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As our consulting team engages with the K-12 community, we often notice the same themes – and questions – cropping up. In this edition, we have selected three trends that we will keep a close eye on for the remainder of 2024:
We hope our observations this month catalyze and sharpen discussions you and your team are having. As always, we value your feedback and look forward to continuing the conversation.
In The End of Education, Neil Postman declared, “At its best, schooling can be about how to make a life, which is quite different from how to make a living.” Today, the prevailing mindset across the public and private sectors appears to be: Why can’t it be about both?
I attended a public high school a few miles outside Boston and taught at one in Baltimore City. In each instance, career education was segregated from conventional schooling and reserved for vocational-technical schools. Now, most high schoolers are deeply focused on their future careers, and state governments have begun to throw their weight behind more dynamic use cases for career programming in K-12 schools. At the same time, the contours of our workforce – and the skills in demand – are changing. But these factors have yet to produce meaningful shifts in K-12 schooling, which looks strikingly similar to when I was in grade school.
Still, broader adoption of career-oriented learning is on the horizon. California policymakers are on the clock to develop a “Master Plan” for career education by October 2024 that pledges to outline a more specific framework for how the state will support “career readiness” across its K-12 and postsecondary ecosystem; the output of this effort will have significant implications for how the state invests the billions of dollars it has committed to these initiatives in recent years. Meanwhile, the Biden Administration has spent this past year managing a $200M investment in “career-connected” high schools as part of a larger initiative to “activate career pathway programs” across all K-12 schools. New policy and funds aim to hold K-12 leaders accountable for not only prioritizing career programs, but implementing them in more comprehensive ways.
As districts and schools navigate this dynamic, they will lean on their partners to incorporate new models of career learning into school. While self-assessment tools and career-technical curricula are more established practices, districts and schools will likely seek more robust, impactful initiatives – like experiential and case-based learning – that authentically engage students and mirror real-world dynamics. Providers, in turn, can collaborate with administrators to not only “check the box” in response to new policy – but also think outside of it. Stride Career Prep Stride Career Prep Academy – which has doubled its enrollment since 2021 – is just one example of an alternative school that has adopted a career-centered ethos, organizing its courses around career clusters and facilitating job shadowing opportunities. Models like this will continue to emerge, adding pressure on public schools to curb attrition through new learning initiatives that help students explore passions and make a living.
Last spring, a current 8th-grade teacher and a close friend texted me, exasperated: “Everyone’s quitting, and our school isn’t hiring anyone back.” As the semester continued, my friend had to absorb more and more students into their classroom to cover the rising level of teacher attrition. Stories like these have echoed across K-12 districts since the start of the pandemic. Even as teachers have been heralded as essential workers – and ESSER funding provided relief in the form of improved salaries and infrastructure (for some) – many still feel overwhelmed by the number of responsibilities and level of stress experienced each day. Schools are scrambling to retain the teachers they do have while still needing to manage teacher-to-student ratios and student success more broadly.
The problem schools and districts face is two-fold: teachers are quitting at a higher annual rate than at any time in the past two decades, and teacher preparation enrollments are down sharply relative to a decade ago – ~440,000 enrollments in 2019-20 relative to ~705,000 enrollments in 2009-10. The dynamics have led to a labor shortage where job openings have far outpaced the number of hires for the past three years (e.g., ~370,000 openings compared to ~200,000 hires in January 2022). Now more than ever, schools and districts need creative solutions to address what is likely to be a long-term challenge.
From a recruiting perspective, the Federal Department of Education is still in the early stages of spearheading registered apprenticeship programs – aka “earn and learn” models – at the state level to enable prospective teachers to earn their credentials through paid residencies. In August 2023, Secretary Cardona called on all states to establish Registered Apprenticeship Programs for K-12 teachers to address educator shortages; 21 states currently have programs in place. To support the expansion of these programs, the Department of Labor also announced $65M in formula grants in 2023 to support state apprenticeship expansion.
An influx of teachers-in-training and shifting towards more continuous training models will have downstream effects on districts’ priorities in their vendor selection process. For curricula, assessment, and platform providers, embedding time-saving measures into digital products may be one step to ensure strong adoption. Vendors are increasingly incorporating automation and AI into their products, so more time-consuming tasks like attendance-taking, grading, and practice and assessments are more streamlined and personalized. Moreover, for professional development providers, training models that allow flexible scheduling will enable schools to facilitate topic-specific trainings throughout the year. Overall, being responsive to these needs in go-to-market and product roadmaps will help providers stand out, particularly as we enter a period of cautious spending with the expiration of ESSER.
When I was in high school, I experienced the push by policymakers to incorporate technology into classroom instruction. Our school was filled with Smartboards and Chromebooks, and every teacher was required to develop a plan for technology-based pedagogy. In practice, however, most of the new devices lay idle, with few teachers knowing how to use them to meaningfully improve instruction. Incorporating technology into the classroom, like many K-12 trends, is easier preached than practiced. In this disconnect lies an opportunity for organizations that can help districts, schools, and educators close the gaps.
Take, for example, the science of reading. If the closure of Lucy Calkins’ literacy center is any indication, one might assume that the “Reading Wars” are over and that the science of reading approaches has “won.” However, if one were to step into almost any elementary classroom, they would continue to find a range of early literacy instructional practices, including many contradictory ones. Recognizing this inconsistency, states have allocated significant funding to professional development models to enhance teacher practice; districts and schools – supported by many providers – have also adopted the science of reading instructional materials to augment practice. Despite all this investment, however, gaps in student literacy achievement persist; shifting this model into practice remains hard.
A similar area of “new” practice in K-12 is multi-tiered systems of support (MTSS), which has rapidly emerged as an established framework for supporting student needs. In reality, MTSS is a combination of processes to identify student gaps and intervention needs married with a recommended set of teacher and school practices to address them. However, MTSS requires consistent coordination and communication across district, school, and classroom stakeholders, a requirement that few have time for; as a result, nearly half of districts report implementation with fidelity to be the greatest challenge implementing MTSS. In response, districts are starting to turn to data platforms that help automate MTSS workflows to enhance and ensure better classroom practice.
With district budgets tightening and pandemic-driven learning gaps persisting, school and district leaders will continue to focus on the actual practices occurring in the classroom. A focus on pragmatism may expose some trends and solutions as empty talk if they do not have a demonstrable effect on classroom practices. However, a focus on practice is also an opportunity for providers who can demonstrate material outcomes, whether by measuring student progress, ensuring the implementation of new initiatives with fidelity, or driving efficiencies. In a period where many district leaders feel “less is more,” providers need to align their value propositions to these practical challenges clearly. Only then will providers have the chance to see – and fix – what goes on beyond the walls of the classroom and back office.
Have any questions or comments about these decision points and key considerations? Reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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