The new normal in U.S. schools is unsustainable–and inaction could cost $28 trillion

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More than three years after the pandemic closed schools across the country, the public consciousness has largely moved on, but our education system remains buffeted by urgent needs, shifting priorities, conflicting funding mandates, and deep political divisions. The new normal is anything but normal.

Learning loss, poor student mental health, teacher shortages, and the rapid pace of technological change are powerful forces that will shape the education sector for years to come. Stanford University economist Eric Hanushek estimates the lasting societal costs of the pandemic’s effects on students could amount to more than $28 trillion over the rest of this century.

The White House recently called for an all-hands-on-deck approach to fighting learning loss while the nation nervously awaits this year’s NAEP scores which last year were the lowest in two decades in reading and math.

3 seemingly insurmountable challenges

The impacts of the pandemic were unequally distributed. In some districts, students lost nearly two full grade levels while in others, math scores were almost unchanged. Three factors–access to broadband, whether a student’s parents were able to hold a job through remote work, and whether a student experienced a COVID-related death in their family–were associated with higher rates of learning loss, and highly correlated with lower income levels.

If learning loss was not troubling enough, CDC data reveals that 37% of high school students struggled with mental health issues during the pandemic. The rates are even more alarming for girls: three in five reported persistent sadness with one in three even considering suicide. The White House recently announced that rates of chronic absenteeism have doubled since the pandemic, due in part to mental health and behavioral challenges. Students struggling with mental health issues are twice as likely to drop out.

At the same time that students are struggling, teachers are also under pressure. Teacher turnover has gone up since the end of the pandemic. The response in some states has been to dramatically relax credentialing standards. Today, approximately one in 10 positions are either unfilled or held by someone without the proper certification and that number can be 4x higher in lower-income schools in rural and urban districts.

The missing piece

Numerous studies have shown the quality of the classroom teacher to be the single most important factor impacting student success. Uncertified teachers also exit the field at high rates, perpetuating the shortage. With the number of graduates from traditional schools of education declining, alternative pathways to certification are the only viable path to addressing the shortage. Mid-career professionals gain training in the areas they lack while coaching, mentorship, and accredited credentials protect teaching standards. Alternative pathways have also proven to be the best path to finding teachers in the hardest-to-fill areas of STEM and special ed while boosting teacher diversity.

With an insufficient supply of certified teachers, it is all the more challenging to keep pace with technological change. Since the release of ChatGPT and the large language model-based chatbots, education sector stakeholders have been scrambling to sort out the hype from reality.

Powerful chatbots can potentially do everything from preparing course catalogs to developing quizzes for administrators and educators to researching term papers for students. The key will be to arm students with the knowledge to harness these tools while also protecting student privacy and combatting the advance of even more pernicious forms of cyberbullying and disinformation.

The promise of education technology has always been to boost learner engagement at scale with software that could adapt to the needs of an individual learner. Now is the time for all stakeholders–educators, policymakers, and entrepreneurs–to lean into the opportunity. As students prepare for the workforce, generative AI and other sweeping technological changes present opportunities for greater productivity but also the challenge of accelerating workforce dislocations.

Education technology holds the promise to transform not only educational systems but also entire economies. Effecting change at scale will take thoughtful investment, backed by rigorous research, timely data, and a tactical understanding of the shifting education trends that will impact the sector for years to come.

John Rogers is a Partner at TPG’s Rise Fund, the world’s largest social impact fund.

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