Cover: Districts Continue to Struggle with Staffing, Political Polarization, and Unfinished Instruction

Districts Continue to Struggle with Staffing, Political Polarization, and Unfinished Instruction

Selected Findings from the Fifth American School District Panel Survey

Published Jul 19, 2022

by Melissa Kay Diliberti, Heather L. Schwartz

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Research Question

  1. Are districts facing the same issues in spring 2022 that district leaders identified in the fall 2021 ASDP survey (e.g., staffing shortages; political polarization interfering with schooling; students' mental health, behavior, and attendance; declining student enrollments; and unfinished instruction)?

To obtain a national picture of districts' challenges at the end of the third school year during the coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) pandemic, the authors assess nationally representative survey responses from 291 district leaders who completed the American School District Panel (ASDP) survey in spring 2022. Their analysis examines differences by district characteristic (locale, poverty level, and student racial and ethnic composition) and over time (when available). Survey findings reveal that districts continue to struggle with how to manage teacher shortages, political polarization in schools, student and staff mental health concerns, and pandemic-related student learning loss. Drawing on these findings, the authors recommend steps to address these challenges.

Key Findings

  • Ninety percent of school districts changed operations in one or more of their schools at some point in the 2021–2022 school year because of teacher shortages.
  • The typical district has increased substitute teachers' daily pay 6 percent above prepandemic levels, after adjusting for inflation.
  • More than three-quarters of districts have increased their number of teaching and nonteaching staff above prepandemic levels.
  • Roughly half of district leaders see a fiscal cliff looming after coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) federal aid expires, and they are trying to prepare for it.
  • As in fall 2021, district leaders had high levels of concern about student and staff mental health, and about half were concerned that political polarization about critical race theory was interfering with schooling.
  • Most districts have converged on the same interventions for student learning loss: summer programs, mental health services, tutoring, and social and emotional learning instruction.

Recommendations

  • To address unfinished instruction, districts should identify the extent of the learning gaps for different subsets of their students to figure out where to target the most-intensive responses. Districts should then invest time and resources into effectively implementing the academic interventions they have already adopted, such as tutoring, summer learning, and SEL.
  • Professional associations of districts, regional education service centers, and state education agencies can play an important role in creating forums for district leaders to disseminate their valuable knowledge with peers working in similar contexts.
  • Superintendents should rally their mayors, representatives of local hospital and health care systems, and legislators to discuss and implement a coordinated set of mental health services for their students and staff.
  • State education agencies should seek to get out ahead of a fiscal cliff by working with districts to closely examine finances, staff levels, and enrollment projections to understand which districts have the greatest risk of facing a fiscal cliff and work to minimize or avoid such risk.

Research conducted by

The research described in this report was conducted by RAND Education and Labor and supported by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

This report is part of the RAND research report series. RAND reports present research findings and objective analysis that address the challenges facing the public and private sectors. All RAND reports undergo rigorous peer review to ensure high standards for research quality and objectivity.

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