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The past three years have been overwhelming for superintendents, but education leaders have come together to find solutions to common challenges

The pulse of K-12: How superintendents are taking on 2023’s biggest challenges

The past three years have been overwhelming for superintendents, but education leaders have come together to find solutions to common challenges

When an unexpected crisis occurs—say, a global pandemic that forced our entire education system to transform–we believe that eventually, the distress and upheaval will evolve into calm and control as the recovery process winds down.

As educators, we’re still waiting to take that collective sigh of relief.

The Institute for Education Innovation (IEI) wanted to hear how superintendents were feeling about 2023. So, as a result, we brought them together with edtech CEOs and other industry leaders at our inaugural IEI Conclave to determine ways we can tackle today’s biggest K-12 challenges as a unified team–and do it with hope and confidence.

Teacher Retention and Recruitment

A systemic shortchanging of the profession continues to drive the teacher shortage. While conclave attendees agreed that a salary bump can help boost retention, true satisfaction occurs when educators feel empowered, recognized, and respected.

Districts can start by offering apprenticeship programs for aspiring teachers and mentoring them during those first critical three years in the classroom–the period when they’re most likely to quit. In addition, superintendents stressed the importance of ensuring a barrier-free pipeline for educators interested in administration and providing wellness programs for educators.

Above all, we can’t neglect the needs and lose sight of those experienced educators who continue to push through and stay present in their roles in our quest to recruit new teachers. As a conclave attendee pointed out, it’s not just about the quantity of teachers, it’s about the quality of teachers, as well.

The Aftermath of Declining NAEP Scores

The recent National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) report card showed that math and reading scores dropped across the country. As expected, politicians and legislators fell into a finger-pointing panic, but it was superintendents who paused to take a breath and recognize that NAEP is only one measure of student success.

“We really need to focus on the ground level,” one superintendent explained. “We need to address teacher instruction. We need to focus on teacher professional development. And we need to individualize instruction for students. We have to break free of the paradigm that any number can tell the story of how education is doing.”

Furthermore, NAEP offers no path to improvement or a prescription for districts to raise proficiency levels. Instead, districts are simply told, here are the results, and we don’t care to understand the underlying factors that may be attributing to the decline, but you have to fix them.

In one district, administrators saw the data not as a reflection of their schools, but as a tool to investigate which students might need extra support. Their team discovered that students who remained engaged with the district during the pandemic fared significantly better than those who left and returned, giving administrators insights into how they can better mitigate learning loss.

Curriculum Censorship

School districts continue to be embroiled in ongoing censorship battles. While the crisis is detrimental to all students, it can be incredibly harmful for our students of color and the LGBTQ community.

Many of those at the conclave agreed that the efforts to censor curriculum and classroom content is just one prong of a well-funded campaign to attack equity measures. Educators have a responsibility to deliver the diverse curriculum our Black and brown students need, and a responsibility to replicate that effort for other marginalized students.

As frustrated as IEI members feel, they shared inspiring examples of progress, such as the 100-plus parents in Newburyport, Mass., who defended the importance of social-emotional learning (SEL) against those who view it as Marxist indoctrination.

Our Students’ Mental Health Crisis

While we’re back to some semblance of normalcy, the distress our children endured during the pandemic–on top of the ongoing trauma many experience on a daily basis–continues to impact their mental health.

According to one superintendent, the gap in her students’ social-emotional development continues to hold steady even after the district returned to in-person learning.

“We have an SEL program, but now more than ever, we really need to ramp it up,” she shared. “Students don’t know how to be students. Their attention span is the shortest I’ve ever seen. Our kindergarteners don’t know what it’s like to play with other kids or go to the library and check out books. And I think it’s all an underlier to many of the issues we’re facing today as educators.”

Participants agreed that schools have to care for the immediate emotional needs of a child before they can truly address their academic needs. Depending on our superintendents’ districts, that response included hiring social workers who support both the child and their family, setting unplugged time so kids have more face-to-face time with teachers, and helping students feel valued by ensuring they’re represented in curricula.

A Brighter Future Ahead

The past three years have been overwhelming for superintendents, but together we’ve found solutions to many of the problems our districts face. But even more important, our community is hopeful for the kids we serve. I think one of our attending superintendents perfectly summed up our work for the year ahead:

“I challenge everyone to think about how we can bring joy back into the field of education, whether you’re on the industry side or the school side. When it comes to issues related to equity and justice, the removal of censorship, and agency for education–if we put in the serious work and we get those things right, we’ll find the joy we’re looking for. And maybe next year or the year after, the balance will right itself.”

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