The school environment is changing rapidly, as a result of emerging technologies and ongoing problems with student achievement and mental health.
This year saw new research insights in critical areas. Here’s a look at some of the findings from some of the studies that were most popular with our readers.
Teenagers need a social media detox
The dangers of adolescents’ social media habits took center stage this year, with the U.S. surgeon general issuing public warnings about the dangers of social media use for developing brains. Federal and state legislatures likewise moved to regulate how minors can use social media, and dozens of districts nationwide are suing major platforms like Facebook, arguing that they damage students’ mental health.
Amid the swirl of activity, a longitudinal and empirical research analysis found that more frequent use of smartphones and social media is associated with higher rates of mental distress, self-harming behaviors, and suicide among teenagers.
The study suggests schools can help counter potential damage from social media by helping students and families engage in open, nonjudgmental, and developmentally appropriate discussions and problem-solving around ways to limit social media.
The wrong problem can make a difference in math
An analysis of more than 100 studies of math interventions in Educational Psychology Review found that students who study already-worked example problems improved in mathematics significantly more than students who used a different approach. Students who had experienced gaps in their math knowledge particularly benefited from studying and discussing incorrectly worked problems in addition to studying correct problems to highlight potential areas of misunderstanding.
However, teachers need to choose their examples carefully: Problems without a clear goal, or with less detail, and those that don’t highlight the steps needed to solve the problem were associated with less student growth in math. A student studying well-chosen worked problems, however, had math growth equal to moving from the 50th percentile to above the 69th percentile.
ChatGPT’s educational uses are still up in the air
Launched a little more than a year ago, the generative artificial intelligence tool ChatGPT has exploded in popularity among teachers and the general public. A meta-analysis of 50 studies in the journal Education Sciences suggests educators use the tool most to generate course materials and sample questions, as well as to provide virtual tutoring for students.
However, the analysis finds mixed evidence so far on ChatGPT’s most effective uses. While the bot provided highly accurate responses in areas like economics and critical-thinking prompts, it was ironically not able to provide highly accurate information in math or software testing. The tool occasionally or often provided out-of-date or incorrect information in various subjects. The study also found ChatGPT often did not provide proper sources for its information and its use led to higher rates of plagiarism with some groups of students who used it.
But artificial intelligence may help to design more equitable school districts
School districts have long struggled to design attendance zones that limit long bus rides while preventing high-poverty students from becoming concentrated in a few schools. One study in the journal Educational Researcher suggests AI might be able to create a more equitable and efficient fit.
Northeastern University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers simulated new attendance zones for nearly 100 of the nation’s largest districts, using algorithms that took into account both parent preferences and district integration goals. The new simulated attendance zones lowered segregation of white students and students of color across district schools by 14 percent on average, while slightly reducing travel times and only requiring a fifth of students to change schools.
Avoiding academic anxiety can worsen and prolong students’ fear
Teachers may be inclined to let students avoid tasks like public presentations that trigger fear and stress, but over time, that can make their anxiety worse. A study in the Journal of Psychologists and Counselors in Schools looked at elementary students with severe anxiety. Teachers reported several common activities that tended to trigger anxiety, such as group work and reading aloud in class. All teachers at least occasionally allowed students to avoid the activities that worried them, but the more avoidance teachers allowed, the higher students’ anxiety around those activities.
The lead researcher, child psychology professor Golda Ginsburg of the University of Connecticut, developed and is now piloting the Teacher Anxiety Program for Elementary Students (TAPES), in which educators learn and role-play ways to identify students who are experiencing anxiety in class and help them without exacerbating their triggers.
Extra learning days add up
A working paper in the National Bureau of Economic Research found big differences in the amount of time schools are in session. A rising number of schools nationwide have moved to longer school days, weekend school sessions, and longer years or summer sessions.
The study found students who attend schools in the top 10 percent for the amount of time they’re in session receive on average five weeks more instruction every year than do students attending schools in the bottom 10 percent of the spectrum. Over those students’ 12-year academic careers, students in the longest-running schools get nearly two years’ worth of additional instruction.
By contrast, nearly 900 districts nationwide now use four-day weeks. While these districts often have longer school days, the study found this tended to exhaust students and teachers and did not make up for the lost full days.
District leadership has a big gender gap
The names say it all.
A study in the journal Educational Researcher finds it’s just as likely for a district to be led by a man with one of 15 names as it is for one to be led by a woman with any name.
The study finds districts have a 1 in 4 chance of being led by a man named Michael, David, James, Jeff, John, Robert, Steven, Chris, Brian, Scott, Mark, Kevin, Jason, Matthew, or Daniel. While superintendent turnover has risen over time, particularly for men, those open positions are still more likely to be filled by a male candidate than a female one. Meanwhile, more than three-quarters of teachers and 56 percent of principals are women.
Chronic absenteeism isn’t going away
Two out of 3 schools nationwide had high chronic absenteeism in 2022, up from a quarter before the pandemic, according to an analysis of federal data by the nonprofit Attendance Works.
In 11 states, the study found more than 1 in 4 students were chronically absent—defined as missing 10 percent or more of school days. High-poverty schools have been the hardest hit, with absenteeism nearly tripling since the pandemic.
Want kids in school? Build bridges with families first
While schools have been ramping up efforts to increase student engagement to combat absenteeism, a study by Harvard University researchers and the New Teacher Project suggests keeping parents engaged is equally important.
Schools with higher assessed trust between parents and teachers and higher parent involvement—particularly in schools’ decisionmaking—had 6 percentage points lower chronic-absenteeism rates after remote learning, compared with schools with less parent engagement.
Virtual tutoring can help students, if it follows high-dosage criteria
High-dosage tutoring programs have expanded significantly, with nearly 40 percent of schools now using individual and small-group tutoring with trained teachers or tutors four or five days a week. This approach has been shown to boost student learning, but it can also be expensive. A new study by the National Student Support Accelerator at Stanford University suggests virtual tutoring could be a less-costly option, if it remains as intensive and rigorous as in-person tutoring.
Researchers tracked the reading growth of about 2,000 K-2 students in a dozen Texas charter schools, half of whom participated in intensive remote tutoring for part of the school day, in small-group video chats. Students who received supplemental lessons in phonics and decoding for 20 minutes a day, four times a week, via the remote tutoring performed significantly better on two early-reading tests by the end of the year.
A version of this article appeared in the January 17, 2024 edition of Education Week as 10 Education Studies You Should Know From 2023