Claudio Sanchez is the senior member of the NPR Ed team, with more than 25 years on the education beat. We asked him for his list of the top stories he'll be watching in 2016.
1. The new federal education law
The long, grueling fight to overhaul the 14-year-old No Child Left Behind law is over, but that'll turn out to be the easy part. The new Every Student Succeeds Act returns most government oversight of schools back to states. But there are no guarantees that the states will do a better job than the federal government in two key areas: closing the achievement gap and raising the performance of the absolute worst schools.
There will be some relief for students burdened by excessive testing. But for the most part states will continue to rely on test scores, using them to punish schools rather than for improving curriculum and instruction. Reading and math scores will drop for all kids on the new, tougher standardized tests linked to the Common Core. But the dismal performance of groups that struggle will trigger more scrutiny from civil rights groups in 2016. We'll also see those groups pressure states to deal with teacher quality and funding.
2. Moving on from Common Core
The controversy over the much-maligned Common Core State Standards will diminish. States will continue their efforts to re-brand or rename the standards, while for the most part following them. Despite the political controversy, the push for high academic standards will continue, and we'll see little of the "race to the bottom" that happened under NCLB.
3. Charter schools under a microscope
The charter school movement will celebrate its 25th anniversary in 2016. With 6,700 schools and nearly 3 million students across 43 states and the District of Columbia, charters are a powerful force. The federal government has poured billions of dollars into charters, and polling shows that a majority of Americans support them. But you can expect these publicly-funded, privately-run schools to face new scrutiny, and new criticism.
We'll see more scandals involving fraud, corruption and mismanagement, despite efforts to weed out "bad actors" who've exploited weak charter laws in several states. As Joe Nathan, a senior fellow at the Center for School Change, who helped write charter school legislation in 32 states, puts it: "We have not done enough to deal with the crooks and charlatans, of which we have our share."
Charters will also be one of the very few education issues to get any attention in the presidential campaign.
4. 'Dreamers' dreams deferred
There will be an even stronger backlash against the push for greater access to college for undocumented students. "Dreamers" — students brought to the U.S. illegally as children — will face greater opposition because of the stalemate over immigration reform. The angry, anti-immigrant rhetoric from Republicans running for president will also shape this debate. Look for state lawmakers to consider even tougher measures to deny Dreamers any benefits and push them deeper into a legal and educational limbo.
5. Goodbye race-conscious admissions
Watch for the U.S. Supreme Court to ban race in college admissions, forcing institutions to abandon affirmative action policies. Schools will have to rethink how they recruit and enroll students in efforts to increase diversity. This will fuel an already tense situation on many campuses. Expect minority student protests and campus unrest to intensify.
6. Student debt takes center stage
Higher education leaders, or what presidential candidate Senator Marco Rubio calls "the higher-ed cartel," effectively killed the Obama administration's attempt to create a more transparent, consumer-friendly way for students and parents to rate colleges. But with many of the presidential candidates calling for tuition-free or debt-free college, we'll see these institutions undertake a more serious discussion about changing their pricing policies — largely out of fear that lawmakers in Washington will step in and do it for them.