Innovations and advancements in technology and culture are expanding opportunities for school districts to advance student education positively in ways never seen before. The tradeoff, however, includes roadblocks and barriers halting progress and complicating efficiencies. Across the nation, the following six trends are placing the most significant strain on public school systems and their leaders. If your district is facing any or all of these challenges, you’re not alone.
#1 – Slashed Funding
Budget cuts are a devastating trend causing a ripple effect and elevating several of the other items on this list to dangerous levels. According to the National Education Association (NEA), the schools in greatest need of funding are often the ones being most negatively impacted by budget cuts. At least 12 states reduced general or formula funding by at least seven percent at the start of the 2017 school year. Also, seven states (Arizona, Idaho, Kansas, Mississippi, North Carolina, and Oklahoma) implemented tax cuts that cost tens or hundreds of millions of dollars in education funding. Such reductions are impacting everything from classroom sizes, to quality equipment access, to teacher salaries, and were some of the many factors fueling teacher strikes in districts across the nation this past year.
#2 – Oversized Classrooms
Ask any teacher in your district if classroom size has an impact on learning efficacy, and they will tell you that there is a critical tipping point in which too many students create challenges to individualized attention and learning adjustments. Research supports this anecdotal insight. According to a study conducted by The Tennessee Star, there is a definite sweet spot when it comes to classroom size. The study found that classes of 15 to 17 elementary school students provide both long and short-term benefits to both the youth and their teachers.1 In some public schools; however, classroom sizes have escalated to as many as 30 due to teacher shortages and budget cuts. The result is school administrators looking for creative ways to minimize negative student impact on the growing teacher-student ratios.2
#3 – Student and Family Economic Hardship
Poverty and economic depression in individual homes and our communities are causing concerns for teachers and administrators. Twenty-two percent of American children live at or below the poverty level3. For children and adolescents whose basic human needs are not being met, and don’t always know where their next meal will come from, classroom lessons and homework sometimes take a back seat. The Southern Education Foundation reports that in 17 U.S. states, low-income students comprise the majority of public school enrollees. Economically disadvantaged students continue to represent the highest high school dropout percentage, which means that teachers and administrators are fighting a formidable battle: How to impart on our youth the importance of education in light of potentially life-threatening poverty at home4. Couple that with districts whose budget cuts make it more difficult for schools to provide support services, such as after school care and supplemental meal programs, and the challenge of poverty continues to impact our schools.
#4 – Outdated Facilities and Resources
In the digital era, where 89 percent of teenagers own a smartphone5 and desire access to digital tools and tech to help them explore the world and learn new concepts, how can our schools succeed if they are armed only with outdated textbooks and tech, and not even enough of them to adequately serve all students? The cause of such limitations is again the number one factor on this list: budget cuts.
Not only is access to teaching materials limited, but many school facilities are sorely lacking critical upgrades and repairs needed for student safety. The U.S. Green Building Council’s Center for Green Schools issued a “State of Our Schools” report in 2013 that put nationwide estimates of infrastructure modernization and repair costs at a staggering $542 billion.4 Humans, at any age, are impacted by their surrounding environment. When students attend classes in outdated settings that need repairs and facility improvements, and wholly visually uninspiring, it can result in a disinterest in school attendance and active classroom participation.
#5 – Homelife Dysfunction or Instability
When students experience significant disruption or trauma in their personal life, it can result in a disinterest in the classroom, increased truancy, decreased academic performance, and antisocial behavior that—if not addressed—can spiral out of control and become challenging to counteract. Regardless of their age, such traumas may include parental divorce, abuse or aggression in the family, poverty as mentioned previously, the death of a loved one, or witnessing a violent event. Teachers should watch for signs of a sudden student behavior change as a possible indication of trouble at home. Wither proper district support and intervention, individual student needs can be addressed, but the rate of unstable households is not showing signs of slowing.
#6 – School Safety
There were 24 school shootings in 2018, and at least eight as of July 2019. These unfathomable statistics reinforce that teachers and students are today living in a world underscored by the constant threat of a possible violent event. The increasing rate of school violence is leading to decreasing teacher applicant pools, and increases in post-traumatic stress disorder and survivor’s guilt among affected students that may have deadly consequences.7 It is also leading to parents fearing for their children’s lives every time they send them off on the school bus. The controversy of gun rights vs. gun violence in our country has resulted in protests from both sides of the philosophical divide, and some schools are going so far as considering arming teachers. The only thing known, for now, is that school safety continues to be an escalated topic of concern for schools across the nation.
These six factors may not impact schools across the nation equally, but whether your district is urban or rural, large or small, you are likely feeling the strain of at least one of these trends. With national awareness and continued dialogue and collaboration, together school leaders can find short term bridges to long-term successes and get back to focusing primarily on what matters most: developing all students so they are capable of achieving the highest possible academic standards.
1. Achilles, C. M., et al. (2012). Class-size Policy: The Star Experiment and Related Class-size Studies. NCPEA Policy Brief, 1.2. “A reanalysis of the Tennessee STAR experiment found that small classes (15-17 pupils) in kindergarten through third grade (K-3) provide short- and long-term benefits for students, teachers, and society at large….poor, minority, and male students reap extra benefits in terms of improved test outcomes, school engagement, and reduced grade retention and dropout rates.”↩
3. Jenco, Melissa. “Report: 17.5% of U.S. Children Live in Poverty.” AAP, 28 Aug. 2019, www.aappublications.org/news/2018/09/13/poverty091318?utm_source=TrendMD&utm_medium=TrendMD&utm_campaign=AAPNews_TrendMD_0.]↩
4. Suitts, Steve. A New Majority Update: Low Income Students in the South and Nation. Southern Education Foundation. (2013)↩
5. McClellan, Jennifer. “Teen Study: 89 Percent Have Smartphones; Hate Content Exposure Has Gone Up.” USA Today, Gannett Satellite Information Network, 10 Sept. 2018, www.usatoday.com/story/life/allthemoms/2018/09/10/teens-say-social-media-has-positive-effect-how-they-feel-common-sense-media/1204457002/.↩
6. “‘2013 State of Our Schools’ Report from the Center for Green Schools at USGBC Calls for Immediate Examination of America’s School Facilities: U.S. Green Building Council.” “2013 State of Our Schools” Report from the Center for Green Schools at USGBC Calls for Immediate Examination of America’s School Facilities | U.S. Green Building Council, 11 Mar. 2013, www.usgbc.org/articles/%E2%80%9C2013-state-our-schools%E2%80%9D-report-center-green-schools-usgbc-calls-immediate-examination-amer.↩
7. Sakuma, Amanda. “2 Parkland School Shooting Survivors Have Died.” Vox, Vox, 24 Mar. 2019, www.vox.com/2019/3/24/18279706/parkland-shooting-survivors-die-suicide.↩