25 ways American education has changed in the last decade

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November 18, 2019

25 ways American education has changed in the last decade

In 1852, Massachusetts became the first state in the country to pass a mandatory education law. The law required that every town and city in the state have a public primary school that focused on teaching children grammar and basic arithmetic. Parents were obligated to send their children to school for 12 weeks each year until the child was 14 years old. If they failed to comply with the law, parents could be fined or even stripped of their parental rights. In 1917, Mississippi passed its mandatory education law, the last state in the union to do so, and it became standard that all American children would have at least an elementary education.

Plenty of things about American education have changed since then. For example, in 1925 the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) defended John Scopes in the Tennessee v. John Scopes trial which addressed the legality of teaching evolution in schools. While Scopes lost that trial, the anti-evolution legislation was challenged decades later, and today evolution is taught in most science classes around the country. In 1954, the landmark Brown v. Board of Education trial ruled that segregation on the basis of race in schools was unconstitutional, and children of all races, creeds, and colors have learned alongside each other in classrooms ever since.

In this article, Stacker is limiting that historical scope somewhat, looking at 25 ways American education has changed over the last decade alone. Using a variety of sources, we've compiled a list of statistical changes, policy changes, subject changes, national standard changes, and changes in teaching methods and student life. Of course, not every change in American education has been sensational or positive, but looking at where the education system has come from makes it easier to see both where it can go and how it can continue to improve.

From class size to the creation of a college-bound culture, read on to see how different education is today than it was in 2010.

The U.S. has fewer children under 18, but higher school enrolment rates

There were more children under 18 in America in 2010 than there were in 2018 (the most recent year data was available): 74 million versus 73 million, according to the Kids Count Data Center. That being said, the National Center for Education Statistics reports there are more children enrolled in both public and private schools in 2019 than there were in 2010. In the fall of 2019, 56 million students enrolled in pre-K through 12th grade at both public and private schools, while in the fall of 2010 that same number was 54.8 million.

Classrooms have become more crowded

Unsurprisingly, as the number of children enrolled in public schools has grown, so has the size of individual classes. The country is not building new schools at the same rate as children are enrolling in schools, leaving some educators feeling as if their primary function is running crowd control rather than teaching. Take, for example, classrooms in Nevada which have seen the biggest jump: during the 2009–2010 school year the average class size was 28, by 2016–2017 it had jumped to 36.

Homeschooling is on the decline

Homeschooling was once a popular form of education that allowed individual families more control over what their children were learning and the pace at which they were moving, but over the last decade, it’s fallen out of fashion. The National Center for Education Statistics takes incremental data on homeschooled students aged 5–17, and its two most recent reports—from 2012 and 2016—reveal a 6% decrease in homeschooled students during that time.

Charter schools have seen the most growth

There has been a lot of buzz in the lead-up to the 2020 presidential election about charter schools and their proposed funding. According to the National Center for Education Statistics, public charter schools have seen the most growth of any type of school over the last two decades. In 2000, public charter school enrollment was 0.4 million, increasing to 3 million in 2016.

Student demographics are changing

In 2010 the vast majority of students enrolled in public schools were white. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that 52.4% of PK–12 students were white, while only 23.1% were Hispanic and 2.4% were two or more races. In the fall of 2019, NCES reported that the percentage of white students had dropped to 46.6%, while Hispanic enrollment had increased to 27.4%, and students of two or more races accounted for 4.2% of all enrollment. Research shows that increased diversity in the classroom goes hand in hand with academic accomplishments.

There has been an increase in English-language learners in public schools

Increased diversity brings more than just different worldviews and life experiences; it also brings a wider collection of languages into the classroom. In the American education system, English-language learners (ELLs) are non-native English-speaking students who participate in language assistance programs to help ensure they attain English proficiency and meet the same academic standards that all students are required to meet. There has been a steady increase in the number of ELLs over the last two decades: in the fall of 2016, 9.6% of public school students were ELLs versus 8.1% in the fall of 2000. Amongst these students, the most common language spoken at home is Spanish, at 77%.

