K-12 Buckles Down for the New Academic Year

by: Christian Lehr | Blog |Sep 9th, 2021

Last year at this time, we offered perspective on issues facing the K-12 community as a result of the pandemic. Most of us spent considerable time watching and supporting schools, students, and parents in their response.

In one strand of our work at Tyton, we found that for parents, there was a pronounced shift in mindset and action in relation to their children’s education. In other cases, the headlines may have missed the mark; yes, many teachers may have felt burnt out and discouraged last year, but they were also optimistic about how the pandemic was helping them elevate their practice moving forward.

For students, most will continue dealing with circumstances entirely beyond their control. Regardless of where and how, students will (hopefully) show up to school and their classes, bounded by policies, practices, and budgets that shape their educational experience. The onus is on us to deliver for them.

K-12 Heads Back-to-School with Purpose

This back-to-school season has a sense of urgency and enthusiasm, notwithstanding the challenges presented by the Delta coronavirus variant and tense political climate in some communities. Across the K-12 ecosystem there is an intentional focus on getting things right and better (than last year), and the greater availability of financial resources helps considerably.

As we collectively embark on another school year, one with hopefully much greater consistency and support for all students, several themes frame the experiences of students, parents, educators and administrators.

Schools open their doors, but instructional delivery challenges will linger

The Department of Education recently released its three landmark pillars for the academic year, and not surprisingly, “health and safety” is first. Districts across the country are returning in-person, a welcome change for many students and families eager – and needing – to recapture the full spirit of school, inclusive of extracurriculars and athletics. That said, with tens of thousands of students already registering positive COVID-19 tests, we are witnessing the challenges that may face districts in regards to providing a clear and consistent learning experience.

A key factor moving forward this year does not rest in “in-person” or “remote” learning models as we saw last year, but in the policies in place to protect the health and safety of students and teachers. As it stands, these are all over the map, with 16 states currently implementing mask mandates and nine prohibiting them, a stark divide that could hint at where the greatest issues may arise. While one might assume that those states committed to preserving community rights via mask mandates will have a less disruptive year from a delivery perspective, the vagaries of this virus have demonstrated anything can occur.

We anticipate that fundamental health and safety issues will force schools and districts to balance a commitment to in-person learning with the fact that many students will require a path back to remote learning; this volatility could prove far more challenging from an academic and administrative standpoint than last year’s blanket policies.

Bottom line

This new year brings new pressures for schools, districts, and their partners to be able to serve and deliver a coherent program safely. Schools and districts without adaptable learning models will find it difficult to navigate the unpredictability; for suppliers, the customer support models put in place across the past year will be critical to bridging these unexpected challenges.

Teacher pipeline and development efforts benefit from stimulus funding

K-12 leaders are less worried about funding than in previous years. Since Spring 2020, the Department of Education has passed three rounds of COVID-19 relief funds in the form of the Elementary and Secondary Emergency Relief Funds (ESSER), which makes nearly $200B available to K-12 schools. In addition to the purchased of various instructional technologies supporting and enabling remote learning, many schools and districts are deploying funds to strengthen their workforce.

When dollars are available, investing in people often takes precedence in K-12, which is certainly a necessity in the current school environment. Many of the strategies center on enhancing districts’ recruiting and retention efforts, both internally and in partnership with various external partners. Within the private sector, Rise Fund’s recent acquisition of Teachers of Tomorrow and Quad C’s acquisition of Learner’s Edge earlier this year are reflective of this dynamic. Nearly half of U.S. states have already leveraged federal funds to support professional development, too, recognizing that access to high quality on-the-job training and coaching is a key lever to improve classroom outcomes. (See Leeds Equity’s investment in engage2learn earlier this year as one example.) Whether in-person or online, leaders are increasingly relying on partners to provide critical teacher supports and development.

Bottom line

For now, the funding picture is bright. There is clear emphasis on ensuring schools and districts have the talent they need; identifying, securing, and preparing teachers for what lies ahead has never been more challenging. Moreover, beyond talent acquisiton, equipping teachers to materially evolve their practice based on the influx of technologies in schools remains a key opportunity that leading suppliers and partners are investing behind.

Student well-being is (finally) on everyone’s mind

When gauging districts and schools’ strategic priorities for the 2021-22 academic year, 70% of teachers, principals, and administrators cite “improving students’ mental health and well-being” as a top concern – a gigantic leap from the 27% who indicate this was a top priority prior to COVID-19. This data comes from a new edition of “Finding Your Place” – to be published later this month – which provides a comprehensive overview of the state of K-12 social emotional learning in schools and districts (click here to access the first edition).

Addressing students’ health and well-being has significant momentum in K-12 and for good reason: since the start of the pandemic, the U.S. has seen a 31% rise in mental health-related emergency room incidents for teens. Recently, the Biden administration pledged $85M to support mental health initiatives in K-12, of which will the majority (~$74M) will be directed to supporting educator training.

The implications for schools and districts are far-reaching, but first and foremost, they need high-quality programming and resources. New York and Virginia have become the first states to mandate mental health education in schools’ curriculum, and social emotional learning continues to attract resources – and attention – from schools and investors alike. While the term “social emotional learning” faces headwinds in some communities, there is nonetheless significant demand – particularly among parents – for what these programs endorse: whole-child development that promotes mental health and, in turn, academic opportunity.

Bottom line

The need and value of high-quality social emotional learning and mental health services for students (and teachers) has always existed, but the pandemic has galvanized support and funding availability across a broad spectrum of stakeholders like never before. While suppliers serving this segment have needed to rely on support from grant funding in the past, increased awareness and adoption indicates a more active marketplace moving forward.

Literacy gains necessary steam

As schools and districts seek ways to address unfinished learning, much of the focus has been on improving fundamental literacy skills. In the past decade, Common Core’s far-reaching literacy standards brought reading into the conversation for all subjects, including the maths and sciences. This push led to the popular notion that “all teachers are literacy teachers”– a phrase that rings true now more than ever.

The disruption over the past eighteen months has created a remarkable need for addressing younger students’ development of foundational literacy skills and gap-closing/ acceleration for less proficient older students. Moreover, when schools and districts face uncommon challenges, suppliers – and investors – are often not far behind. To that end, the K-12 literacy space has been particularly active, predicated on demonstrable need and available funding. As if in prep for the new school year, literacy market deal volume in August included:

  • DreamBox Learning complemented its highly regarding K-8 supplemental digital math solution with the acquisitions of Reading Plus and Squiggle Park
  • NoRedInk, a leading writing platform, secured a $50M investment from Susquehanna Growth Equity and True Ventures, one in a series of significant K-12 capital raises announced this year
  • McGraw-Hill Education and its new owner, Platinum Equity, made an aggressive first follow-on investment by expanding its K-12 literacy suite through the acquisition of Achieve3000

Bottom line

Focus on students’ literacy development will be a priority for most K-12 communities across the next few years, as they seek to recover from the effects of the pandemic

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