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Ten predictions about learning recovery, innovation in public education in 2024

Courtesy of The 74.

This piece is part of CRPE’s 30th anniversary series, a collection of thought pieces focused on the future of education. This piece was originally published by The 74

The ever-quotable Yogi Berra said it well: “It’s tough to make predictions, especially about the future.”

Nevertheless, we at the Center on Reinventing Public Education are jumping into the deep end with 10 predictions about the prospects for learning recovery and innovation in public education in 2024. Unlike cable news pundits, who rarely hold themselves accountable for their (often faulty) predictions, we will grade ourselves and report back at the end of the year. Some of these predictions are optimistic, some less so. Whether or not these predictions come to pass will depend on what those in positions of influence do this year to shape the future.

1. Districts serious about addressing learning loss and innovation will have to transform their staffing practices. Enrollment declines and the end of federal pandemic funding will lead to teacher layoffs and strikes. Academic and mental health needs will compound. Will districts just spiral downward or will they develop new ways of staffing schools by having teachers specialize, work in teams and use technology and non-traditional educators such as parents and mentors to be more sustainable and efficient? Look to places like Mesa, Arizona, and Ector County, Texas, that are leading the way on innovative staffing models.

2. Districts that fail to innovate will require state intervention. Some districts are already innovating in anticipation of these challenges. But too many are not, and states will once again be in a position of contemplating takeovers for districts in academic and fiscal crisis. It will fall on the reform community to propose solutions. Time to prepare!

3. Expect more lawsuits and advocacy on behalf of kids who are not recovering lost learning. New data will continue to spotlight students who have not bounced back from learning losses and the districts that are not doing enough for them. Lawsuits will follow. California’s new $2 billion dollar settlement is a start. Get ready for more suits and advocacy for evidence-based solutions in 2024 as the long-term impacts of the pandemic become more evident.

4. Leading districts will show how to use generative artificial intelligence  to radically personalize learning, especially for kids on the margins. Districts are starting to experiment with adaptive textbooks and assessments, AI-enabled intervention plans for struggling students, customized career counseling and more. But the majority (and the highest-poverty) districts will have deer-in-the-headlights moments because the feds and states will fail to provide large-scale teacher training and policy guidance, as other countries are doing. It will be up to the reform, business and donor communities to keep focus on the issue and ensure the U.S. does not fall behind in preparing teachers and students for this fifth industrial revolution. Education policy leaders will also have to combat the inevitable backlash against AI due to fear, misunderstanding and a lack of preparation among educators and parents.

5. Solving for attendance and absenteeism will be paramount. Students can’t learn if they don’t show up. The numbers are sobering: A new analysis shows that nationwide, chronic absenteeism — where students miss more than 10% of the school year — surged from 15% in 2018 to 28% in 2022. While the 2023 data showed improvement, chronic absenteeism rates still remained 75% higher than the pre-pandemic baseline. Schools will need to conduct greater outreach and work more closely with community-based organizations and families, both to compel students to attend school consistently. But school systems and policymakers also need better information about what is at the root of low attendance. There may need to be a reckoning about the overall value proposition of school. This may be the year to finally consider how school in general, but high school in particular, can be more engaging, relevant and responsive to student and family needs?

6.  School boards will have to withstand political upheaval everywhere, from both the left and the right. Who doesn’t love an election year? National politics will play out in local school board agendas and continue to pull school leaderships’ focus away from teaching and learning. Watch out for AI as a hot-button privacy issue! Schools and districts that project calm and focus on instruction will succeed, despite growing political agitation.

7.  States will take charter schools more seriously as it becomes clear that many families don’t want to attend district-run schools anymore, and that largely unregulated education savings accounts and ad hoc instructional programs produce a lot of failures, abuses and inequities. Common-sense solutions will be needed to make charters and ESAs work for the families most in need, and to help school districts adapt and compete in states with many forms of school choice.

8. Good instruction will come back into vogue as central to achieving equity. But it will not be easy. As districts struggle with high levels of educator burnout and fewer high-quality applicants for open positions, innovative schools that balance rigor with 21st century skills and use new educators strategically will thrive. This is a huge opportunity for the charter sector, with all its flexibility. 

9. College access will be cool again. The post-pandemic trend of declining college enrollment and attainment among low-income students will push the reform community to reconsider strategies for getting kids to higher ed. But career-relevant learning is not going away. Strategies for college access and attainment will necessarily involve more flexible, customized and relevant high school models. Instructional strategies will shift as the role of the teacher changes and as more educators orient themselves to technology-driven solutions and AI-enabled tools.

10. Barring collective action, public education (and pandemic learning losses) will fade from view as a key voter concern, even during a presidential election year. It may take a decade or more for the U.S. to recover from pandemic learning losses if districts don’t remain focused on learning recovery interventions. CRPE’s latest State of the American Student report showed that schools are not on track and called for an immediate course correction. Now more than ever, researchers, policymakers and advocates must find new and more powerful ways to convince people that addressing learning loss is critical to our nation’s future.

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