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Back to School for K-12 students: Issues Ahead

Posted on August 30, 2022

As students and teachers head back to the classroom this fall, they are likely to face a number of challenges that could impact the 2022-23 school year and learning outcomes.

We’ve reported on these mounting challenges during the last couple years. Today’s WatchBlog post looks at our work on the issues students, educators, and schools are facing including pandemic learning loss, absenteeism, achievement at virtual charter schools, school redistricting, and bullying.


Photo close up showing a child filling in a bubble score card sheet for a standardized test


Learning loss and absent students

Some students may be returning to school behind on their education.

For a series of 2022 reports, we surveyed teachers about students’ potential learning loss during the pandemic. They told us that many students struggled to learn during the pandemic because of its disruption.

We found that, in the 2020-21 school year, across all grades and regardless of in-person, remote, or hybrid learning models, nearly two-thirds of teachers (64%) had more students who made less academic progress than in a typical school year. And 45% of teachers reported that at least half of their students ended the year a grade level behind.

While this learning loss was widespread, some students were disproportionately impacted, including students from high poverty households, students learning English, and our youngest K-12 students. As a result, long term, the pandemic may have contributed to growing disparities between student populations.

In addition, some students may not return to school this year at all. We recently found that, during the 2020-21 school year, more than a million teachers reported having students who never showed up for class despite being registered for school.

Students who did not show up came mostly from majority non-White and urban schools and faced obstacles to learning, such as no adult assistance at home. We also found that older students may have missed school because they were caring for family members or working themselves.  

Lower student achievement in virtual charter schools

While many families were first introduced to virtual schooling during the pandemic, virtual and hybrid programs are not new.  We recently explored challenges for students in virtual charter schools—the largest sector of virtual schools and the fastest growing type of public school in the U.S. For example, students attending virtual charter schools generally showed significantly lower rates of academic proficiency compared to the rest of their public school peers.

Virtual charter schools also reported lower student participation on federally-required state testing—a key measure of academic achievement. Our podcast with K-12 education expert Jackie Nowicki explores our work on virtual charter schools.

Racial/ethnic composition of schools and bullying contribute to equity issues

In a July report, we found that while the U.S. student population has become significantly more diverse, many schools remain divided along racial, ethnic, and economic lines.

Our recent analysis of 10 years of the Department of Education’s data on student race and ethnicity also shows that when schools broke away from their school districts, it generally resulted in Whiter and wealthier districts.

Specifically, new districts had half the share of students receiving free or reduced price lunches compared to the remaining districts. They also had far larger shares of White students, and far smaller shares of Hispanic and Black students than the remaining districts.  

Racial/Ethnic Composition of New and Remaining Districts One Year after District Secession


Bar chart showing racial and ethnic composition in new vs existing school districts. New districts were more White.


Wealth and racial composition of schools matter.

It is widely known that a history of discriminatory practices has contributed to inequities in education, which are intertwined with disparities in wealth, income, and housing. We have previously reported that students who are poor, Black, or Hispanic generally attend schools with fewer resources and lower academic outcomes (about 80% of students attending low-income schools are Black or Hispanic).

Racial and ethnic minority students may face other obstacles in school beyond resources and quality of education. Each year, millions of K-12 students experience hostile behaviors like bullying, hate speech, hate crimes, or assault.

In a report published last November, we found that, during the 2018-19 school year, about 1.3 million students (ages 12 to 18) were bullied for their race, religion, national origin, disability, gender, or sexual orientation.

The Department of Education has resolved complaints about these hostile behaviors more quickly than in the past, largely because it dismissed more complaints than in previous years, and because the number of complaints filed declined overall. Some civil rights experts said they had become reluctant to file complaints because they lost confidence in the department’s ability to address these violations in schools. 

To learn more about our findings on bullying, hate crimes, and violence in K-12 schools, check out our podcast:  

While students will face significant obstacles this fall, their teachers are confronting burnout and concerns about teacher shortages abound. Our recent discussions with current and former teachers, as well as hiring officials and others involved in all levels of teacher recruitment and retention, will help shed light on the situation and ways to address it.

Keep an eye out for these findings and a report on discipline related to school dress code violations this fall.

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