Editor’s note: This was first published by ExcelinEd.
Across the ever-evolving education landscape, policy decisions have lasting effects on the lives of students, teachers and their communities. The best education policies can change the trajectories of kids’ lives, even if they’re struggling with pandemic-related learning loss or difficult environments outside of school.
Policies that address declining reading and math scores, attract capable and well-trained teachers to the profession, and align learning pathways with real-world workforce needs are meaningful solutions that can strengthen states and our nation.
Today, transformative policies from recent legislative sessions are reshaping education in many states. They’re all worth watching. And in every state, it’s crucial for lawmakers to stay abreast of education policy trends and, more importantly, to take proactive steps to ensure every child, in every state, is set up for success.
In 2024, the importance of high-impact, evidence-based education policies cannot be overstated.
Understanding the education landscape entering 2024
In the almost four years since Covid-19 shook the education system’s foundations, many states enacted policies to close learning gaps, to empower families with opportunity, to reimagine how and where students learn and to strengthen students’ pathways into college and careers.
In 2023 alone, eighteen states improved their early literacy policies. Eight states expanded or adopted new education scholarship account (ESA) programs, with 4.07 million students (about twice the population of New Mexico) now eligible for universal ESAs in five states. Ten states made investments to attract and retain teachers. And one state—Indiana—broke ground with a first-of-its-kind Career Scholarship Accounts, where high schoolers who participate in a workforce training program receive $5,000 scholarships to pay for courses, training or apprenticeship costs.
These education policy trends demonstrate outstanding, student-centered progress. Yet they also underscore the ongoing need for proactive policymaking to address present and emerging challenges in education.
The choices our elected state leaders make about K–12 education significantly shape the educational experiences of students, the working conditions of teachers and the overall well-being of communities.
Education policy trends to watch in 2024
1. Continuing the momentum for high-quality reading and math instruction
Legislatures across the country advanced early literacy policies grounded in the science of reading in 2023, with ten states strengthening existing or adopting new policies.
Early literacy policies grounded in the science of reading were adopted in ten states—Arkansas, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, New Mexico, Ohio, South Carolina, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wisconsin—with eight additional states adopting other early literacy improvements. Four of those states added or protected third-grade retention policies—a proven intervention strategy for improving literacy outcomes.
To further strengthen early literacy policy, legislators in eight states also took action to include an outright ban on three-cueing. This harmful instructional practice teaches young students to guess at words rather than learning letter-by-letter processing, which is essential to build sound reading and spelling skills. Florida, Indiana, North Carolina, Ohio, South Carolina, Texas, West Virginia, and Wisconsin all banned the practice and required its elimination from school curricula. Florida, North Carolina, Texas, and Wisconsin further banned three-cueing materials and practices in teacher preparation programs.
To date, at least thirty-two states have adopted comprehensive early literacy policies, with more states likely to follow in their footsteps. These policies focus on key elements of early literacy success: prevention of reading difficulties through training for teachers grounded in the science of reading; high-quality core instruction with instructional materials aligned to evidence-based practices; and early literacy screening for students beginning in kindergarten. Many of the states also provide intentional supports for students who need extra help through interventions such as individual reading plans, summer reading camps, and third-grade retention as a last resort.
What’s next for states that have early literacy policies in place?
States that want to close reading gaps for all students could expand policies beyond third grade and advance adolescent literacy, a bold step taken by Virginia during the 2023 legislative session. Lastly, states can ensure that future educators are prepared to teach students to read. Now is the time to collaborate with educator preparation program providers to align coursework and materials to the science of reading.
Troubling education trends on the Nation’s Report Card not only had lawmakers looking at early literacy solutions, it also drove leaders to focus on math with three states taking action in 2023 to address the needs of students.
As the first major piece of legislation to take aim at both early literacy and math, West Virginia’s Third Grade Success Act supports the state’s more than 68,000 K–3 students with evidence-based mathematics instruction to ensure they are proficient by the end of third grade. The new Arkansas LEARNS Act requires progress monitoring and intervention plans for students who are performing below grade level and requires instruction from a highly effective math teacher and tutoring for struggling math students. Florida also adopted a similar policy to identify, intervene, and support students struggling in math.
