Education

Briefly Stated: February 21, 2024

February 20, 2024 8 min read
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Enrollment Rallies In Upper Grades But Not for Younger Kids

Students are not exactly racing back to school, but there is a slight uptick in the numbers—at least among older students.

Even though public school enrollment rebounded between fall 2021 and 2022, it remained 1.2 million students below pre-pandemic levels, federal data show.

The new data come as districts across the country weigh school closures to deal with financial shortfalls and declining student populations.

Among PreK-8 students, enrollment dropped 4 percent between 2019 and 2022. Among grades 9-12, it rose by about 2 percent in the same time span, the data from the National Center for Education Statistics show.

“It creates some potential complicating factors for school districts,” said Paul Bruno, an assistant professor of education policy, organization, and leadership at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign.

He stressed that the data explain the “what” but not the “why” of enrollment levels, and that it’s difficult to predict longer-term trends.

Public discussions may center on overall numbers of teaching positions. At the same time, districts may face more need for teachers with specific expertise, such as high school computer science teachers, and less need, say, for elementary teachers.

After pandemic-era narratives about school staffing shortages, parents and public officials may be caught off guard when districts shift to discussing personnel cuts and campus closures, Bruno said.

“I think that’s going to be whiplash for some communities and some policymakers,” he said.

Even as enrollment fell in recent years, districts have generally been able to maintain higher staffing levels as states adopted “hold harmless” policies, keeping per-pupil funding the same. They’ve also used federal COVID-relief aid to build and sustain programs, pointing to urgent academic-recovery needs.

But as the spending deadline for that aid approaches in the fall and as states discontinue lenient policies, district leaders may face tough choices, Bruno said.

Several factors drive longer-term enrollment declines. Pandemic disruptions caused some families to leave their school systems, birth rates are declining, and the growing number of choice programs offer families public funds for private school tuition and other educational materials.

Counselor-to-Student Ratios Improve. Will That Backslide Once Federal Pandemic Aid Is Gone?

School counselors’ staggering caseloads became a little lighter with the infusion of federal COVID-relief funds that districts used to hire more of the professionals—an advance that could evaporate once those dollars disappear.

The ratio of counselors to students ticked down for the ninth year in a row, improving by more than 5 percent, data from the American School Counselor Association indicate.

The finding comes as a bright spot, as educators deal with behavior problems and a youth mental health crisis. Advocates warn, though, that schools could lose their significant investments in counselors, social workers, and school psychologists when the federal funds run dry.

The counselor-to-student ratio nationally stood at 1-to-385 in 2022–23, compared with 1-to-408 the previous school year, ASCA found.

The average ratio nationwide is still much higher than

ASCA’s recommended 1-to-250.

Some states saw a dramatic drop, including New York, where the ratio fell from 1-to-460 to 1-to-331, a 28 percent improvement. The District of Columbia saw a 26 percent improvement, and Indiana’s improved by 25 percent.

But in Arizona—which already had the highest counselor-to-student ratio—the balance tipped in the other direction. It rose from 1-to-651 to 1-to-667.

There’s no comprehensive data about how many schools hired counselors using temporary federal pandemic funds.

But it is clear districts prioritized mental health services. Mental health was one of the top three spending categories—just behind academic recovery and technology—according to survey data from the Association of School Business Officials International.

More than 60 percent of districts surveyed used some part of their federal relief funds to pay for counselors, social workers, nurses, therapists, and similar personnel, ASBO found.

Nearly 1 in 6 district administrators believe that students with mental health needs will bear the brunt of the loss of federal pandemic funding, according to a survey conducted by AASA, the School Superintendents Association in June.

In Wake of Glitches and Tight Deadlines, Ed. Dept. to Beef Up Support for New FAFSA

Promises, promises.

The federal government touted the redesigned Free Application for Federal Student Aid as a better experience for users. In fact, it had been branded the “Better FAFSA.”

It hasn’t delivered. Instead, the new application has created mounting frustration for users and would-be users resulting from a series of delays in its availability and other glitches.

To address some of those frustrations, U.S. Secretary of Education Miguel Cardona this month announced new and pending support to improve users’ experiences with the new FAFSA both for applicants and the college personnel reviewing them.

One of the actions the Department of Education is taking is the launch of StudentAid.gov/fafsatips, which provides tips on how to complete and submit the 2024–25 form.

