From pandemic academic recovery and calls to strengthen family engagement to the need for preventing cyberthreats and school violence, there’s no shortage of challenges facing the nation’s education system. At the same time, there is no direction from which those hurdles aren’t coming at administrators full-speed.
As 2023 gets underway and the K-12 sector faces looming deadlines for emergency pandemic funds, ongoing battles over curriculum and more, the following eight trends will be critical for education leaders to watch.
Planning for the end of ESSER funding
This year, expect to see school districts tap more of their federal American Rescue Plan funds to continue paying for pandemic recovery efforts while keeping an eye on meeting the final obligation deadline of Sept. 30, 2024.
The ARP pocket of funding is the last and largest of three COVID-19 allocations totalling $189.5 billion. With the first obligation deadline having already passed and the second coming on Sept. 30, 2023, the clock is ticking for education leaders to budget historic levels of money effectively.
And as some researchers predict the emergency funding will run out before students' academic needs are met, calls will likely arise for more local and state funding to help schools meet budget gaps.
Some states and districts have already adjusted their funding models — or are considering doing so — to avoid a fiscal cliff after federal emergency funds end and to retain student and staff supports that were added during the pandemic.
“On the heels of three years of impact from COVID interruptions, states and districts are taking a closer look at the types of evidence of learning they gather on each student, and how that information is used to move the needle for every child," said Chris Minnich, CEO of NWEA, a nonprofit assessment and research organization, in a statement.
But as staffing shortages and student absences continue to hamper progress, budget certainty will become even more difficult. Education leaders will need to balance goals for better student outcomes while still trying to meet their bottom lines.
Need grows for mental health supports
Mental health support, a primary concern for educators when students first re-entered the classroom after pandemic closures, continues to be top of mind right alongside academic recovery.
As students report increased levels of depression and anxiety, schools have set priorities for psychoeducation in staff professional development, suicide prevention training, and integrating social-emotional learning in curricula.
To bolster their efforts, schools are receiving funds from sources like the Bipartisan Safer Communities Act, passed in June after the massacre of 19 children and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas.
However, there have been pockets of resistance to social-emotional learning, with some opponents calling it a guise for "critical-race theory" or an effort to control the social and emotional health of students. This has left schools in many locations, such as those in Florida, in situations where they are grappling with the best interest of their students on one hand and community pushback on the other.
Spike in shootings looms over school safety debates
In 2022, the nation saw an unprecedented number of school shootings alongside the most significant legislative effort in years to address the problem via the $13 billion Bipartisan Safer Communities Act.
Passage of the legislation came within a month of the May massacre of 19 students and two teachers at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas. The nation’s second deadliest K-12 school shooting came just months before the 10-year anniversary of the worst, in which 20 children and six adults were killed at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, in 2012.
The Bipartisan Safer Communities Act marks a significant investment in mental health and trauma care services, violence prevention efforts, and extracurricular, after-school, and summer programming. But lawmakers remain at odds on firearm regulations ranging from stricter background checks to sales prohibitions on certain weapons or accessories.
Alongside the ongoing debate over whether it's best to invest in hardening schools with reactive safety measures or to prioritize proactive measures that target root social and mental health factors before violence occurs, school safety is a multifaceted challenge with few clear solutions on the horizon.
K-12 and early ed collaborations on the rise
If the pandemic proved how essential early education and child care is to working parents and the U.S. economy, this year will offer hints of whether that momentum can be sustained.
Although Congress could not agree to a plan for universal preschool and free child care for those most in need, 2022 saw progress in the awareness and expansion of early childhood education, including approval of universal preschool in New Mexico.
At the same time, the field also experienced heightened pressure to respond to staff shortages, inflation, student and teacher illnesses, and setbacks in young children's school readiness skills.
Federal COVID-19 funding has given the field a temporary fiscal boost. According to the White House, the emergency funding helped 200,000 child care providers keep their doors open to as many as 9.5 million children while employing more than 1 million child care workers.
But as that funding dries up, states and localities will need to look at creative financing, such as combining revenue sources to build capacity for early education, panelists said during a July virtual session of the U.S. Office of Special Education Programs’ Leadership and Project Directors’ Conference.