While these states have taken actions that are part of a comprehensive K–8 math policy, there are no quick fixes to improving math performance. A truly comprehensive K–8 mathematics strategy includes daily math instruction with high-quality content and instructional materials; support for teachers; assessments and parent notification; interventions; and resources for families and caregivers.
By adopting the right combination of math policies, state leaders can begin to repair math learning losses and get students back on track for success.
2. Social media and smartphones in the classroom
At the 2023 ExcelinEd National Summit in November, Dr. Jonathan Haidt presented research from his upcoming book, The Anxious Generation: How the Great Rewiring of Childhood is Causing an Epidemic of Mental Illness. Among his findings: The percentage of U.S. girls and boys age twelve to seventeen experiencing anxiety and major depression has skyrocketed since 2010—when smartphone adoption swept the nation and children were allowed to join social media platforms as young as thirteen.
Are there policies that can be effective in protecting young people from the negative impact of social media? Some states are already taking action.
As of September 2023, Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Utah, and Virginia have laws on the books that require more of companies to verify the age of account holders under eighteen and/or to obtain parental or guardian consent for those users to have accounts.
Utah’s approach framed acquiring a social media account as entering into a contract with the provider, thus requiring children under age eighteen to have parental permission. So far, the law has held up in the courts, and other states may replicate policies like these in the year ahead.
In addition to social media, the use of cell phones for texting, sharing photos, and playing games can cause distractions in the instructional environment. In fact, research from the UK found that students in schools that banned cell phones had statistically significant increases in student academic performance, with particularly strong results for low-achieving students.
Florida passed legislation in 2023 to prohibit the use of cell phones during instructional time unless students had a teacher’s specific permission for an educational purpose. Florida tied this restriction together with comprehensive reforms aimed at blocking social media sites from school networks; teaching students about the social, emotional, and physical harms of social media; and beefing up protections for student data privacy. This multi-pronged approach can complement social media restrictions.
Social media and cell phone policies are receiving overwhelming support from parents. According to recent EdChoice polling powered by Morning Consult, many parents strongly back laws that demand their approval for minors to use social media. About 70 percent of parents support both state and national regulations requiring parental consent for young people to access social media platforms. Additionally, 61 percent of parents endorse rules that would make students store their cell phones in lockers while at school. This widespread support is rooted in parental worries about how social media can affect their children’s mental well-being. Nearly half of parents (46 percent) express high levels of concern about the negative impact on mental health, while only 12 percent said they are not troubled by it.
With data and high levels of support on their side, 2024 may be a prime time for state lawmakers to protect students from harmful devices and online content, especially during crucial classroom hours.
3. Expanding school choice
School choice is an umbrella term that includes any educational option that allows families to choose the best educational fit for their children beyond their assigned district school. School choice today takes many forms, whether that’s public schooling options like district open enrollment, charter schools, magnet schools, and online schools or private and nontraditional options like education scholarship accounts (ESAs), private school vouchers, tax-credit scholarships, homeschooling, and microschooling.
Education scholarship accounts are the fastest-growing and most flexible type of choice program. ESAs allow families to customize education and direct funds to a combination of approved uses, such as tutoring, educational therapies, instructional materials, online programs, private school tuition, contracted services with school districts, exam fees, and savings for future educational expenses.
Pandemic-related learning loss and parental demand have inspired lawmakers to approve a prolific expansion of school choice. Since 2021, no less than twenty-six states have expanded educational opportunity for millions of families. After Arizona and West Virginia made 100 percent of their students eligible for ESAs in 2022, states like Arkansas, Florida, Indiana, Iowa, North Carolina, Oklahoma, and Utah followed suit, opening up education choice programs to all or nearly all students in their respective states.
It’s clear that ESAs and educational opportunity will continue to expand and evolve in 2024.
As states begin implementation, agencies should aim to optimize these far-reaching programs to best serve families and attract high-quality education providers. Three policy measures that can lead to strong choice programs in practice include: preserving flexibility by not forcing parents to spend funds in a certain way; expanding the list of allowable education expenditures to provide more options for students; and involving parents in the expenditure approval process.
