I’ve been tied up, traveling, and working on some other 2013 forecast projects, but here are five things I’d pay attention to this year on education policy:
Common Core – This seems likely to be the big story of the year, and probably next year as well. Last summer Utah bailed out of the new assessments that will accompany the new standards. Will others follow? It’s going to be debated in a few states this year at the same time the two state assessment consortia figure out what passing scores on the test look like and what flexibility states will have. Meanwhile, everyone from the GE Foundation and Gates Foundation to the two national teachers unions is scrambling to help train teachers and support schools in the transition to the new standards. Significant needs from curriculum to technology for the assessments remain and education insiders remain skeptical of the ability of school districts to pull this off. The reality is that schools struggle with today’s more basic standards and tests, so even if everything goes smoothly – read big if – the Common Core will be a real shock to the system.
Teacher Evaluation – This Bellwether analysis shows what states have actually done, and not done, on teacher evaluation – there is not surprisingly a gap between some of the hand-wringing and the actual policies. No one, for instance, is basing teacher evaluation entirely, or even mostly, on test scores. But that doesn’t mean there will not be implementation challenges this year as the ambition of some state laws meets the reality of today’s system. You don’t go from essentially evaluating no one to evaluating everyone – including the overwhelming majority of teachers who work in subjects and/or grades without standardized tests – without some bumps in the road. At the same time, an increasing number of states are reporting evaluation data under their new systems that looks a lot like it did under the old system – cutting against the grain of Race to the Top.
School Boards – Several key big city school boards remain a jump ball on reform. Two – Los Angeles and Denver – have pivotal elections this year that will go a long way toward sorting out the longevity of the ambitious reform efforts of their superintendents. Look for a lot of money from all sides, but, after voters have their say, also a signal about the stability of the demand for reform. Solid pro-reform majorities would have implications in those cities, but also nationally.
Pensions – The sustainability of teacher pensions has emerged as a major fiscal issue for states. A few years ago the warnings about pensions were coming from just a few wonks, now policymakers in most states are paying attention to an overall pension shortfall of more than half a trillion dollars (double that when health care is factored in). At the same time there is growing awareness of how the current pension systems shortchange many teachers – especially mobile ones and career shifters – and contribute to America’s broader retirement security problems. Even absent a headline-grabbing fiscal crisis pensions will make news this year as policymakers try to sort out how to meet the different goals of fiscal sustainability, adequate retirement benefits for workers, and adapting relatively static pension systems to the more dynamic teacher labor market today.
Teacher Preparation – Teacher prep is one of those issues where the gap between the research base and practice and policy today is truly awe inspiring. But the abundant evidence that – except for warm body emergency credentials – candidate characteristics matter more than routes into the profession do is starting to inform policy and the cost-benefit issues are attracting attention at a time when public dollars are tight. Look for a big blow-up when US News and the National Council on Teacher Quality releases their analysis of teacher preparation programs later this year, more analysis from state data systems, as well as some action in the states and Washington on the policy questions.
Disclosure – Bellwether does research and analysis on the pension issue and is in the midst of a research project on the status of Common Core implementation. We’re also helping the state of Rhode Island with revisions to its teacher preparation scheme and I’m vice-chair of the board at the University of Virginia’s ed school and on the Visiting Committee for Harvard’s.