Best Education Articles of 2023: Our 23 Most Important Stories About Students, Schools & Learning Recovery 

From students’ stalled learning recovery to the shifting politics of education reform and cybersecurity at schools, here were the year’s top themes.

Now three years since COVID’s first classroom closures and a year before districts start to feel the true impact of the fiscal cliff, 2023 marked a pivotal moment for students and schools across America. Fresh scores revealed the stalled state of learning recovery. Educators warned about an escalating chronic absenteeism crisis that has seen students disengage and thrown off track. New political alliances formed around school choice legislation and education savings accounts. Districts became one of the preferred targets of cyberhackers, who posted sensitive student information online. A national alarm was sounded about the state of teen mental health. 

From the classroom to the ballot box to the dark web, we’ve been tracking the key storylines of 2023. Here’s our most memorable and impactful journalism of the year: 

‘Education’s Long COVID’: New Data Shows Recovery Stalled for Most Students

By Linda Jacobson

The graph shows how many months of school students need to reach pre-pandemic levels in reading and math. (NWEA/Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74)

Data released this past July from NWEA showed that learning recovery had essentially stalled for most students, in the wake of the pandemic. The results from 6.7 million students showed that, on average, they need four additional months in school to catch up to pre-pandemic levels. Older and Black and Hispanic students need much more, and the gap between pre- and post-pandemic achievement for kids in fourth through eighth grade grew larger this year instead of smaller. Read Linda Jacobson’s report.

Exclusive Spending Data: Schools Still Pouring Money Into Reading Materials That Teach Kids to Guess

By Asher Lehrer-Small 

Eamonn Fitzmaurice / The 74

Districts across the country continue to pour money into expensive reading materials criticized for leaving many children without the basic ability to sound out words, an investigation by The 74’s Asher Lehrer-Small revealed. Since the blockbuster Sold a Story podcast launched in October of 2022, opening the eyes of many to problematic reading instruction nationwide, at least 225 districts have spent over $1.5 million on new books, training and curriculums linked to the flawed “three-cueing” method, according to a review of their purchase orders. Read our full report. 

Seizing on Parents’ Frustration, GOP Governors Push for Education Savings Accounts

By Linda Jacobson

Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74

Originally published in January: Republican governors across the country have put education savings accounts at the center of their 2023 legislative agendas. Many draw inspiration from states like Arizona, where almost 46,000 students use ESAs for private school, tutoring and homeschooling. “Parents want an all-of-the-above approach when it comes to how their kids are educated,” said ExcelinEd’s Tom Greene. But Jessica Levin of the Education Law Center said there’s still “a broad spectrum of groups that come out against them.” Read the full story

Campus Road Trip Diary: 8 Things We Learned This Year About America’s Most Innovative High Schools

By The 74

For months, The 74’s  journalists crisscrossed the country visiting innovative high schools, both established and emerging, that are headed by educators seeking answers to one common question: What if we could start over and try something totally new? The 13 schools profiled in our High School Road Trip series represent just a small sample, but they offer a promising vision of what young people, freed from 200 years of tradition and offered freedom, guidance, opportunity and agency, can look forward to. Greg Toppo and Emmeline Zhao have eight key takeaways.

As Test Scores Crater, Debate Over Whether There’s a ‘Science’ To Math Recovery

By Jo Napolitano

Meghan Gallagher/The 74

Are you team Fact Fluency or team Conceptual Understanding? That’s how one professor boiled down the debate over what’s being called the “science of math.” That movement favors fact fluency, which says students need explicit, orderly instruction and must learn math’s vocabulary to understand it. Others argue that children are more likely to engage with math when they can explore its concepts and the reasoning behind them, and call the alternative approach failed and outdated. Jo Napolitano reports.

Sales Skyrocket for Phone Pouch Company as In-School Bans Spread

By Linda Jacobson

More U.S. students may have to store their phones during the school day if Congress passes a bill to study and award grants for phone-free schools. (Yondr)

Yondr, a company that produces pouches for locking up students’ phones, has seen more than a tenfold increase in sales since 2021 — a clear sign that the movement to keep phones out of classrooms is spreading across the U.S. A Senate bill that calls for $5 million to support such bans could send even more business Yondr’s way. One proponent called the system a game changer for improving students’ focus in school, but others say a complete ban goes too far. Linda Jacobson reports.

Due Process, Undue Delays: Families Trapped in NYC’s Decades-Long Special Ed Bottleneck

By Beth Hawkins

Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74

Twenty years ago, disabled children in the nation’s largest school system had their day in court and won. But today, even with fat files of documentation and legal orders in their favor, thousands of New York special education families can’t get the district to pay for services. Now, a backlog of children who went unevaluated and unserved during the pandemic threatens to further overwhelm the system. Beth Hawkins reported in June on a court-appointed overseer’s daunting list of recommendations and the struggles of one family caught in the dysfunction.