4. Understanding the value of college and career pathways
Creating educational pathways for students into college or higher skill, higher-wage, in-demand careers is a high priority for most states. ExcelinEd’s Pathways Matter policy framework offers up to twenty different policies that can help states achieve that.
Dozens of states have created pathways by requiring schools to offer career and technical education (CTE) programs. Some states have implemented work-based learning policies that ensure the skills, credentials, and apprenticeships students pursue actually help build a strong workforce. Others have focused on making students’ two- and four-year college credits transferable from one institution to another, reducing the barriers to completing a degree.
Indiana made history in 2023 by creating the nation’s first career scholarship accounts for high school students. These funds can be used to pay for work-based learning courses, apprenticeships, and other postsecondary opportunities, like remedial courses to better prepare them for college-level math.
One trend we expect to see in this education policy area revolves around collecting and analyzing school- and student-level longitudinal data, as well as employment outcome data, to determine the effectiveness of CTE pathways and how they can be improved. In technical terms, this is known as a return on investment (ROI) analysis. It’s an invaluable resource for developing and maintaining high-quality pathway programs.
Too often, state policymakers and education leaders do not know if their pathways meet rigorous benchmarks for quality. And where high-quality CTE programs do exist, the programs may not be widely accessible to all learners, particularly low-income learners or learners of color.
Using data from an ROI analysis, local and state policymakers can make informed decisions to ensure all learners can access and succeed in high-quality CTE programs.
5. Teacher workforce development
The issue of teacher shortages has been a long-standing concern for education leaders, yet the topic has gained well-needed attention and publicity, especially in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic. To address shortages, it is crucial that states collect and provide timely data on teacher staffing. At the same time, they can create incentives to keep their best teachers in the classroom and reduce barriers for new talent to enter the teacher pipeline.
Several states, including Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, and Tennessee, established teacher apprenticeships in 2023. Through partnerships with approved educator preparation programs, school districts will have new tools to recruit prospective teachers as early as high school. Depending on the state, they can provide prospective teachers with financial and career incentives, such as on-the-job training and mentorship, as they complete a bachelor’s degree and/or a state-approved teacher licensure program.
Teacher workforce development trends we hope to see in 2024 include:
- Continued growth of teacher apprenticeship programs.
- Creation of state-level, educator supply-and-demand dashboards, which provide data related to educator shortages and retention that can inform policy and hiring decisions in the state.
- Chartered teacher policies, which allow teachers to work outside traditional public schools through agreements with parents. The chartered teachers provide personalized instruction to eligible students for compensation based on per-pupil funding.
- Advanced teacher incentives, which reward excellent teachers for staying in the classroom and taking on leadership and mentoring roles. Research from North Carolina indicates positive results for both students and teachers.
6. Leveling the playing field for public charter schools
Charter schools are public schools that are tuition-free and open to all students. Like traditional public schools, they are held to state academic and financial standards. Yet unlike traditional public schools, charter schools are run independently of school districts. They operate under a performance contract with an authorizer, such as a district, the state or other approved government or nonprofit entity. In exchange for more operational autonomy, charter schools are held accountable for student success. If a charter school doesn’t measurably do a good job ensuring students learn, it can lose its charter and be forced to shut down.
Charter schools offer a viable public school alternative for families, bringing competition to the public education landscape. In many states, this has stacked the deck against charter schools, especially when it comes to funding. Charter schools often receive significantly less per-pupil funding than their traditional district counterparts. Some states even discriminate against charter schools by blocking them from accessing public facilities, getting permits, and more.
During the 2023 legislative session, education champions in eleven states took action to level the playing field for charter school families. Alabama, Nevada, North Carolina, and Texas made it easier for new charter schools to start up. Colorado, Idaho, Indiana, Ohio, and Wisconsin equalized or improved per-pupil funding and/or transportation funding for charter school students. Arkansas, Colorado, Florida, and Ohio provided funding for charter school facilities and operational needs.
In 2024, we expect these policy trends that ensure fair treatment for charter school students, teachers and leaders to continue.
7. Guidelines for how students use artificial intelligence (AI)
AI has become a household topic in recent years with more and more people using “open AI” platforms, such as ChatGPT, Perplexity.ai, Bard, Bing, and countless others.
Some educators are excited by this new technology and are successfully using it in the classroom.