Nature preschools and forest kindergartens are at record levels

The number of early childhood education programs that center around the outdoors are at an all-time high in the U.S., with the number of nature preschools and forest kindergartens growing 66% between 2016 and 2017 alone, according to a study by the Natural Start Alliance. In these programs, which seek to counter behavioral issues, childhood obesity rates, and connect young people to skill sets beyond academics while developing their brains, students are outside for 75% of their school days on average. Washington in September 2019 became the first state to officially license outdoor preschools. While the programs exist all over the U.S., Washington will now be able to offer full-day programming as well as financial aid to students.

Teachers are making less

According to the National Education Association, the average teacher salary has gone down 4.5% over the last decade. The association reports that in 63% of school districts around the country starting salaries for public school teachers are below $40,000. Nationally, teachers are paid 21.4% less than similarly educated professionals in other lines of work.

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Overall school spending has increased

In the fall of 2019, the National Center for Education projected that U.S. primary and secondary schools would spend just over $680 billion over the new school year. The average amount to be spent per public school pupil was $13,440. Both numbers were way up from what the country spent a decade ago, during the 2010–2011 school year: $527.3 billion overall and $10,663 per pupil.

A college-bound culture

In 2009, Congress passed the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, which contained new college reporting requirements for school districts across the country. The intention was to hone in on the best education practices which would enable the public school system to send more students to college. While overall college enrollment has actually gone down since the act passed, school culture has undoubtedly changed from one of child development to one with college as the primary end goal.

Playtime is disappearing

A 2019 study published in the American Journal of Play found that American schools have a “sad” lack of play. As schools and teachers find themselves under increasing pressure to improve test scores, due to things like 2009’s American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, play has taken a backseat to necessary test prep. As a result, the study found students aren’t learning valuable social skills or how to do things like resolve conflict or decide what’s fair.

Students have increased anxiety about school performance

For students in the American education system, there has been an undeniable shift in the amount of anxiety they feel when it comes to their performance in school. In 2013, 45% of students reported that they felt stressed by school pressures, by 2019 61% of teens reported the same thing. Many professionals link this change to the increasing pressure students face to attend a four-year college or university after graduation.

The student-to-counselor ratio is decreasing

School counselors are a key resource for students who are struggling with this increase in anxiety over school performance, and on this front, there’s good news. The American School Counselor Association reported that the national student-to-counselor ratio was 455-to-1 during the 2016–2017 school year (the most recent year from which data was available). This marked a decrease from the previous year when the ratio was 464-to-1, which was the lowest ratio not only in the past decade but in the past 31 years.

Schools are pushing for later start times

While the benefits of a good night’s sleep have been known to scientists for years, the American school system has widely disregarded them when it comes to start times for its students. Recently, however, there’s been a major push to move those start times back an hour or two so that students can get the sleep they need in order to grow and develop properly. In 2019, California passed a law pushing back start times for its middle schoolers and high schoolers, and it looks like Maryland and Seattle schools might follow their lead soon. 

The Introduction of the Common Core

The Common Core State Standards, which provide benchmarks for what students should be able to do in math and language arts from kindergarten to 12th grade were created in 2009 and 2010. However, the standards didn’t become the basis for state tests until 2015. After that year, the Common Core moved from theory to reality and began to have practical impacts on how and what teachers around the country were teaching.

There’s a focus on STEM

In 2013, Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), the science curriculum equivalent of Common Core, was released. This curriculum change played a role in schools’ increased investments in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) programs which provided a clear guide for how to meet these rigorous standards. The emphasis on the NGSS and STEM has only continued to grow over the last decade, with the Trump administration allocating $279 million in STEM discretionary grant funds during the 2018 fiscal year.

