School districts across the country are tackling tough challenges in education, including mental health and trauma, teacher recruitment and retention, and school redesign.
To support systems in addressing these challenges, we need to understand their root causes, including how the challenges are experienced in different settings—from small, rural districts to large, urban districts. We also need to learn from educators, researchers, and communities who have already been working to develop innovative solutions to these urgent problems in their own contexts.
Based on interactive conference sessions, reviews of district strategic plans, and over 60 in-depth interviews with district leaders, school leaders, instructional coaches, counselors, and teachers between 2018 and 2019, Digital Promise developed the Challenge Map to present 38 shared education challenges within nine broad themes related to:
- Students and classrooms (student learning and instructional approaches),
- Schools (professional learning & support, school culture, climate, and safety, and family engagement), and
- District systems (assessment, technology & network infrastructure, systems change, and equity).
In early 2019 we collected nearly 350 survey responses from stakeholders working in all levels across public schools. These practitioners provided feedback on each of the 38 challenges, including their perspectives on which challenges were the most urgent, affected the most students and teachers, and were experienced most often. We found that student- and classroom-level challenges, like social-emotional learning, student engagement, and personalized learning, were priorities across roles and district contexts.
The COVID-19 pandemic arrived abruptly during the spring 2020 semester, hampering countless innovations that schools and districts had been implementing to address these persistent education challenges. Some schools shifted quickly to provide remote learning for students, while others extended their spring breaks to prepare for the transition to remote learning, focusing on teacher planning and professional development. Overall, many districts struggled to provide equitable access to high-quality digital learning for their students. We, as a society, urgently need to understand the effects of COVID-19 to identify the central challenges that have great potential for immediate impact and to discover how best to support districts navigating this moment.
Digital Promise set out to surface specific strains the education system is experiencing in the wake of COVID-19, including how, if at all, existing priority challenges have shifted. Between April and May 2020, we surveyed 200 practitioners—including classroom teachers, school leaders, district leaders, and other education professionals—working in school systems across the country. Respondents shared their three highest priority challenges and described if and how the COVID-19 pandemic has influenced their priorities as educators.
By comparing these responses to findings from the 2019 survey, we see that while many of practitioners’ priority challenges existed pre-pandemic, they have taken on a new urgency due to unforeseen consequences of COVID-19. Keep reading to discover the top five priority challenges according to new survey results and to access a tool for discussing and mapping priorities in your own school or district.