cases renew the courtroom battles that defined education law of past decades, but now often target specific remedies states need to take (like implementing pre-K and full-day kindergarten programs for at-risk students) and certain populations of students (like children in rural districts and English language learners). The U.S. Department of Education's Office for Civil Rights is even joining the fray, with a newly announced investigation into New York state school finance. Expect more of the same in 2015, with many states still funding schools at recession-era levels.

An Increased Focus on Dual-Generation Strategies: 

This year “dual-generation,” “two-gen,” and “multi-gen” have become increasingly popular terms in the education and social policy spaces. Regardless of the moniker, these policies acknowledge the complex and all too often intergenerational nature of poverty and mobility. They attempt to simultaneously address the needs of multiple generations, most often parents and their children. While education can play an essential role in improving life outcomes for children, dual-gen policies recognize that factors outside of the classroom need to be addressed as well. We have started related work here at New America with our Family-Centered Social Policy Initiative, a collaborative project bringing together the expertise of five of our programs. Throughout the next year we will be working  with community-based initiatives to determine how social policies can be reformed to best support the needs of the entire family. Dual-generation policies are not necessarily a new concept-- after all, Head Start, which provides children with comprehensive early education and care and has a strong parent engagement component, has been around for 50 years. However, it is promising that more policymakers, advocates, and philanthropists are acknowledging the potential of revising  policies to better meet the needs of families.

Authors:

Laura Bornfreund is director of early & elementary education policy with the Education Policy program at New America. She leads a team of writers and analysts to conduct policy research and analysis and put forth new ideas for improving children’s birth-through-third grade learning experiences.

Melissa Tooley is the director of Educator Quality with New America's Education Policy program. She is a member of the PreK-12 team, where she provides research and analysis on PreK-12 policies and practices that impact teaching quality and school leadership.

Conor P. Williams is the founding director of the Dual Language Learners National Work Group at New America. His work addresses policies and practices related to educational equity, dual language learners, immigration, and school choice.

Clare McCann was a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America.

Kaylan Connally was a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She was a member of the PreK-12 team, where her work primarily addressed policies and practices that impact teaching quality and school leadership.

Abbie Lieberman is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Early & Education Education team, where she provides research and analysis on policies that impact children from birth through third grade

Shayna Cook is a policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Learning Technologies project. Cook researches and reports on innovation, new technologies, and digital equity issues concerning children from birth through third grade.

Lindsey Tepe is a senior policy analyst with the Education Policy program at New America. She is a member of the Learning Technologies project and PreK-12 team, where she focuses primarily on innovation and new technologies in public schools.