Common Core, College Cost and Quality Among Education Issues to Watch in 2014

K-12 testing, teacher quality and monitoring of the cost and quality of college will come into play.

Common Core implementation, teacher evaluation systems and new quality measures will continue to be central education issues in 2014.
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Federal guidelines have required all states with NCLB waivers to use student growth data in teacher evaluations by the 2015-16 school year, but 12 states have asked the Department of Education for an extra year of flexibility before they tie their teacher evaluation systems to personnel decisions.

Because most states are expecting student test scores to decrease with the implementation of Common Core-aligned assessments, teacher advocates are hoping to delay states' alignment of scores to teacher evaluations, at least for the first few years of Common Core instruction.

Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, has repeatedly called for a moratorium on the consequences of student test scores – for student promotions, school closings and teacher evaluations.

3. Student loan debt and the cost of college: The cost of college has skyrocketed in recent years, and continues to do so, although at a slightly slower pace. Still, students are more often being expected to foot the bill.

An October report from the College Board showed that while the rise in tuition has started to slow, the net price – what students actually pay after grant aid and scholarships – is increasing, partially because growth in federal grant aid has not kept pace with the increase in tuition.

That means more students are taking out loans, and student loan debt is at an all-time high, totaling more than $1.1 trillion. According to an annual report on student loan debt from the Institute for College Access and Success (TICAS), seven in 10 college seniors graduated in 2012 with some amount of student debt, which on average was $29,400.

And more frequently, students are struggling to repay their debt. The number of borrowers who default on their loans (by failing to make payments for more than 270 days) within two and three years after entering repayment has consistently increased for the last several years.

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Lawmakers have intensified their calls to find ways to solve the student debt crisis, and are making strides to accomplish that goal.

A group of Democratic senators recently announced plans to introduce a package of bills to funnel more money into grant aid, restore bankruptcy relief to student loans, and require colleges and universities to have some skin in the game when it comes to defaulted student loans.

And President Obama said in August that tying federal financial aid to college performance measures – such as how well institutions serve and graduate low-income students – could help encourage colleges to deliver quality education at better price. But higher education leaders remain skeptical that a ratings system tied to financial aid will actually drive down the cost of college.

"I think everyone shares the president's view that we have to do better in providing access for lower income students to higher education. But we also believe we want to make sure that access is access to a quality education," says Debra Humphreys, vice president of policy and public engagement at the Association of American Colleges and Universities. "That means it's more than just about how cheaply we can provide it and the benefits that accrue to students extend beyond a sort of simplistic analysis of how much money someone makes right after they graduate from college."

4. Alternative routes to degrees: Due to the high cost of college and poor graduation rates (about half of students nationwide graduate within six years) more students are looking for other ways to earn a degree in a timely manner.

While massive open online courses, or MOOCs, have gained attention for their popularity, rapid growth and controversy, some still question whether they offer the same quality of education as brick-and-mortar institutions. At the same time, schools, companies and nonprofits are venturing into other areas of online and alternative education.