4 key takeaways from the 2023 'Condition of Education' data report
While the days of virtual classes and widespread mask mandates are largely behind us, the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic still linger in many Massachusetts' school districts. Schools across the state are adapting to a landscape of increased student needs from academic learning loss to mental and behavioral health struggles.
A new data report released Thursday from the Rennie Center for Education Research & Policy, a non-partisan education think tank, attempts to measure some of the ways the pandemic is still impacting students.
Here are four key takeaways:
1. Student absenteeism has increased dramatically
Chronic absenteeism rates spiked coming out of the pandemic. The percent of students statewide who missed more than 10% of enrolled school days rose from 17% in the 2020-21 school year to 27% in 2021-22. The rates were even more dramatic for certain demographic groups. In that same time period, chronic absenteeism rates rose among Latino/Hispanic students from about 29% to 42% and for Black students from about 25% to 32%.
"At first glance, it's worrying because students were back in classrooms in 2022," said Alexis Lian, the Rennie Center's director of policy.
"Those are days that students are missing out on instruction," Lian added. "Those are days that disrupt classroom culture — and access to mental health and social and emotional needs and healthy and stable meals for students."
2. Total enrollment in Massachusetts' public schools is down
The Massachusetts' public school system has lost more than 40,000 students since 2019. While enrollment had been declining slightly since 2018, the state saw a precipitous drop during the pandemic. Enrollment has not recovered once school buildings re-opened. Total enrollment in Massachusetts in 2022 was 913,735.
The trends vary slightly when broken down by race. White students' numbers have lowered the most, dropping by 6% since the 2019-2020 school year. Black and Asian student numbers remained largely consistent. Hispanic/Latino student enrollment, however, continued its steady increase, rising by about 5% since 2015.
3: Community college enrollment continues to decline
Massachusetts' community colleges have continued a years-long trend of declining enrollment. Since 2015, that sector of the education system is down about 23,000 students. The state university system has fared much better. Enrollment dropped by about 50,000 students in the 2020 school year, but has since rebounded to pre-pandemic levels.
4: Educator burnout is real — especially among superintendents
As schools everywhere face increasing demands to address academic recovery and growing student mental health needs, educator retention rates are starting to show signs of wear — even burnout. Teacher retention rates are down by about 1 percentage point since 2021. The superintendent role saw the biggest downturn, with retention rates decreasing by 6 percentage points since 2020.
"We don't have granular data from the people that left these positions to give exact reasons [for leaving]," explained Lian. "But we can infer, given higher level trends, that it has been an incredibly traumatic, stressful and difficult time for leaders in education for the past few years."
While the Rennie Center's 2023 data report highlights big-picture aspects of the education system that are struggling, Lian believes there is reason for optimism.
"I think what we really find ourselves in is a moment where folks are hungry for change and there is financial backing to make that change," she said.
Lian said federal COVID relief funding and anticipated budget increases from the state's Student Opportunity Act of 2019 can assist schools in building momentum to make lasting change to the education system.
The report spotlighted some possible solutions, such as intensive tutoring for students, teacher professional development, more social emotional support for kids through community mental health partnerships and reinventing the structure of high school to better fit student needs.