The state of education: Disparities and solutions found across the national landscape

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WASHINGTON, D.C. — This past week I ventured to our nation's capital to gain a beyond-the-Berkshires perspective of what's trending, challenging and progressing in the education landscape.

I joined a few hundred education writers and field professionals on the campus of Georgetown University in attending the 70th annual National Seminar of the Education Writers Association. The event's theme was, "A New Era for Education and the Press," and the seminar featured more than 80 opportunities to learn and talk about issues ranging from, "Making Child Care Both Affordable and High Quality," to "The Push to Upgrade Media Literacy" to "The Future of Title IX in Higher Education."

Indeed, times are changing for schools, for educators, parents, and of course, students. Meanwhile, policy makers and community leaders are expected to keep up to ensure education is fair, equitable and accessible. But not everyone's meeting in the middle of the road. In fact, many of the sessions highlighted chronic inequalities and achievement gaps across states, despite efforts like the Common Core curriculum movement and the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. But the programs also spotlighted some viable solutions which can be modeled and put into practice across the board.

So in brief, I offer you some insight into three issues I explored and how they might relate to a community like ours:

Rural education

Overview: Schools in rural places face evolving challenges, from internet access to the opioid crisis. And many problems, such as how to attract and keep qualified teachers, have persisted for decades. Yet many rural schools, where each child is well known, can offer advantages. What are the changing realities of rural education?

Challenges:

Rural schools tend to be underfunded and under-resourced compared to their urban peers.

Rural schools are facing declining enrollment.

It's hard to find and keep quality educators in rural areas.

Solutions:

Rural schools tend to offer smaller, more attentive classes, where students tend to feel safe and connected.

Dual enrollment programs can help early on in easing the financial burdens of college-bound students and give students the opportunity to take classes that a high school isn't able to offer.

Rural schools can serve as community hubs for social, health and financial services for whole families who may not be able to access such services otherwise.

In their words:

"There is no equity without adequate resources."

— Alan Richard, board chair for the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust

"You can't talk about how rural schools are doing without talking about how rural communities are doing."

— Catherine Biddle, assistant professor for the Educational Leadership Program at the University of Maine

"Property taxes are a terrible way to fund rural schools."

— Tim Bobrowski, superintendent for Kentucky's Owsley County Board of Education, on school budget policies.

"Students are not represented in making important decisions [but] we know what policies are working and what doesn't."

— Sahar Mohammadzadeh, a rising senior in Lexington, K.Y., and a leader for the Prichard Committee Student Voice Team

Media literacy

Overview: At a time when young people are deluged with information and often struggle to separate fact from fiction, the need for media literacy seems more urgent than ever. How are schools responding?

Challenges:

Students and adults struggle to discern news content from sponsored content on digital platforms.

Students believe news media is too biased.

Kids tend to feel scared and depressed after reading the news.

Solutions:

Passing digital citizenship legislation to advocate for media literacy policies, classroom curriculum and instruction.

Connecting students with a healthy diet of diverse news sources and giving them access to media professionals so they can better understand the news gathering and fact-checking processes.

Structure classroom lessons in how to have challenging conversations and debates in a productive, non-volatile manner.

In their words:

"[Most students] don't know what the words "sponsored content" mean. Most thought sponsored content was a better source of information because it had a more attractive infographic."

— Joel Breakstone, director for the Stanford History Education Group which published a report on how students evaluate information.

"Students are not just consumers [of media] they're creators. They're responsible too."

— Alan C. Miller, president and CEO of The News Literacy Project

"We found that kids want to read news that makes them feel empowered, but they do not feel well represented by news media and they're not covered accurately. They also see racial and gender bias in the news."

— Jo Phillips, social studies and civics teacher, Ripley High School, West Virginia

"News literacy has been taught for a long long time but it's way more challenging now; news is way more curated to our own sets of beliefs."

— Amy Guggenheim Shenkan, president and COO of Common Sense Media

Head Start

Overview: Serving nearly one million children from birth to age 5, Head Start is the nation's largest early childhood education program. What does Head Start look like in different states and what lies ahead for the program?

Challenges:

Head Start funding and resources streams vary by state and locality.

In Massachusetts, there's a salary gap of more than $40,000 between an early Head Start lead teacher with a bachelor's degree or higher and a public elementary school teacher.

Children who don't receive a quality early childhood education and experience between birth and age 4 are at risk of needing remedial instruction as early as age 5.

Solutions:

Given limited resources, prioritize needs by the practicality of attaining resources to address them.

Push legislators to talk more about early childhood.

Support equitable wages and training for early childhood educators and caregivers.

In their words:

"Seventeen percent of lead teachers left their job during the school year."

— W. Steven Barnett, director of the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University, on Head Start teacher turnover due to the lack of parity in wages and resources.

"Does early childhood work? That's like doing a story on does fourth grade work. There's an immense variation on anything."

— Katharine Stevens, lead for the American Enterprise Institute's early-childhood program on the debate of the effectiveness of early childhood education.

"The leadership of [Head Start] programs require a lot of innovation. We need to get a generation of progressive leaders."

— Yasmina Vinci, executive director of the National Head Start Association, on how to improve program quality and close gaps in resources.


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