But new tools like AI aren’t without pitfalls. Many parents, teachers and government leaders are either confused or have important questions about how students use AI in schools. Some have jumped to banning, then unbanning, generative AI in classrooms for fear students will use it to cheat or plagiarize.
Some experts are exploring the possibility that “walled garden” AI systems intended for schools, such as Khanmigo, might be the right solution. The key distinction of walled garden AI programs has to do with its sources of information. Open AI tools designed for the general public, like ChatGPT, draw data from a wide variety of internet sources, including blogs, chat forums, and other unregulated and uncited sources of information. Walled garden AI systems draw from specific sources, such as a suite of textbooks, but not from the internet at large. These AI systems may have more accurate—albeit more limited—sources of information for use by students and, by serving as an AI-powered teaching assistant, could build well-needed capacity for classroom teachers.
As of late 2023, only two state departments of education—California and Oregon—have offered guidance regarding AI in education, although about a dozen others are currently working on the issue.
A first step for states wondering how to address AI in the classroom may be to consider creating an AI in Education Task Force to evaluate potential applications of artificial intelligence in their K–12 and higher education systems. The task force’s goal would be to develop policy recommendations for responsible and effective use of AI in education, to address workforce needs related to AI and to ensure education and workforce training programs align with changing industry needs. A strong example of this comes from Virginia, where Governor Glenn Youngkin issued an executive order to establish internal guardrails for using AI across state government.
Some states, like Indiana, are offering districts pilot grants to trial AI in select schools. Early reports have emphasized the usefulness of AI as a complement to teachers’ work and the positive effects such tools can have on students’ academic progress.
Conclusion and call to action
The future of education depends on the well-informed decisions of state lawmakers today. As we look to the 2024 legislative session, I welcome all state legislators to seek out ExcelinEd’s team of experts to learn more about these seven trending education policy areas.
- HHS.gov “The Surgeon General’s Advisory on Youth Mental Health and Social Media” Link: Youth Mental Health and Social Media Advisory
- EdChoice.org: “Survey Finds Parent Concerns and Praise for EdTech” Link: Survey Finds Parent Concerns and Praise for EdTech
- ScienceDirect: “The impact of digital technology on learning: A summary for the Education Endowment Foundation” Link: The Impact of Digital Technology on Learning
- ExcelinEd.org: “Unlocking the Full Potential of ESA Expenditures: Three Policy Measures to Ensure Accountability and Flexibility” Link: Unlocking the Full Potential of ESA Expenditures
- ExcelinEd.org: “Model Policy: Aligning Educator Preparation Programs to the Science of Reading” Link: Model Policy – Aligning Ed Prep Programs to SOR
- WVDE.us: “Third Grade Success Act” Link: Third Grade Success Act
- ExcelinEd.org: “Policy Playbook: College and Career Pathways” Link: Policy Playbook – College and Career Pathways
- Brookings.edu: “Are We at a Crisis Point with the Public Teacher Workforce?” Link: Are We at a Crisis Point with the Public Teacher Workforce?
- ExcelinEd.org: “Model Policy: Advanced Teaching Incentive Program” Link: Model Policy – Advanced Teaching Incentive Program
- ExcelinEd.org: “Policy Playbook: Charter Schools” Link: Policy Playbook – Charter Schools
- MSN.com: “California’s Public Charter Schools and Their Students Deserve Equitable Funding” Link: California’s Public Charter Schools and Their Students Deserve Equitable Funding
- EdWeek.org: “Charter Schools’ Building Struggles Highlight Lingering Tensions with Local Districts” Link: Charter Schools’ Building Struggles
- Purdue.edu: “Purdue Global: Don’t Fear Generative AI Tools in the Classroom” Link: Don’t Fear Generative AI Tools in the Classroom
- NYTimes.com: “Schools Turn to ChatGPT Chatbot Bans” Link: Schools Turn to ChatGPT Chatbot Bans
- EdWeek.org: “Welcome to the Walled Garden: Is This Education’s Solution to AI’s Pitfalls?” Link: Welcome to the Walled Garden
- CRPE.org: “AI Could Disrupt Ed: 13 States to Watch” Link: AI Could Disrupt Ed: 13 States to Watch