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A Look at American Education Issues Today (and What We Can Do)

June 24, 2024

American Education Issues

American children are struggling. Reading and math scores are at their lowest in decades, while mental illnesses, absenteeism, and bullying are on the rise. School teachers say they’re battling to reach students — while facing their own problems of understaffing, low salaries, and scarce resources. 

Where did it all go wrong? 

Our education system has not kept up with the modern world. New teaching methods and technologies could turn things around, but schools are struggling to use them effectively.

Let’s examine how we got here, how to fix it, and how your school district can start making changes today. 

What Is the State of American Education? 

Most people attribute the crisis in the current American education system to the pandemic. That’s when some of the biggest problems became visible — fewer students were able to attend school, and attainment dropped. 

But the pandemic doesn’t explain everything. Some of the most prominent issues have been around for much longer.

American schools have high student-to-teacher ratios driven by a massive K-12 teacher shortage. Faced with disciplinary problems and low school funding, schools have focused on staffing classrooms at all costs. That means larger class sizes — and teaching quality problems.

In fact, the number of underqualified teaching hires increased by 69% from 2022–2023. It’s an especially severe problem for specialist roles, as seen in the special education teacher shortage

When students have underqualified teachers or full-time substitutes, they’re more likely to experience learning delays, low graduation rates, and test scores below grade level.

Falling reading levels, staff shortages, and a lack of quality teaching are all more likely to affect poorer school districts. The crisis in public education is widening student achievement gaps, causing a dangerous feedback loop that disproportionately affects Black students, low-income students, and students with special educational needs

How Can We Empower Schools in This Educational Environment?

Across America, states and school districts are trying different solutions to solve the teacher shortages. Slowly, they’re starting to realize that fixing the problems in K-12 schools doesn’t just come down to having more staff on campus.

It also means innovating, improving access for all students, finding new ways to bring expert teachers into classrooms, and even enlisting AI and other technologies

Understand the Challenges Schools Face

Real education reform starts with understanding the challenges in education today. 

School boards and districts are caught in a perfect storm of poor funding, low teacher salaries, closures, and empty job vacancies. Amid all of these challenges is the constant pressure to keep up with new education policies and standardized testing.

Meanwhile, individual students face their own challenges of rising poverty and mental health problems — while they’re still trying to catch up after COVID-19. 

Schools need practical, targeted resources that will improve student learning without increasing the burden on staff.

Integrate Technology into Classrooms

Technology is one way to upgrade the student experience without requiring more staff.

Administrative tools can save time on planning, grading, and feedback. Online learning platforms can engage learners, improve test scores, and offer a wider range of subjects than schools can manage on their own.

Of course, there’s always a learning curve when it comes to new technology, so school districts will need to make time for training and support. If a tool doesn’t save teachers time, then they need more support to use it — or it’s simply not the right resource for their needs. 

Reform Policies Aimed at School Support

When we talk about the state of American education, suggestions for fixing it usually focus on teachers and school districts. But we also need to speak to policymakers and the Department of Education itself.

At Elevate K-12, we encourage policy changes that directly support student welfare and better school environments. We want to see changes at the state and school district levels to empower teachers and give them better resources.

Historically, top-down reforms have put a lot of pressure on individual teachers to work harder. We’re calling for a more supportive approach that gives teachers what they need to educate their students in a safe, healthy, and adaptable environment. 

Embrace Innovative Ideas or Solutions

School districts have been facing the same challenges for a long time, often expecting new results from the same actions. But trying new approaches can have major benefits for students, teachers, and schools.

For example, the default way to learn is a traditional classroom setting with a teacher standing up front. Now, thanks to modern technology, students can learn remotely and schools can live stream teachers right into the classroom. This allows all students to benefit from the highest-quality teachers, regardless of their zip code.

Similarly, every student used to get the same instruction in the same subjects. Now we know that differentiation matters and that teaching should be adjusted to help struggling students and challenge those who work ahead. 

Supplemental learning and remote programs allow students to study a wider range of subjects — in their own learning style and at the pace they need.

How Can We Better Support and Empower Our Students?

Just like schools and teachers, students themselves also need more support. American public school students are struggling with achievement and attendance, and they could benefit from more targeted help and engaging resources.

Uncover areas of student need

Understanding student needs is about so much more than test scores. In addition to educational performance, school districts should also be looking at student feedback, surveys, classroom behavior, and social skills. 

Knowing your student demographics is also important. For example, a school with a high number of English as an additional language (EAL) students might focus on targeted support for reading and language skills. 

Students should have a voice in their K-12 education. They are the experts in their own learning styles, interests, and needs. 