ChatGPT Is Landing Kids in the Principal’s Office, Survey Finds

By Mark Keierleber 

Getty Images

Ever since ChatGPT burst onto the scene last year, educators have worried that it could help kids plagiarize. While 50% of teachers say they know of a student being disciplined for using — or accused of using — generative artificial intelligence, students say they are more likely to access it for personal problems than homework. That’s a top finding from a Center for Democracy and Technology report released in September that also documents a surge in school-based digital privacy concerns among students and parents. Read Mark Keierleber’s report. 

The Mystery of Ryan Walters: How a Beloved History Teacher Became Oklahoma’s Culture-Warrior-in-Chief

By Linda Jacobson

Ryan Walters was one of the most well-liked teachers at McAlester High, known for skillfully explaining complex social and political movements in AP history class. But former students and colleagues barely recognize the man who last year was elected Oklahoma’s schools superintendent. Walters’s relentless crusade against “woke ideology” and attacks on educators have pushed the former small-town teacher into the national spotlight, alarming even some fellow Republicans. One lawmaker told reporter Linda Jacobson, “This guy cares more about getting on Fox News than he does about doing his job.” Read the full report. 

Why a New Brand of Cyberattack on Las Vegas Schools Should Worry Everyone

By Mark Keierleber

Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74/iStock

It was a Thursday morning when Las Vegas mom Brandi Hecht woke up to an unnerving email telling her that sensitive information about her daughters had been leaked and here were the PDFs to prove it. Hecht was being used as leverage in a new kind of cyberattack where the hackers went directly to parents and local media to issue threats and where they didn’t use sophisticated skills to infiltrate and extract data, but instead exploited weak student passwords and flimsy file-sharing practices in Google Workspace. With “virtually every school in the U.S.” relying on similar cloud-based suites, one K-12 cybersecurity expert said the breach methods used against Clark County Public Schools should set off alarm bells for educators nationwide. Read more

Six Hidden (and Not-So-Hidden) Factors Driving America’s Student Absenteeism Crisis

By Greg Toppo

Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74

As schools face record-setting chronic absenteeism nearly years after the worst of the COVID-19 pandemic, educators are looking for ways to bring students back into the fold of school. Here are six hidden and not-so-hidden possible reasons why so many young people are missing so much school — from worsening mental health to a higher minimum wage. 

Exclusive: Despite K-2 Reading Gains, Results Flat for 3rd Grade ‘COVID Kids’

By Linda Jacobson 

A bar graph showing Amplify data over time. The percentage of students in grades kindergarten through third is growing but does not yet match pre-pandemic levels.
New mid-year data from Amplify shows the percentage of students in K-2 on track in reading continues to approach pre-pandemic levels. (Amplify/The 74)

As of late February, the percentage of third graders on track in reading hadn’t budged since the same time in 2022, according to data provided by curriculum provider Amplify. The results, from 300,000 students in 43 states, was a reminder of the literacy setbacks experienced by those in kindergarten when schools shut down in 2020. But the data showed racial gaps had narrowed and K-2 students showed growth over the previous year, as skills among younger students slowly inched back to pre-pandemic levels. Linda Jacobson reports.

With More Teachers & Fewer Students, Districts Are Set up for Financial Trouble

By Chad Aldeman

To understand the teacher labor market, you have to hold two competing narratives in your head. On one hand, teacher turnover hit new highs, morale is low and schools are facing shortages. At the same time, public schools employ more teachers than before COVID, while serving 1.9 million fewer students. Student-teacher ratios are near all-time lows. Contributor Chad Aldeman and Eamonn Fitzmaurice, The 74’s art and technology director, plotted these changes on an exclusive, interactive map — and explain how they’re putting districts in financial peril. Read the full story

‘U.S. Education Is a Challenged Space’: In Exclusive 74 Interview, Bill Gates Talks Learning Recovery, AI and His Big Bet on Math

By Kevin Mahnken

Photo courtesy Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation

Bill Gates may wield more influence over U.S. schools than any other figure outside the federal government. In the past 20 years, his massive philanthropic efforts have fostered a movement for small schools, fueled the spread of the Common Core standards and supported experimentation in teacher evaluations. Now, with student achievement still mired in the post-COVID doldrums, his foundation is making a billion-dollar commitment to revive math learning. “U.S. education is a challenged space,” the Microsoft founder told The 74’s Kevin Mahnken. Read our full interview

Go Deeper: See our complete archive of 74 Interviews

Stockton, California: What Happens When a Dysfunctional District Gets $241 Million

By Linda Jacobson

The Stockton school district in California’s Central Valley received $241 million in relief funds to help students recover from the pandemic. But, beset by dysfunction in its central office and deep mistrust among board members, it spent millions on two abandoned projects and six-figure salaries for its central office staff. Last winter, an independent auditor released the results of a long-awaited fraud investigation into the district’s finances. Linda Jacobson reports.

