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Throughout 2013, New America’s PreK-12 education team has brought you regular news and analysis of the goings-on in schools around the country and here in Washington, D.C. Below are the 10 biggest stories of the year. Check back in early 2014 for our key spots to watch in the coming year! 

1. Watching ESEA Waivers: February marks two years since states were first awarded waivers from No Child Left Behind’s most punitive provisions. Most states, and even some school districts, have applied. But the impact of those waivers is questionable, at best. Some states struggled to meet their own plans. Waiver renewals raised eyebrows among those of us who wondered how the Department of Education would ensure the waivers provide high-quality accountability metrics. And a New America report that examined data from more than 20,000 schools in 16 states found that nearly 65 percent of schools in improvement under NCLB were no longer subject to those interventions. Still, reauthorization of NCLB seems unlikely, given the lengthy hearings and few results from earlier this year.

2. The Power of Pre-K: From President Obama’s State of the Union address to Capitol Hill, and from states to cities, policymakers dusted off the research on the efficacy of pre-K programs and made the case for expanding access–and quality. Though federal efforts to expand pre-K are likely to remain stalled as long as the budget crunch continues, momentum is building for smarter, earlier federal investments in young children.

3. Budget Dealings: The 2013 fiscal year brought with it a 5 percent sequester of federal dollars to federal programs, and yet more uncertainty about the 2014 budget process. Sequestration crunched schools’ budgets, particularly for needy students, and forced Head Start to drop 57,000 slots. After a federal government shutdown and a subsequent agreement to delay the 2014 budget cuts into the new year, Congress reached a deal that will avert the sequester, but hold appropriations funding essentially steady for the next three years. It does not, however, provide program-level funding past January 15 — leaving open the possibility of another federal shutdown. For more on that, check out EdCentral in the New Year.

4. Head Start Ups and Downs: The Office of Head Start finally announced in 2013 its first five-year grants to winners of Head Start recompetition — a policy that required some grantees to re-apply and compete for funds, and that, for a variety of reasons, attracted few competitors to current grantees. Meanwhile, though, Head Start programs continued a steady growth in quality improvement. Today, more than 60 percent of Head Start teachers have bachelor’s degrees in early childhood, surpassing a requirement that half do by this fall. And despite the blow that sequestration struck to the program in March, a proposal by President Obama to expand access to pre-K made Early Head Start a partner in the effort and could have significant implications for Head Start.

5. Tracking Grade-Level Reading: More and more states have begun adopting policies that require children to read on grade level by the end of third grade — and, in some cases, holding those students back until they meet the standards. Literacy gaps start very early, an issue some policymakers and educators are grappling with. Improving PreK-3rd grade education will require substantial investment to help establish a well-connected and coordinated continuum of learning. Libraries and other community structures have a big role to play, too. Improving grade-level reading skills will require comprehensive, robust supports across the educational system and including families.

6. Common Core, Continued: As the first states began to fully implement the Common Core State Standards this year, controversies over the Common Core assessments, states’ timelines, and the standards’ implications for students cropped up repeatedly. Several states have pulled out of the PARCC assessment consortium, federal funding for which is set to expire before the tests are even fully rolled out. Other states are relying on assessments from other companies, further complicating the implementation of testing. Some governors are requesting a waiver from their waiver to allow them to slow down Common Core implementation. And this is just the beginning of Common Core complications — expect another pile-up as test scores from the Common Core aligned assessments start to roll in.

7. Changing Demographics: With the ever-growing size of dual language learner students in the U.S., educators are beginning to ask the best ways to address that population’s needs. Calling them dual, instead of English language learners, is just the first step. Especially in children’s earliest years, assessments appropriate for DLLs, bilingual teachers, a clear, aligned DLL curriculum, and family outreach are all critical. But in far too many schools, dual language learners fall farther and farther behind as their teachers struggle to meet their needs amidst all the other educator responsibilities they face. Immigration reform got its 15 minutes of fame this year, but the work on dual language learners is just beginning.

8. Looking at Teachers: The intense focus on improving teacher quality continued through 2013, with more states implementing more rigorous teacher evaluation systems as a requirement of receiving NCLB waivers. A New America report asked one especially important question: How will states use student achievement data to evaluate teachers in the untested grades and subjects, particularly those in pre-kindergarten through second grade? And efforts to shrink the gap in teacher quality between high- and low-income schools with financial incentives reveal that money is not enough. Meanwhile, a new National Council on Teacher Quality survey—as well as a new assessment developed by the teacher preparation field itself—found that teacher prep programs are failing to equip many teacher candidates with the knowledge and skills they’ll need in the classroom, while another New America report highlighted two states that have made efforts to train current teachers to use valuable data on students.

9. Using Learning Technologies: Did you download apps for your little one this year? You’re not alone. As noted during a gathering at New America for media researchers, there are nearly 100,000 education apps in the iTunes store, and technology plays an increasingly large role in children’s lives. Questions are still being posed regarding where and when different types of technology are helpful or harmful for young children, and experts urge administrators to keep the role of parents and educators in mind when making tech decisions.  Some parents think of apps more as toys than distractions and don’t fret about their use. In schools, it may be a different story, as some students still lack high-speed Internet to download good content in the first place. That’s why many have proposed using the Federal Communications Commission’s E-Rate program to connect classrooms and libraries in rural and low-income areas to broadband.

10. Lagging Adult Education: When the OECD released a report this year identifying one in six Americans as lacking basic skills necessary for the workforce, it sent a ripple through PreK-12 educators and analysts. Employers don’t see what they want from their applicants, and applicants aren’t learning the skills they need–both academic and practical–to join the workforce. Still, though, it’s clear employers have yet to join the employee education bandwagon in force, so much work remains to be done. And note — this news story topped our higher education list of key 2013 stories, too.