Ten PreK-12 Debates to Expect in 2014

Blog Post
Jan. 8, 2014

Last month, we published our roundup of the 10 most notable PreK-12 stories of 2013. Now, we’re back with our questions, expectations, and predictions for the coming year. Join us on Twitter @NewAmericaEd with your thoughts on what to watch this year.

1. Federal legislation unlikely to move: 

Are you hoping for a productive year of reauthorization or passage of new education and child care legislation? Don’t hold your breath. The Strong Start for America’s Children Act (the President’s pre-K proposal) has very little chance of passing this year. The same goes for other big education bills overdue for reauthorization. All of them are stalled, waiting for a path to open through the congressional gridlock. The dubious honor of longest wait goes to the Child Care Development Block Grant (CCDBG), which was first passed in 1995 and hasn’t been reauthorized since. A reauthorization bill has at least been introduced, and it’s a promising start. There are also reauthorization proposals for the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA), or No Child Left Behind—but we don’t foresee passage in 2014 for the 12-year-old law. The legislation with the best chance of reaching the goal line—albeit a slim one—is the Education Science Reform Act (ESRA). ESRA established the Institute for Education Sciences, the research arm of the U.S. Department of Education. The House came close to moving ESRA forward late last year, but negotiations broke down over spending levels.

2. More brinksmanship budget battles: 

Blame some of the gridlock on budget uncertainty. Lawmakers are hitting the ground running this year, with a deadline only a week away—Jan. 15—to reach a funding agreement or risk another government shutdown. They’ve averted the risk of sequestration this year. But after they pass a 2014 spending bill, next in the lineup is yet another showdown over the January 1 expiration of unemployment benefits and a possible February deadline to raise the debt ceiling, both controversial, followed by three consecutive years of virtually flat appropriations. Oh, and don’t forget, the whole process will start over when the 2015 fiscal year begins in October. You can count on more brinksmanship budgeting this year.

3. Progress in preparing educators for the job: 

Not everything looks so grim. The last year brought many changes intended to improve teacher prep, and 2014 will likely bring more—just not from the federal government. We’ve been waiting since the negotiated rulemaking sessions in spring 2012 for new draft regulations on state reporting and accountability for educator prep programs… and we’ll likely continue to wait. But we expect more states will try to enhance the quality of newly minted teachers this year by: aligning state accreditation of prep programs with the needs of PreK-12 schools (e.g., ensuring programs prepare candidates to teach the Common Core State Standards); requiring pre-service teachers to demonstrate certain competencies to receive licensure through performance-based assessments; and reporting on program graduates’ in-service performance. We also predict that states will begin to focus more on how new principals are prepared, particularly as their responsibilities for observing and improving instruction grow.

4. Good news for the E-rate program: 

2014 is the year for E-rate reform, as the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) finishes its review of hundreds of public comments and puts forward its plan for program modernization (see New America’s comments and reply comments). This could be another bright spot, as we’ll soon find out if the new plan will actually help students “get ConnectED” with high-speed broadband. A commitment to serious reform would include not only streamlined program administration and reprioritization of services, but also the commitment of additional resources to upgrade schools and libraries’ insufficient service. Look for the FCC to release its final rule sometime this spring.

5. Heightened waiver oversight from the U.S. Department of Education: 

Thus far, the lack of information on waiver implementation is troubling given the extent to which they alter states’ accountability systems for schools and educators. And recent federal monitoring in six states showed that the majority were not following through on all of their promises. As additional monitoring reports are released in the coming weeks, expect to see more states dinged for their treatment of low-performing schools, as well as for teacher evaluations, college- and career-ready assessments, and standards for English language learners.

Join us on Twitter @NewAmericaEd with your thoughts on what to watch this year.

But the monitoring reports are only leading up to the real showdown: the majority of waiver states must apply to extend them by February 28, or risk reverting back to all of NCLB’s policies. How will states’ responses to federal monitoring affect their chances for winning an extension? Will any states lose their waivers or refuse to reapply? Our prediction is that by the end of 2014, at least one state will no longer have a waiver. But, we also expect the Department to soften the blow by finding a creative "solution” between waivers and full-on NCLB for these states: the ex-waiver-waiver.

6. Movement on state pre-K: 

The Strong Start for America’s Children Act faces steep odds, but some governors—most notably Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY)—are making waves with newly declared commitments to expanding pre-K. And two states, Hawaii and Mississippi, last year created brand-new pre-K programs – and proposed new funding for them this year. Will other states follow suit in 2014? We’ll be watching for the National Institute for Early Education Research’s annual State of Preschool Yearbook to see the outcome of 2013 and sense any changing winds in the year to come.

7. More 5-year-olds in school longer: 

This may also be a good year for full-day kindergarten (FDK). Very few states fund FDK at the same level as first grade, and few states require the kindergarten day to equal the length of first grade. With the implementation of the Common Core State Standards and the push for higher quality, full-day pre-K, more states are beginning to recognize the need to fund and require districts to provide kindergartners with a full-day of learning. Last year, Minnesota and Nevada passed legislation to expand FDK. And, in December, Gov. Brownback of Kansas proposed an expansion of state funding for FDK. We expect to see more states and/or districts move toward FDK for all children. But will school districts and principals ensure that kindergarten teachers teach in the ways that children learn best (i.e. exploring, hands-on, rich teacher-child interactions, play, and having opportunities to socialize with peers), even with more rigorous expectations in math and reading?

8. Better discussions of data privacy and security: 

Last year saw an uptick in public concern over data privacy—most evident by the controversy over state contracting with inBloom, Inc., a nonprofit organization providing student data collection and storage services. This year, data privacy will continue to be a hot topic, but the conversation will move beyond the alarmist and home in on the complex issues states and school districts are grappling with. Student data have increasingly migrated online and in the cloud, and are being managed by third-party providers; this year, we hope to see further discussion of best practices regarding ownership, transferal and storage, and new acceptable uses of student data. As states, school districts, schools, teachers, and students continue to enter into agreements with online service providers, there needs to be greater discussion around data privacy, as well as greater understanding of data security.

9. Teacher quality debate stays hot: 

2014 kicked-off with the president of the American Federation of Teachers, the second largest national teachers’ union, calling value-added—one of the measures included in many teacher evaluation systems—“a sham.” Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Education has warned several states that waivers from No Child Left Behind and/or Race to the Top grants may be in jeopardy for failing to incorporate measures of student learning growth, such as value-added, in their evaluation systems. And in 2014, the Department plans to expand its focus beyond establishing teacher evaluations toward equitable distribution of high-quality teachers. Will these more rigorous teacher evaluations hit new speed bumps or finally start to cruise?

10. Troubles ahead for Common Core assessments: 

This spring, states will field test the new Common Core-aligned assessments developed by the SmarterBalanced and PARCC test consortia. Several states have already pulled out, or scaled back, their involvement, including Alabama, Georgia, Florida, Indiana, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Utah. Expect more to follow this year, as even the states remaining in the consortia are weighing options for 2014-15, including those offered from test competitors like ACT and Pearson. Some states will take an all-or-nothing approach to the new tests, but others may choose a piecemeal strategy during the transition. In short, the new assessments will continue to face both policy and political stumbling blocks. Federal involvement in the consortia is a serious concern for many, but so are the increased technology requirements, lack of curriculum and instructional materials, and unproven quality and rigor of the new tests. This last point may prove to be the highest hurdle of all: The consortia have yet to determine the assessment cut scores for “college and career readiness.” Anticipate even more hesitance and hand-wringing from states when the time comes later this year."