(The Hill) — Schools are preparing for a new academic year amid growing political polarization in the classroom and mounting concerns about learning loss.
As the 2024 election heats up and reports indicate plummeting test scores, educators are at the forefront of navigating the line to satisfy students, parents and politicians.
From advances in technology to books pulled off a classroom shelf, the new year is expected to bring serious challenges to educators, along with battles at the legislative level on how and what should be taught in the classroom.
Here are the biggest education issues to watch heading into the new school year:
Students are still feeling the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic on their learning, with numerous studies showing children have fallen behind in vital subjects such as math and reading.
Despite most students getting back to the classroom in 2021, the learning loss experienced from online or hybrid learning reverberates today.
The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) found in June average scores for 13-year-olds in math are at their lowest point since 1990 — and in reading, their lowest since 2004.
In another NAEP assessment released in May, eighth graders’ average scores in civics dropped to levels last seen in 1998 — and history scores dropped nine points compared to 2014.
“The bottom line is these results show that they are troubling gaps in the basic skills of the students,” NCES Commissioner Peggy Carr said after the June results.
“The big message here is that it is a long road ahead of us,” Carr added.
Bans on certain books and literature is challenged in schools have become hot topics that are likely not to go away anytime soon.
In the first half of the 2022-2023 school year, 1,477 book bans were implemented, according to PEN America, a free speech organization. The group emphasized those were all the bans they could confirm and the real number is “unquestionably much higher.”
“Over the last year,” the group said, “…terminology such as ‘obscene,’ ‘pornographic,’ ‘harmful to minors,’ and ‘sexually explicit’ is being utilized to restrict a range of content, including books on LGBTQ+ experiences, stories that include any sexual references, sex education materials, books that include portrayals of death or abuse, and art books.”
The bans have mostly occurred in GOP-led states, where Republicans have argued they are getting inappropriate books out of the hands of children.
In Florida, they have enacted changes to make it easier for a book to be challenged and pulled off of shelves, where it could stay for months pending investigation.
AI and ChatGPT
Artificial Intelligence and chatbots such as ChatGPT are a challenge for high school and college educators as they navigate how to approach the recently popularized technology.
ChatGPT caused a whirlwind in the second half of the previous school year, with some high schools even banning the website from their servers over concerns of cheating. Some college professors changed their assignments and tests due to cheating concerns with AI.
This will be the first full school year where the technology is commonly known and popular, with educators slightly more prepared on how they want to handle it.
Educators have learned some tell-tale signs of AI when students use it for their papers, and colleges are developing guidelines and training to help professors understand and modify their assignments.
“We’re not saying, ‘Oh, you can’t use it,’ or ‘You must use it.’ That would be, ultimately, kind of silly. What we’re really strongly encouraging is for our faculty to become more knowledgeable about it, to do the specific things,” Youngmoo Kim, director of the Expressive and Creative Interactive Technologies Center at Drexel University, previously told The Hill.
“That is, if you have a standard set of homeworks that you always do, or exam questions that you use often or recycle, put them in the ChatGPT [and] see what you get. Do that legwork, so that you as an instructor can have a much better familiarity of what you know, what it’s capable of and what to expect there,” he added.
Some states have recently undergone some K-12 and even college curriculum changes that have caused controversy.
Battles at the K-12 level over curriculum have been happening for some time in Republican-led states, particularly targeting concepts such as critical race theory (CRT).
The controversy around CRT comes as more than a dozen states have signed laws against the academic theory that says racism is inherent in U.S. institutions. Opponents say CRT is not taught in K-12 and that Republicans have used the legislation to ban topics they don’t like.
Recently, Florida implemented new standards for teaching African American history, after rejecting the AP African American Studies class, which has faced pushback from even some conservatives.
The issue comes from a section of the new curriculum that says enslaved people “developed skills” that helped them.
“There is no silver lining in slavery,” Republican Presidential Candidate Sen. Tim Scott (S.C.) said. “Slavery was really about separating families, about mutilating humans and even raping their wives. It was just devastating.”
Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis (R) also signed into law that some topics can not be taught in general education courses at public universities.
The restricted topics relate to “theories that systemic racism, sexism, oppression, and privilege are inherent in the institutions of the United States and were created to maintain social, political and economic inequities.”