Ensure High-Quality, Engaging Teaching Opportunities

The most effective teaching comes from certified, experienced teachers who know their subjects and their students. Unfortunately, due to teacher shortages and reduced budgets, schools can struggle to access these educators.

School districts should monitor education quality through regular observations, audits, and performance reviews. But they should also offer training and development to help teachers achieve their best.

Relevant supplemental resources and technology can also help to improve the classroom experience without increasing teachers’ workloads. For example, with Elevate K-12, schools can live-stream qualified teachers into classrooms to assist in-person educators. 

They can take over class instruction while the district teacher works with individual students, assist with group activities, and help provide a consistent learning environment.

Implement Supportive Measures Based on Need

Every student’s needs are different, and the most effective support targets those specific needs, rather than taking a blanket approach. 

The first way that schools can help students is through more personalized learning. Differentiated class materials and learning formats can make a huge difference in attainment, beginning in elementary school. While individualized learning for every child might be difficult in crowded classrooms, it is achievable with smart supplemental learning.

Mental health services and tutoring programs can also help students reach their full potential. However, they should be tailored to fit different educational settings and student demographics. For example, remote counseling outside of school hours won’t be effective for students who don’t have a reliable internet connection at home.

Invest in Scalable, Replicable Models of Success

Research has found that there are seven hallmarks of highly successful schools:

  1. Clear and school-wide goals, principles, and expectations 
  2. Dedicated leaders who strive to help students and educators achieve those goals
  3. High academic standards for students
  4. Focus on emotional intelligence, personal responsibility, and empathy
  5. Partnerships with families and communities
  6. Meaningful professional development opportunities
  7. Data-informed decision-making and measurements of success

School districts that prioritize these characteristics have the best chance of making lasting changes and achieving school-wide success.

One example is the Long Beach school district in California. They wanted to improve math attainment for all their students, regardless of background, so they took a holistic approach.

First, they changed the curriculum to require every student to take four math classes as part of their high school diploma. Then they created new, expert-level teaching roles, such as a “math assistant principal,” for lower-performing schools.

They also offered supplemental learning with more course material and guidance on study skills and problem-solving. The supplemental study sessions included peer support for students who had potential but were missing out on good grades.

Their approach was successful. The combination of extra support for teachers, more flexible learning strategies, and awareness of different students’ challenges improved outcomes across the board.

Tips for Fostering Inclusive Education in the U.S. Education System

It’s clear from education statistics that inclusion matters. Low-income and minority students, as well as those with special educational needs, often have lower educational outcomes — but with the right support, they can excel.

Create Culturally Responsive Curriculums

Students are more likely to engage with classes that represent them and speak to their experiences and interests. School districts can create an inclusive environment by encouraging educators to reflect a variety of cultures, histories, and perspectives in their classes.

This is one area where feedback from students and parents can be especially valuable. What do they want to learn about? What, or who, do they feel is missing from the curriculum?

Implement Universal Design for Learning (UDL)

Universal design for learning is the idea that accessibility and inclusivity should be built into education from the start. Adding accessibility features onto resources after the fact isn’t good enough; they should be a fundamental part of a school district’s resources. 

A big part of UDL is offering multiple ways of learning. Resources should adapt to suit different learning styles and include diverse representations and points of view. For technology and online resources, accessibility for students with disabilities or limited internet access should always be a priority. 

Promote Social-Emotional Learning (SEL)

As students progress through the school year, they acquire social and emotional skills in addition to knowledge. Just like traditional classroom topics, they should get support and resources to improve their empathy, relationship skills, and emotional intelligence. 

One easy way to add SEL into the classroom is to offer more small-group and project-based learning. As students collaborate and explore subjects together, they learn how to hear different points of view, cooperate on tasks, and appreciate each others’ skills and struggles.

Use Technology To Enhance Accessibility

Technology has made accessibility easier for millions of people. Both hardware and software, such as speech tablets and text-to-speech tools, empower students of all ability levels to communicate and take part in the classroom.

However, not all technologies — or educational resources — are created equal. Look for classroom resources and supplemental learning tools that are designed with accessibility in mind. If your students can’t access the material easily, then its quality is irrelevant. It just won’t work for them.

Build a Stronger Foundation for Inclusive Education With Elevate K-12

American education has been in crisis since well before the pandemic. However, there are numerous opportunities for school districts to innovate and update their approaches. 

New technology, support for teachers, and supplemental learning can improve student outcomes. With more differentiated and personalized learning, students can reach their full potential, even in low-income school districts or understaffed schools.

Every child should have access to certified, qualified teachers for all the subjects they want to study. That’s why we’re leveraging technology to drive change and support our students and educators with innovative solutions.

Learn more about how Elevate K-12’s LIVE teaching model is empowering teachers, students, and schools.

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