District Trendline

A look back on how school districts are preparing for the years ahead

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While the pandemic has largely waned, its repercussions still sound. The National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) scores show that student learning fell far short of typical years, negating much of the progress of the last decade and widening inequities that have long persisted. Teachers have returned to the classroom but are weighed down by the challenges of their work, perhaps more than ever before. Students are back to school in person, welcoming the opportunity to be with their friends and teachers again, but still grappling with damage to their mental health from months of isolation, to their physical health from COVID-19 (more than 75% of children have had COVID-19 at least once), and from grief for the more than 140,000 students who have lost a caregiver or family member.

Although the challenges have been immense, teachers, administrators, students, and school districts have remained resolute in supporting students to recover. Despite fears of a mass exodus of teachers, the vast majority have doubled down on their commitment to their students, remaining in the classroom and continuing their difficult and deeply important work. Despite massive learning loss, some studies are finding that students' learning is starting to rebound. And despite the exhaustion that comes from years of ever-changing circumstances, school districts are focused on solutions, on rebuilding, and on well-serving their students.

This past year, NCTQ has shared data exploring what districts are doing, drawing from our Teacher Contract Database, as well as insights into what districts should do, drawn from a growing body of research on how to build a strong, diverse teacher workforce.

The most widely-read editions of this year's District Trendline reflect the focus by districts on supporting their teacher workforce, and by extension, supporting their students.

The most commonly read article this year, Pay increases and other non-obscure strategies to address the substitute teacher shortage, reflects the reality that teacher absences have been up this year and substitute teachers have been hard to come by. This analysis explores how large districts across the country pay their substitutes, what education requirements districts set for substitutes, and which districts offer benefits as well as pay. 

In keeping with the interest in compensation, the next most widely read article asked, Are teacher salaries keeping up with inflation? Surprisingly, up until this year, salaries in four out of five large districts kept ahead of inflation (though whether those salaries are adequate or competitive is a different question, explored in our 2021 report Smart Money). However, in this past school year, inflation nearly reached double-digits. In half of the districts we examined, teachers' salaries fell behind inflation.

But education leaders know that money isn't the only factor that keeps teachers in the classroom. Our District Trendline that brought together research on Building a school climate that makes teachers want to stay received quite a lot of interest as leaders pondered how to build a school environment that encourages teachers not only to stay, but also to thrive.

District leaders are especially keen to address staffing shortages in certain areas, especially chronically short-staffed subjects like special education. Our piece offering research-based Strategies to build a sustainable special education teacher workforce was widely read. We further explored recruitment and retention incentives for special education teachers in a more recent District Trendline looking at strategic compensation.

While districts have largely been focused on ensuring that every classroom has a teacher, the importance of supporting teachers in becoming effective has remained a top priority. Our District Trendline offering Seven ways to make improving teacher evaluation worth the work was widely read. We further explored how teachers receive feedback in a recent piece looking at districts' observation policies, and took a deeper dive into state policies in our recently released State of the States: Teacher and Principal Evaluation Policies. Given this interest, districts and NCTQ clearly share the goal of supporting every teacher to make a positive impact on their students.

The years of pandemic recovery will not be easy, though we are heartened by districts asking the right questions, digging into data and research, replicating evidence-based strategies that are working with students, and doing what educators do best—learning from our challenges to position our students to move forward.