The greatest challenge facing educators—and the rest of the world—in 2020 is defeating the coronavirus. All of today’s pressing education policy issues relate directly to fulfilling educators’ mission to provide students with the most effective teaching possible. As the pandemic rages, that mission becomes more important than ever.
Educators’ short-term focus is on establishing distance learning procedures that serve all students. However, the long-term impact of the pandemic remains unclear. Issues related to school funding, teacher training and retention, workforce development, and providing safe and welcoming education environments are too important to be shunted aside as the world focuses on combating the coronavirus.
The times of greatest challenge can also be the times of greatest opportunity for effecting lasting, positive change. Educators and education leaders must face this catastrophe head-on and prepare to reimagine how communities can best serve the education needs of their children.
#1: Education’s Response to the Coronavirus
The initial response to the shift from classroom instruction to distance learning has highlighted the disparity in online access that threatens to widen the digital divide between rich and poor students. The Associated Press reports that 17 percent of US students do not have access to computers at home, and 18 percent do not have broadband internet access from their homes.
The problem extends beyond ensuring students have the necessary computers and internet access. Even when students have access to online learning resources via internet-connected devices, family circumstances may hinder their ability to complete coursework remotely.
The New York Times recounts the experiences of students in the same political science class at Haverford College in Pennsylvania. One student was able to log into the videoconferencing app the college relied on for its online classes from her parent’s vacation home in Maine, while another had to turn her full attention to helping her parents operate the family food truck in Florida. This student told the professor for whom she worked as a teaching assistant that keeping the family business running jeopardized her return to school.
The National Conference of State Legislatures describes the response of state governments to school closures related to the coronavirus:
- The US Department of Agriculture has exempted states from prohibitions against large gatherings so schools can continue to provide students with meals they would have received in school.
- The US Department of Education is considering one-year waivers on assessment and accountability requirements that are intended to identify low-performing schools.
- Many colleges have announced they will remove ACT and SAT testing requirements for admissions and instead will consider the test scores optional.
#2: K-12 Funding
Funding for public education faced serious pressures prior to the coronavirus outbreak, and as the Brookings Institution reports, those pressures will only become worse as the full impact of the pandemic hits funding sources. States anticipate steep declines in the revenue they will collect from income and sales taxes to fund the 2020-2021 school year.
K-12 schools will be competing for funding with emergency public health efforts, higher education, and Medicaid, which is expected to experience a big jump in enrollment as the economy falters. The funding shortfall is exacerbated by schools’ increased reliance on state funding as local property taxes continue to represent a smaller share of their total need. School districts are even more vulnerable to economic downturns than other public institutions because many are committed to multiyear teacher pay raises, according to the Brookings Institution.
#3: Training and Retaining Qualified Teachers
While long-term commitments to teacher salary increases may put added pressure on school district finances, the failure to compensate teachers fairly threatens schools’ ability to ensure their students receive the quality education they need to serve their families and communities in the future. New America points out that the negative effects of low teacher salaries have gained the attention of the public, but other factors can be just as vital to attracting and retaining quality teachers.
A report from the Economic Policy Institute found that the gap between the supply of teachers and the demand increased from 20,000 per year in 2012-2013 to 64,000 per year in 2016-2017 and 110,000 in 2017-2018. The rate of teachers leaving the profession and declining enrollments in teacher education programs are only two of many factors contributing to the shortage. The disparities in teacher quality and the uneven distribution of highly qualified teachers in schools serving low-income students make the critical shortage of teachers even more dire.
#4: Ensuring Safe and Nurturing Education Environments
For students to reach their full potential, schools must provide them with a learning environment that is free from threats, fear, intimidation, bullying, violence, and crime. The National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) states that creating and maintaining a warm, welcoming, and orderly school setting is principals’ top priority. However, school leaders, teachers and other staff, and the community at large also play important roles in ensuring safe, well-run schools.
Keeping schools safe and allowing students to learn without fear of violence requires establishing trust. The NASSP calls for increased funding and support for mental health services, crisis identification programs, and enhanced school safety programs. The National School Climate Center has created a school climate improvement process that supports leadership shared by school districts, individual schools, individual classrooms, students, and the community.
#5: Childcare and Universal Pre-K Education
Universal preschool starting at age three is gaining the support of a growing number of politicians after being championed by former Democratic presidential candidates Senator Elizabeth Warren and Senator Bernie Sanders. However, resistance to extending free public education from age five to age three centers on concerns of higher taxes and the belief that three- and four-year-olds are too young to be in school.
The New York Times reports that both government-subsidized childcare and universal pre-K education are winning more support as research shows the benefits of high-quality care and education to the development of very young children. In addition, children in low-income families currently have “significantly less access” to these services. As childcare becomes more expensive, it is believed that expanding pre-K education would allow more women to join the workforce while alleviating the growing burden on families of escalating childcare costs.
#6: Readying Students for Tomorrow’s Workforce
A primary goal of educators at all levels is to provide students with the skills they will need to thrive and succeed once they enter the workforce. However, We Are Teachers cites a McKinsey study that found 40 percent of employers struggle to find qualified candidates to fill their open positions. One approach to ensuring students learn the skills necessary to qualify for the in-demand jobs of the future is to encourage more collaboration between private companies and educators.
AT&T proposes five strategies for developing the twenty-first-century workforce:
- Start developing workforce skills in K-12 education by focusing on competencies rather than on grade levels and by increasing hands-on training programs.
- Implement mentoring programs that connect students with professionals in various fields via partnerships with organizations such as Girls Who Code.
- Give students first-hand experience with workforce technologies through internships and other programs that immerse them in technology environments.
- Encourage collaboration that benefits students and employers by sharing research and practice in data science and other cutting-edge technologies.
- Help bridge the gap between technology haves and have-nots by connecting public school teachers with donors willing to fund creative educational projects.
#7: Charter Schools vs. Traditional Public Schools
Few education policy issues are more polarizing than the debate about the benefits of charter schools vs. traditional public schools. The Brookings Institution defines charter schools as tuition-free, publicly funded institutions whose leaders “accept greater accountability in exchange for greater autonomy.” While public school students are typically assigned to a school based on where they live, charter schools accept students regardless of location.
Teachers’ unions are among the staunchest opponents to charter schools, only 11 percent of which employ unionized teachers. Opponents claim that charter schools take funds away from traditional public schools, and they object to for-profit management, which currently represents about 12 percent of charter schools.
Whether charter schools offer quality education equal to or greater than that provided by traditional public schools remains unsettled. However, a study conducted by Stanford University’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that students in charter schools and public schools perform about equally in similar tests, although students in urban charter schools outperform their counterparts in public schools, and students enrolled in online charter schools underperform public school students with comparable demographic characteristics.
Preparing Students to Become Education Policy Makers
The role of education leaders has never been more critical to students’ success. American University’s Online Doctorate in Education Policy and Leadership (EdD) program is geared to teaching the practical skills education leaders need to drive policy that improves education outcomes in the most vulnerable communities. The program emphasizes strategic budgeting, collaborative inquiry, talent development, partnership building, and other key education leadership skills.
Learn more about the benefits of the American University Online Doctorate in Education Policy and Leadership for educators who aspire to leadership roles in schools, school districts, and communities.