While the rest of us are buying gym memberships we probably won’t use, school leaders are facing far more ambitious New Year’s resolutions: regaining academic ground, tightening those belts, weathering divisive politics, and ensuring more students show up to class.
Here’s a look at some of the challenges school systems will face (or continue to face) in 2024.
1. Chronic absenteeism
Rates of chronic absenteeism—the percentage of students who missed at least 10 percent of school days—have surged in recent years. In many states and districts, rates of chronically absent students doubled between the 2018-19 and 2021-22 school years.
That spike is a huge concern for schools because problems with attendance could thwart academic recovery efforts, affect their accountability ratings, and, most importantly, harm students who’ve become disengaged academically.
A hopeful sign: Some states saw improvement last year. Of the 31 states that have reported data from the 2022-23 school year, 26 saw declines in chronic absenteeism from the previous school year, according to a tracker maintained by FutureEd, an education policy research organization at Georgetown University. But most of those states saw improvements of just five or fewer percentage points.
Districts are trying to turn the trend around by improving outreach to families, better tracking data on students, and building programs like mentoring to bolster student engagement.
2. A federal COVID aid deadline
Congress threw school districts a lifeline during the COVID-19 pandemic: an unprecedented surge of $190 billion in one-time funding for uses like pandemic precautions, building upgrades, academic interventions, and outreach to students experiencing homelessness.
That funding will soon run out. Districts have until Sept. 30, 2024, to commit their share of those funds, after which they have four months to finish spending that money. Extensions to spend funds on ongoing construction contracts will require waivers from the U.S. Department of Education.
Even though the “new normal” still doesn’t feel very normal to most school systems, they will have to reshape their budgets to match the loss of funding.
Continuing pandemic-era programs will be a “formidable challenge,” said Nathan Fisher, superintendent of the Roselle, N.J., district, who pointed out the long-term nature of today’s schooling struggles.
“The pivotal issue at hand revolves around our sustainability of programs designed to address mental health concerns and our continued academic acceleration programs,” he said.
How do districts plan to cover the shortfall? Some have turned to private donors to sustain successful efforts, and others have reshuffled priorities to continue academic acceleration work. Some may also turn to separate federal grants for student mental health support provided through the 2022 Bipartisan Safer Communities Act. But some leaders say they’ll inevitably have to end or scale back programs they just don’t have the resources for.
3. Declining enrollment
Declining enrollment will also affect districts’ budgets and, in some places, force tough decisions about staffing and school closures.
While public school enrollment gradually increased by 3 percent between 2010 and 2019, from 49.5 million to 50.8 million students, it suddenly dropped 3 percent in the first year of the pandemic, hitting 49.4 million in the 2020-21 school year, with steeper declines in earlier grades, federal data show. Schools in high-poverty and urban areas saw steeper enrollment declines, according to an October analysis by the Brookings Institute.
Some districts have already started those tough conversations. The school board in Jefferson County, Colo., has recommended the closure of 18 schools.
Other school systems have delayed action into 2024. Facing a $105 million budget deficit, the Seattle school board approved a “fiscal stabilization plan” this month, the Seattle Times reported. While that plan did not call for closures, such decisions may be on the table next year.
As district leaders make tough calls, researchers and advocates have urged them to keep equity front and center. Leaders should guard against school closures and program cuts that disproportionately affect students of color and students from low-income households, they’ve said.
4. Turning the tide on academics
Spring 2022 results on the National Assessment of Educational Progress showed the biggest drop in math performance in 4th and 8th grades since the regular state testing program began in 1990. In reading, about a third of students in both grades did not reach the “basic” achievement level on the test.
Researchers immediately sounded the alarm on those test results, and they echoed their concerns when recent data from the Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, showed American teenagers falling behind their international peers in math.
Concerns about lost academic ground also come as states and districts place a heightened interest on matching reading instruction with research-based practices and identifying the best strategies for math instruction.
One major concern for districts heading into the new year: ensuring that parents understand the depth of their own children’s academic needs. Researchers have posited that the disconnect between perception and reality is partly fueled by grade inflation.
A November analysis of data from two school districts from the 2018-19 and 2021-22 school years found that four times as many students were chronically absent and testing below grade level after the pandemic. Of those students, 40 percent still got a B average or better in core subjects in 2021-22—nearly double the percentage of similarly situated students who got high grades in 2018-19, said the report by Learning Heroes, EdNavigator, and TNTP.
“These are the students who deserve urgent attention and support,” the report said. “Yet too many are earning A’s and B’s, grades that signal to families that they’re doing fine.”
Researchers have urged districts to discuss the purpose of grades, evaluate the effectiveness and consistency of their grading policies, and improve communication with parents about students’ academic needs.
5. Weathering a political storm
Divisive partisan politics have increasingly disrupted classroom discussions and school board meetings in recent years. And the media coverage surrounding a presidential election means that intensity probably won’t wane in 2024.
In an April survey conducted by the RAND Corporation and the Center on Reinventing Public Education, nearly 80 percent of superintendents said their job is “often” or “always” stressful.
What is making that work so stressful? Eighty-eight percent of respondents said “the intrusion of political issues and opinions into schooling” was a source of stress in their job, making it the most common response among a list of potential stressors.
That stress is likely to continue as President Joe Biden and his likely challenger in the race to the White House, former President Donald Trump, debate issues like how schools discuss race and sexuality, parent involvement, and school choice in the lead-up to the November election, said Vladimir Kogan, a professor of political science at Ohio State University, in a recent Education Week interview.
What can districts do? Make the most out of real-life civics lessons created by national elections. For inspiration, read about how Iowa schools helped teens prepare for their first presidential caucuses in 2020. School and district leaders might also benefit from a refresher course on students’ rights to protest and political speech.
And school boards can turn down the temperature locally by keeping their eye on academics, Kogan said.
“Everybody agrees that students should be able to read, and everybody agrees that students should be able to do math,” he said. “There are different ideas about how to teach that, but those are consensus areas.”
For districts, many of the challenges of 2024 will be pretty familiar.
“That may be what makes it harder: It’s not anything new. It’s more of the same,” said Noelle Ellerson Ng, the associate executive director of advocacy and governance for AASA, the School Superintendents Association.
“It’s the work of supporting students in an environment with competing tensions: a legal and ethical obligation to educate all students in an environment that is increasingly combative, partisan, and divisive as it relates to the role of educators, schools, and students as well as the broader societal context,” Ng said in an email. “That sentence says a lot without giving a path forward, and I think that is what I love about working with superintendents so much. They find a way forward, whether one step at a time or one inch at a time, knowing there may be a setback, but because there are kids involved, it’s ‘always forward.’”