The 4 Education Trends That Will Define 2024

Beyond100K, the organization I lead, spent hundreds of hours this past year listening to educators, advocates, and activists and poring over news and research to better understand the opportunities and challenges that are defining STEM and education. We identified four trends that are changing the narrative and will continue to impact education long after 2024 is over.

1. The Flexible Office Has Evaded Teachers. They Want In.

In an era when flexibility is a touchstone for most white-collar workers, and people are willing to take a pay cut for the opportunity to work remotely, teachers continue to find themselves tethered to their classrooms, needing to ask another adult to cover their classroom to pee (case in point: this viral video) and often unable to take time during the school day even for their own professional development.

Lack of flexibility for professional development during the workday is one of the keystone challenges to teacher retention, negatively impacting teachers’ decisions to remain in the profession.

One silver lining is increased attention to the need to reimagine the structure of the teaching profession to reflect the desire for flexibility among today’s workforce, with more than a dozen organizations around the country coming together to design and deliver new paradigms for the teaching role.

For teachers to have meaningful flexibility during the school day, districts will need to invest in substitutes who can step in to give teachers the space and time to leave their classrooms. As one educator told us, “Teachers need capable and competent substitutes to facilitate learning from each other, especially when educators already have too much on their plates.” Yet districts are struggling to find enough substitute teachers, pioneering “grow your own” pools of substitute teachers that are doubling as pathways into full-time teaching.

One solution that I’ve been mulling over: a cadre of substitute teachers trained to do engaging, hands-on, relevant, and grade-appropriate STEM that can create memorable, joyful learning moments for students and who can step in as needed.

2. Uncertainty Has Educators Craving Clarity.

If, in the early pandemic days, the prevailing question was “when will we get back to normal?”, educators are coming to realize that “normal” is over. Spikes of absenteeism for students and teachers, intrusive directives about what teachers can and cannot talk about, high-wire drama over how to speak about the Middle East, ongoing mental-health challenges for students and teachers: Schools, teachers, and students are experiencing unprecedented instability.

In the face of uncertainty, educators are craving clarity. Research shows that “uncertainty lights up the pain centers of the brain similar to physical pain,” and that, when we can’t provide certainty, clarity is a close substitute, calming the mind and allowing us to focus. Clear guidance helps educators reserve their cognitive capacity to do what matters. One teacher told us: “If you can’t tell me what STEM is, how can we write a STEM curriculum or support teachers in STEM?”

Across hundreds of interviews, educators wanted clear definitions and answers for everything they were being asked to do, from what counts as STEM, to how belonging is defined and measured, to what high-quality teacher preparation really looks like.

To be clear, clarity is not control. Within clear parameters, teachers told us they can be creative and do their best work.

3. The Shortage Un-stuck Teacher Pay, But We’re Far From Done.

Teacher pay, long a third rail of education policy, is finally having its moment. The sheer magnitude of the shortage, amplified by memes of teachers exposing unacceptable pay and working conditions and even an Abbott Elementary episode, seems to have spurred a movement on teacher pay. A nationwide surge has led to salary increases in 31 states and the District of Columbia. In 2023 alone, 26 states introduced bills to raise salaries. With the support of the Teacher Salary Project, Congress introduced the American Teacher Act to incentivize $60,000 minimum teacher salaries.

Yet teachers still earn 24 percent less than comparable college graduates. Their salaries have barely risen since the 1990s. Adjusted for inflation, teacher pay increased by just $83 from 1989 to 2021, in comparison to an increase of $445 in other professions requiring a college degree.

Our conversations with hundreds of STEM education leaders and our analysis of thousands of data points highlight that insufficient compensation remains a top hurdle in overcoming the teacher shortage. The laws of supply and demand (hello, Adam Smith!) predict that until salaries rise, the shortage will not disappear, leaving us disappointed that the National Center for Education Statistics found that 86 percent of public schools reported challenges hiring teachers for the 2023 – 2024 school year.

4. Schools Are in a Double Bind. But Educators See Belonging as a Path to Academic Achievement.

When a person’s in a double bind, they’re confronted with two irreconcilable demands and feel set-up to fail. Schools are experiencing a double-bind moment: On the one hand, facing unprecedented drops in math and reading scores and lingering pandemic learning loss, they’re being hounded to double down on the basics. On the other, sensing ongoing racial and economic inequities and an acute crisis in attendance, they’re being told to focus on engagement, active learning, equity, and emotions. Teachers want both academic gains and social-emotional well-being for their students. One teacher told us, “There’s a big push for SEL [social-emotional learning] coming down the chain. We are working really hard to provide mental health on all campuses.” Yet they told us their district is prioritizing “’teaching to the test’ and student assessment scores over effective instructional strategies, like active or inquiry-based learning, and non-tested subjects.”

In the face of these competing demands, we hear the early tremors of a hopeful trend: Educators are viewing joy, belonging, and relevance not in conflict with academic progress, but as the path to it. “We need to bring joy and curiosity into our classrooms,” one teacher shared, “not test prep,” to get sustained student learning gains. Mounting evidence shows that joy-based learning leads to better academic outcomes, that there’s a positive correlation between a sense of belonging in STEM classrooms and academic performance, retention, and persistence, and SEL programs lead to improvements in academic performance and social well-being for all students and particularly for students of color.

While the truism that change is the only constant has never felt more applicable, these four trends are already transforming the education landscape and will likely continue to do so for the foreseeable future.

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