Other solutions being pursued include stronger collaborations among early education, child care and K-12 systems. Those partnerships could strengthen efforts for school readiness, workforce recruitment and retention, options for families, and more, according to early childhood advocates.
Teacher, staff shortage pressures continue
As teacher shortages persist — albeit in different ways — for districts and schools nationwide, education leaders will continue to explore a variety of strategies for an issue exacerbated by the pandemic. Superintendent turnover also skyrocketed 46% in the nation’s largest districts as leaders spent the past few years grappling with the pandemic, political polarization, school safety issues and staffing vacancies.
Collectively, school districts are spending as much as $20 billion in ARP funds to improve the education workforce, according to FutureEd, a think tank at Georgetown University's McCourt School of Public Policy.
Will leaders continue to use more of their federal COVID-19 relief dollars on one-time retention or recruitment bonuses? Will they rethink their approaches to the way educators are compensated based upon what or where they teach? Or will policymakers just consider raising the bar for teacher pay overall?
Regardless, data to track whether these strategies are actually working is thus far largely absent. To meet that need, some states, such as California, are beginning to require districts to report details on teacher shortages, although a federal component to amass this data is still lacking.
Test scores show uphill battle for academic recovery
Schools are continuing to wrestle with getting students back on track as recent assessments have confirmed the negative impact of COVID-19 on academic achievement. According to results from the Nation's Report Card, 2022 federal assessment scores show declines across most states in both reading and math at grades 4 and 8.
Bringing affected students up to par through interventions like tutoring, accelerated learning and summer programs remains a focus. Schools are also experimenting with schedules, including lengthening the school day or even year, to reverse academic declines.
Researchers and assessment experts have said catching students up will be a multi-year effort that lives well into 2023 and beyond.
Family engagement a focus amid growing politicization
Improving family engagement will be a necessary tool to combat the public’s declining trust in the K-12 education system, according to the Hunt Institute, an independent nonprofit seeking to improve education policy. The dip in public trust worsened over the pandemic, attributed to debates surrounding virus mitigation protocols in schools and ongoing efforts to limit classroom discussions around race and LGBTQ issues.
Out of the pandemic, parent activism emerged as “parental rights” bills popped up in state legislatures nationwide. More than 20 organizations, including the National Association of Family, School, and Community Engagement, have denounced the politicization of family engagement.
As district leaders navigate politically divided communities, federal leaders are debating how to help localities with family engagement. To that end, the U.S. Education Department established a National Parents and Families Engagement Council, only to quickly disband it before the group even held its first meeting.
The council's dissolution came after a lawsuit filed by conservative groups arguing that the group lacked balanced perspectives when the U.S. Department of Education established the National Parents and Families Engagement Council. The Education Department had created the group “to facilitate strong and effective relationships between schools and parents, families and caregivers,” said the agency.
Family engagement organizations remain determined to push for federal resources and support to help districts move through an increasingly challenging landscape.
School cybersecurity threats multiplying
School districts remain among the most popular and vulnerable targets for cyberattacks. Ransomware attacks — in which a target’s data is encrypted and locked by a hacker who then demands a ransom in exchange for its return — have been particularly prevalent, given the amount of valuable personal data schools have from employees, students and families, as well as the lack of cybersecurity funding and resources in the education sector.
The past year has seen the Los Angeles Unified School District fall victim to ransomware and struggle with the fallout and impact of the attack — which included perpetrators Vice Society leaking stolen data online, including Social Security numbers and W-9 forms.
While the FBI, Cybersecurity and Infrastructure Security Agency and Multi-State Information Sharing Analysis Center discourage paying a ransom because there’s no guarantee the files being held will ultimately be recovered, the critical nature of those files often leaves districts feeling they have no choice. In December, the Little Rock School District in Arkansas did so at a hefty $250,000.
The Federal Communications Commission has taken notice, however, and is currently weighing the addition of cybersecurity to services covered by its E-rate program. Awareness is also growing around best practices, such as maintaining an offline backup of a school or district’s network in case of attack. Alongside ongoing pressure from the U.S. Government Accountability Office for federal agencies to do more to address the threat, 2023 is likely to be an eventful year for K-12 cybersecurity.