Explore Our Full Series: Following the COVID Money

New Study: Schools Prioritizing Social-Emotional Learning See Strong Academic Benefits

By Jo Napolitano

Chicago high school students (Getty Images)

A recent study of Chicago Public Schools shows high schools that prioritized social-emotional development had double the positive long-term impact on students compared with those that focused solely on improving test scores. “How safe students feel —  physically, socially, psychologically — how deeply connected they are to others, how much they trust their teachers and their peers matters,” University of Chicago senior research associate Shanette Porter told Jo Napolitano. Read our full story. 

They Stood Up to NYC Schools For Their Disabled Child. Then Child Protective Services Arrived

By Asher Lehrer-Small

Michelle and Luis Diaz with their son Tristan in their Bronx apartment. (Marianna McMurdock)

After their autistic and nonverbal 7-year-old son came home from school with unexplained injuries, Luis and Michelle Diaz pressed for answers. But, to their surprise, the school pointed the finger back at the family, alleging neglect of their child. The response reveals a startling pattern: Across the nation’s largest district, parents who speak up on behalf of their special education children say they are accused of abuse — a tactic advocates say schools use to intimidate parents. Asher Lehrer-Small reports in this special 74 Investigation.

Teen Mental Health Crisis Pushes More School Districts to Sue Social Media Giants

By Marianna McMurdock

Two students sitting on bleachers using their phones
Getty Images

Teenagers’ mental health has so taxed and alarmed school districts that many are suing the social media giants they say helped cause the crisis. At least 11 districts, one county and one county system that oversees 23 districts have filed suits this year, representing roughly 469,000 students. Sources say more will follow. “Schools, states and Americans across the country are rightly pushing back against Big Tech putting profits over kids’ safety online,” Sen. Richard Blumenthal told The 74’s Marianna McMurdock. Read our full report

Amid the Pandemic, a Classical Education Boom: What if the Next Big School Trend Is 2,500 Years Old?

By Kevin Mahnken

Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74/Leonidas Drosis

Classical education, perhaps the oldest model of formal instruction in the Western world, is rapidly gaining adherents in the modern day. Sharing a focus on the liberal arts that can be traced back to the ancient world, classical schools have spread across the charter, private and homeschooling sectors in recent decades. Particularly since the pandemic, reports Kevin Mahnken, they’ve been embraced by families seeking an alternative to traditional schools — and by politicians, like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, who see them as a check on progressive influences in the classroom. Read the full story. 

Exclusive: Virginia’s Fairfax Schools Expose Thousands of Sensitive Student Records

By Linda Jacobson

Eamonn Fitzmaurice/The 74

The Fairfax County Public Schools in Virginia, one of the nation’s largest, disclosed tens of thousands of sensitive, confidential student records, apparently by accident, to a parent advocate who has been an outspoken critic of its data privacy record. The files identify current and former special education students by name and include letter grades, disability status and mental health data. “If they don’t have a system to respond in a protective, … efficient manner, that’s on them,” said privacy expert Amelia Vance. Read our full report.

‘A Bankrupt Concept of Math’: Some Educators Argue Calculus Should Be Dethroned

By Jo Napolitano

Learning Policy Institute

Some in education say it’s time to reconsider calculus as an unofficial requirement for entrance to the nation’s top colleges. Many high schools — particularly those serving large numbers of Black, Hispanic or low-income students — don’t even offer the course. And even when they do, it’s of dubious value, critics say. “High school calculus is a complete waste of time and a form of torture,” Alan Garfinkel, professor of integrative biology and physiology and medicine at UCLA, told The 74’s Jo Napolitano.

Florida Just Became the Nation’s Biggest School Choice Laboratory

By Kevin Mahnken

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis signed legislation Monday that will massively expand private school choice throughout his state. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

With the stroke of a pen, Gov. Ron DeSantis made Florida the nation’s biggest K-12 marketplace. The March law makes every student in the state eligible to receive a private school voucher or education savings account. In the best-case scenario, said economist Krzysztof Karbownik, schools and families will be able to “leverage the power of competition” to provide better options for kids. But he worries the new policy could create “a whole market for relatively low-quality private schools.” Kevin Mahnken reports.

Report: In 24 States, Using False Address to Get Into a Better School is a Crime

By Linda Jacobson

In nearly half the states in the country, parents risk criminal prosecution — and jail time — if they use a false address to get their children into a better school, according to a report from the nonprofits Available to All. The authors say enforcement largely targets minority families, and they want more states to follow Connecticut’s lead in decriminalizing so-called address sharing. But those tracking down offenders say residency fraud puts a strain on school budgets. Linda Jacobson reports.

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