Education systems across the states have suffered disruptions of historic proportions over the past three years, and educators, students and families are feeling the effects. Schools and universities are open again and trying to return to normal, but nothing is the same. Many teachers and principals have left their positions, and some students still have not returned to their schools or campuses. Unfortunately, the data shows students were profoundly affected, with test scores revealing just how far behind they’ve fallen. This has been especially true for students of color and those with disabilities, exacerbating inequities that have persisted for decades.
This story is part of a State Legislatures News special report examining the hot topics and legislative trends that will dominate state lawmakers’ time in 2023.
Addressing these challenges will require rethinking the education system, according to the legislators and staff in NCSL’s International Education Study Group who have spent the last seven years studying the world’s most effective education systems. They argue that our nearly century-old system no longer meets our needs and is not adaptable enough in times of disruption or crisis. The work, beginning in 2023, won’t be easy; legislators face a sticky system averse to change.
Hot Topic—Student Recovery
Legislators remain concerned about students being far behind in their learning and the impact of that on their mental health. Assessments of all kinds—short-cycle, annual, nationwide—show that student learning, especially that of the youngest learners, is lagging because of the pandemic. NWEA and Curriculum Associates, both of which administer millions of reading and math tests to students throughout the school year, have released data showing that nearly all students, from preschoolers to young adults, were impacted and that those who traditionally struggle the most have fallen even farther behind. The National Assessment of Educational Progress released scores in October this year showing that the declines in math and reading and the gaps between high- and low-performing students all had reached historic levels.
With federal ESSER funds at their disposal, school districts have deployed many intervention strategies, including high-dose tutoring, updated curriculum and technology, more teachers, summer and afterschool programs, and counselors for students and teachers who are struggling. Legislators will be watching how those funds are spent, whether the strategies are effective, and how state policy can continue to support these efforts to get students back on track.
Hot Topic—Teacher/Leader Recruitment and Retention
In 2023, legislators will continue to focus on the challenge of recruiting and retaining educators, meaning this is likely to be a highly legislated topic. While nearly every district across the country is reporting workforce shortages, the solution for each school, district and state might be different. Legislators will likely hold hearings and meet with state and local policymakers, parents, and school leaders and teachers to identify promising solutions.
In 2022, legislators in many states investigated their own shortages and which state policies might address this challenge. They know this isn’t a new challenge, but what’s new or different now? They are discovering—and surveys back this up—that the answers include a combination of low pay, lack of respect from parents and the community, lack of high-quality curriculum and technology, outdated buildings, concerns about personal safety, student emotional and academic challenges, poor school leadership and disgruntled colleagues. Teachers are reporting significant stress and mental health challenges as a result. The challenges in teaching have been around for a long while but have worsened since the pandemic.
Some areas are seeing severe teacher shortages, particularly in traditionally hard-to-staff subjects. Legislators also are concerned about the state of teaching and the adults in the system. They are well aware of the research showing that teachers and principals are the most influential school factor in student outcomes. And only effective school principals can inspire and support the best teachers and create optimum learning conditions, which are sorely needed right now.
Unfortunately, data from a 2022 RAND survey of teachers and principals shows that they are struggling. Preparation programs have seen a decline in teacher candidates, fewer teachers are applying for open positions, and many teachers have opted to leave or retire. The same is happening with school principals. Support staff, including education assistants, counselors, cafeteria staff and bus drivers, all are in very short supply, too. This has left schools sparsely staffed at a time when students need highly effective teams of experts focused on their recovery, crippling the system’s ability to respond.
Hot Topic—Student Debt
Legislators have been concerned about student debt for some time, and recent federal actions have spurred those looking for ways to lower the cost of credentials, including traditional higher education.
The cost of these opportunities has climbed to record levels over the last decade, bringing new levels of student borrowing and defaults. In 2019, total student loan debt held by U.S. borrowers climbed to over $1.7 trillion. More than 44 million Americans owe a balance on a student loan, with the average borrower owing more than $25,000. Federal plans to relieve current debt are uncertain, so states will surely be looking into strategies not only to assist current debtors through oversight, forgiveness or tax relief, but also to make postsecondary degrees and credentials more affordable in the first place and help students complete their credentials.
For more, see these NCSL education resources:
Michelle Exstrom directs NCSL’s Education Program.