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Looking Forward to a “New Normal” in Education: What Can We Expect in 2021–22?

By Catherine Jacques

February 12, 2021

As school systems began grappling with issues created by the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020, the K–12 education world shifted attention from long-standing priorities—such as equity, college and career readiness, and strengthening the educator workforce—to address the immediate needs of students and their families. A year later, COVID-19 adaptations such as virtual learning and safety measures still dominate education news, yet many education leaders are beginning to look to the future after the pandemic’s immediate threat has passed and considering what priorities will be for the 2021–22 school year.

Some priorities in 2021–22 will likely reflect the new postpandemic education landscape. For states and districts that saw preexisting challenges exacerbated by the pandemic, the priorities for 2021–22 may remain mostly unchanged. In fact, some states and districts have already doubled down on their efforts to address long-standing challenges while also dealing with the immediate needs of the pandemic. The new school year will bring an opportunity to contemplate education priorities in a new light and consider bold, innovative solutions to persistent challenges. Two challenges exacerbated by the pandemic in many places are likely to become even higher priorities in 2021–22:

  • Teacher shortages, recruitment, and retention
  • Equitable education

Teacher Shortages, Recruitment, and Retention

Prior to 2020, many schools and districts faced major staffing challenges; rural districts and low-performing schools in particular often had high rates of staff turnover and struggled to recruit enough teachers to fill vacant positions. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated this already challenging situation for many schools: Local budget shortfalls led to layoffs, teachers with preexisting health conditions chose to retire early or leave the profession, and the health and safety challenges related to reopening schools had a negative effect on teacher recruitment and retention rates. According to a recent Wall Street Journal report, public school employment fell 8.7% from February to November 2020, marking its lowest level in more than 20 years.

Looking forward, education leaders are increasing their attention on making teaching an attractive profession and ensuring that educators feel supported. Although recruitment and retention have long been both a challenge and a priority, potential solutions that previously were considered too challenging to implement are now gaining more traction. For example, some districts are now seriously considering more innovative and unconventional approaches to increasing teacher pay. Other districts are investing more in school support staff, such as counselors and social workers, to reduce the burden on individual teachers and allow them to focus on their area of expertise: teaching.

Illinois recently made efforts to make teaching a more attractive profession. In late 2019, the Illinois General Assembly passed House Bill 2078 to increase minimum teacher salaries by almost $10,000 by 2023. Chicago Public Schools, Illinois’s largest district, also implemented changes in late 2019 following a teacher strike to “honor our teachers’ hard work and dedication,” including raising teacher salaries by 16%, increasing the number of support staff to include a full-time nurse and social worker for every school, and reducing class sizes (Chalkbeat, 2019; Chicago Tribune, 2019; CPS, 2019).

In the last 5 years, Iowa also has made significant investments in making teaching a more attractive career. The state raised the state minimum teaching salary and provided thousands of teachers across the state with the opportunity to earn more as a teacher leader without moving into an administrative role through the Teacher Leadership and Compensation (TLC) grant. For more information on the benefits of the TLC grant, see the blog published last year on Region 9’s collaboration with the Iowa Department of Education to support TLC sustainability.

These efforts, though not a panacea, are examples of how states and districts can work to make teaching a more attractive and sustainable career. Looking forward, these types of efforts—from improving teaching conditions to raising teacher salaries—will likely have a higher priority and more attention from policymakers. The nation may look at Illinois and Iowa as examples of how teacher recruitment and retention investments might pay off. States and districts can use resources developed through the Comprehensive Center Network and the regional educational laboratories (RELs) to consider evidence-based strategies for improving the teacher workforce. For example, REL Midwest recently produced a documentary on teaching conditions and school leadership; in addition, the Region 9 Comprehensive Center developed tools to help districts use their data to inform teacher retention strategies. Since 2019, the Region 9 Comprehensive Center has been working with the Illinois State Board of Education (ISBE) to collect, analyze, and use teacher workforce data. Relatedly, the Illinois Association of Regional Superintendents of Schools recently released the results of its 2020 Educator Shortage Survey. To date, Region 9 and ISBE have identified several areas of need to address in the future. ISBE will use these data to make informed and strategic decisions on how to best support the statewide teacher workforce across both urban and rural schools.