In addition, federal personnel and expertise will be made available to help colleges prepare and process financial-aid forms. That support is expected to target Historically Black Colleges and Universities, tribal colleges and universities, and colleges that are lower-resourced; establish a concierge service within the office of Federal Student Aid to connect “a broad set” of colleges with financial-aid experts for personalized support; and allocate $50 million in federal funding to nonprofit groups to support immediate recruitment of financial-aid professionals to support underresourced colleges.

The department gave the redesigned FAFSA a soft launch on Dec. 31. Previously, it was released in October. Even after the December launch, the website that houses it was available only periodically in order to allow the department to monitor site performance and functionality.

Typically, an estimated 18 million college-bound students submit the FAFSA annually. But as of Feb. 2, the department confirmed that just 3.1 million forms had been submitted for the 2024-25 school year.

At the end of January, the department announced yet another setback for the FAFSA: Higher education institutions and scholarship organizations would not start receiving submitted applications until the first half of March to fix a glitch. Previously, late January was the target date.

NAEP in Science Prepares To Get a Major Update

How the world has changed in the past 20 years, and so much of that change is related to science. All those developments will soon be covered in the National Assessment of Educational Progress.

The board that oversees NAEP has approved a new framework that aims to better gauge how students use science in real life and build a clearer picture of why American scientific literacy has declined over time.

Since NAEP launched science tests under the current framework in 2009, there has been widespread adoption of neural-network computing and generative artificial intelligence; genetic engineering related to the CRISPR–Cas9 protein system; new understanding of particle physics thanks to the Large Hadron Collider; and the first image of a black hole. The world also experienced the warmest decade in recorded history and a global pandemic.

Beginning in 2028, NAEP will cover concepts in physical, life, and earth and space sciences, as well as practices and cross-cutting ideas used by working scientists and engineers. The assessment also will fold in concepts previously covered in the Technology and Engineering Literacy assessment, which has not been scheduled for another administration.

“We really want to focus on kids’ sense-making, not just factoids,” said Christine Cunningham, the vice president of the Boston Museum of Science and a member of the governing board.

The new framework will also align the test more closely with the Next Generation Science Standards now adopted fully in 20 states and the District of Columbia and adapted in 24 other states.

The new framework comes amid rising concern over Americans’ lackluster scientific understanding.

Slightly more than 1 in 3 students in grades 4 and 8 and fewer than 1 in 4 high school seniors performed proficiently on the most recent assessment.

Going Remote on a Day of Snow Flops for N.Y.C.

Herein lies a cautionary tale.

When New York City officials got wind of the major winter storm headed their way, they rewound the clock four years, reopened their pandemic playbook, and announced that instead of canceling school, teachers and students would once again meet online. No snow day.

Mayor Eric Adams said it was important to give children enrolled in the nation’s largest school system stability considering the massive upheaval to education the pandemic had caused. Some school districts in other states have done the same since adopting the technology essential in 2020 to make virtual school days possible.

Unfortunately, the plan didn’t go so well: Many students, teachers, and administrators were unable to log in to their accounts—a problem city officials blamed on a technology contractor.

Even though the idea of going remote when the white stuff falls seems appealing, not everyone is a fan. In a November 2020 survey by the EdWeek Research Center, 39 percent of district leaders said they had converted snow days to remote learning. Another 32 percent said they would consider the change. But in more recent years, some districts have reverted to pre-pandemic snow day policies.

Connecticut does not allow remote learning on a snow day to count toward the requisite 180 learning days in the school calendar. The state weighed factors such as the challenges of setting up remote classrooms on short notice, and local officials also reported that parents and students wanted traditional snow days, said Irene Parizi, the chief academic officer for the state education department.

“Let them have their snow day and go sledding and have their hot chocolate and things like that,” Parizi said.

New York district officials did not say how many students were prevented from accessing online classes, but they blamed the problem on their technology contractor, IBM.

IBM said it had been “working closely with New York City schools to address this situation as quickly as possible.”

The Associated Press, Wire Service; Evie Blad, Senior Staff Writer; Elizabeth Heubeck, Staff Writer; Alyson Klein, Assistant Editor; and Sarah D. Sparks, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the February 21, 2024 edition of Education Week as Briefly Stated

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