Schools have implemented active shooter response plans

As the number of school shootings has risen in recent years, the percentage of schools with an active shooter response plan rose as well. The National Center for Education Statistics reported that 84.3% of all public schools had a crisis plan in place for an active shooter during the 2009–2010 school year, while 92% of schools have one in place for the current 2019–2020 school year.

Schools are filling students’ bellies

In 1966 the School Breakfast Program, a federally assisted meal program in public schools, began as a pilot program. In 1975, it was made a permanent entitlement program by Congress. In 2010, the program fed 11.67 million children during the school year, but by 2016, that number jumped to 14.57 million. In 2018 the School Breakfast Program served 2.4 billion breakfasts to qualifying children.

Graduation rates are improving

Calculated for the first time in 2010, the adjusted cohort graduation rate (ACGR) accounts for transfers, dropouts, and deaths during the course of a class’s four-year high school experience, resulting in a more accurate number of on-time graduations. Over the handful of times, the ACGR has been calculated it has shown a clear upward trend in graduation rates in the United States. In 2010 the country’s average ACGR was 79%, as of 2017, it was 85%.

Postsecondary enrolment rates are decreasing

With the implementation of the Common Core, which is designed to ensure that public school students are better prepared for college, and increasing graduation rates, it would make sense that postsecondary education rates would be increasing, too. But that’s simply not the case; enrollment in higher education institutions peaked in 2010 at 29.5 million and has been slowly declining ever since, dropping off at 26.4 million during the 2017–2018 school year.

#21. Student loan debt is changing the way high-schoolers think

Student debt has been growing at an astonishing rate over the last decade. In 2010, outstanding student loan debt totaled $830 billion, by 2019 it exploded to $1.41 trillion. The overwhelming debt has had a major impact on the way high-schoolers are thinking about their futures. Traditionally, college prep—from scoring well on the SAT/ACT to choosing the best university and program—has been a huge part of the high school experience. These days, due in part to the paralyzing debt situation, many high school students (and their parents) are choosing to skip college altogether in favor of other alternatives, forgoing the college visits and application process altogether.

The job market is dictating plans for after high school

Another reason the number of high schoolers skipping college has increased is the strong job market. A decade ago, high unemployment and the promise of more money with a college degree lured many a senior into a four-year program. These days, a tight labor market offers an exciting alternative to teenagers. This shift undeniably changes how high school students think about their education, and the amount of effort that goes into earning a top GPA, as many must feel that their grade point average won’t matter after they have their diploma in hand and a job offer on the horizon.

Online education has exploded

A decade ago, online learning was mostly reserved for the college set. In 2010, there were only 1.5 million students taking online courses. By 2013 that number had grown to 2.7 million, and by 2017 a Brown Center Chalkboard study found that 20% of all high school and middle school credits were being completed through a single online learning program and that 40% of high school seniors had taken at least one class through the program. While there are certainly benefits to allowing students more flexibility when it comes to their learning, the Brown Center Chalkboard study found that there was a wealth of negative impacts, including “ability grouping” and a lack of engagement with the material.

The overall quality of American education has gone down

The Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development’s Program for International Student Assessment measures reading ability, math, and science literacy and other key skills among 15 year olds in 70 countries around the world. In 2010, the United States ranked 17th in the world for science and 25th for math. Despite parents’ and politicians’ efforts to improve the country’s educational standards, the United States has continued to underperform, falling to 38th for math and 24th for science by 2015.

Accountability in education has increased

Finally, there’s been increasing emphasis placed on accountability in education over the last decade. For example, President Barack Obama signed the Every Student Succeeds Act into law in 2015, which extended the work of President George W. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act while increasing the country’s education standards, equipping teachers with better resources with which to meet the demands, and ensuring that, state by state, policymakers, principals, and educators are being held accountable for the education of each and every child that passes through our public schools. This accountability is the first step in guaranteeing that America is primed to be a leader in education for years to come.

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