Equitable Education

Equity has been the number one education buzzword for several years, but the pandemic brought increased focus and clarity on issues of equity as the differences in students’ access to technology and home support became more pressing and apparent. Many schools and districts are facing a steep learning curve in ensuring that all students have internet access and the devices needed for virtual learning. It’s also clear that teachers have had different experiences with the success of virtual learning. Some teachers report that many of their students are thriving in a virtual setting because they receive more individualized attention and have fewer distractions than they did in their school buildings. However, other teachers indicate that their students are struggling; in some cases, teachers have been unable to contact some students and families for months since they switched to virtual learning. In short, the pandemic, along with increasing national conversations about racial inequities, further illuminated and emphasized existing equity gaps in schools.

Illinois and Iowa have undertaken many efforts to improve educational equity both prior to and since the pandemic began. For example, the Illinois General Assembly passed House Bill 2170, which amends graduation standards to improve equitable access to advanced coursework and higher education. Recently, the Illinois State Board of Education proposed that the state implement culturally responsive teaching and learning standards for teacher preparation programs by October 2025 (Chalkbeat, 2021; Chicago Tribune, 2021). The Region 9 Comprehensive Center also formed a collaborative partnership with ISBE’s Department of Family and Community Engagement to gather feedback and insights from parents and families on the supports they and their children need to succeed.

Iowa’s focus on equity has been grounded in instructional practices, providing professional development for educators on equitable teaching practices and ensuring equitable access to grade-level instruction. Iowa’s efforts underscore the importance of not only understanding equity gaps and their root causes but also building teacher and administrator capacity to address these gaps in their day-to-day work.

The end of the pandemic is not likely to diminish the focus on equity by either states or districts. Equity is no longer simply a buzzword or a policy requirement; it is a priority that is both grounded in data and achievable through concrete strategies and efforts by teachers, leaders, and the education community at large. Although the need for equitable virtual learning supports may diminish in the near future as students begin to safely return to in person instruction, the efforts to promote equitable education must remain a priority. For more information about strategies to improve equity, see REL Midwest’s video on creating inclusive environments for Black teachers and Region 9 blogs covering equity-focused resources and approaches to supporting the highest need schools.

What’s Next?

The 2021–22 school year will most likely reflect a “new normal” for teachers, leaders, and students alike and continue to evolve across time. Although no one can foretell the future, we can make some reasonable predictions about education in the 2021–22 school year.

  • The year 2020 showed us that there is no one-size-fits-all approach for success, with some teachers and students showing major improvements via virtual learning and some facing major challenges and learning loss. For decades, there has been a call for more flexible and adaptable learning systems within schools, from more student-centered instruction to personalized learning supports to competency-based grading and promotion. Moving forward, we can anticipate an increased focus on flexibility. For teachers, flexibility may make teaching a more attractive or sustainable career choice; for students, flexibility may mean more equitable instruction. Regardless, 2021–22 will likely bring ongoing changes to the ways schools have traditionally functioned.
  • The year 2020 also put a spotlight on systemic inequities. Efforts to address inequities will likely continue to be a priority even after the pandemic, especially for students who experienced significant learning loss. We may see an increased focus on evidence-based interventions and individualized supports to help close learning gaps, along with a continued focus on addressing inequities in access to technology.
  • No state or district has been alone in their struggles during the pandemic. As more schools reopen and new priorities emerge, states and districts will continue to look to each other for strategies and approaches to addressing their shared challenges. States and districts are likely to share not only high-level policy approaches or specific programs but also more nuanced strategies for improving equity, strengthening the local teacher workforce, and working with limited resources. The Comprehensive Center Network, including Region 9, can play a key role in helping share and spread effective and innovative strategies so that states and districts can continue to learn from each other’s successes.

During the next few years, the Region 9 Comprehensive Center will continue to share evidence-based resources and success stories from Illinois and Iowa. Please subscribe to our monthly newsletter and follow @region9cc on Twitter to learn more about emerging priorities and real-life strategies for addressing educational challenges.

Catherine Jacques leads the Region 9 Comprehensive Center’s teacher leadership project with the Iowa Department of Education and is a researcher at the American Institutes for Research. She also leads teacher leadership work with the Center on Great Teachers and Leaders. Jacques has more than a decade of experience studying educator development at the local, state, and national levels, with a special emphasis on teacher leadership.

Photo courtesy of Allison Shelley for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action.