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The 6 most in-demand topics for district leaders last year

AskEAB's 6 most popular research requests in 2022-2023

November 16, 2023, By Kaitlin Hawkes, K-12 Custom Research Manager

Each year, EAB’s Dedicated Advisors pass hundreds of questions from district leaders and school administrators to our AskEAB team. Our K-12 researchers track down answers to each question using a combination of proprietary research, external publications like academic journals, and consultation with EAB’s subject matter experts—all in 10 days or less.

Now, we’re sharing the six topics that were top-of-mind for district leaders over the past year (July 2022 through June 2023), which reflect the most common challenges present in districts and schools across the country.

AskEAB’s six most popular research requests in 2022-2023

*”Other” includes questions on varied topics like labor market surveys, trends in homeschooling, and electric vehicle charging in school parking lots.

#1: Instruction and academic programming

This year, AskEAB received more than 100 different questions on instruction and academic programming from our partners. These questions came from a wide range of district leaders—from superintendents, to directors of curriculum and instruction, to principals. Among the research requests we received, questions on pedagogy were the most common, followed by questions on tiered interventions. We also received questions on various subject-specific curricula, with English language arts (at both the elementary and secondary levels) being the most popular.

Inquiries about instruction and academic programming have stayed relatively steady over the past four years, though we did see a notable increase in questions related to grading practices. This rise reflects districts’ post-COVID-19 concerns about student learning loss. As students nationwide struggled to achieve grade-level proficiency, many districts began looking for ways to better understand exactly what content students were missing and how to quantify these gaps.

Many of our partners landed on equitable grading, with its emphasis on measuring pure content knowledge rather than non-academic criteria that do not reflect learning gains (e.g., on-time homework submission, participation). Not only does equitable grading prioritize student content knowledge, it also avoids the 0-100 grading scale entirely, either through a new scale (e.g., a 1-4 scale), or by imposing an artificial floor (e.g., a 50-100 scale).

These new scales make it easier for students who receive zeros to recover from failing grades—instead of having to move up 60 points just to enter the D range. For more information on equitable grading systems, see our Standards-Based Learning at Middle Schools and Competency-Based Grading in High Schools research briefs.

Instruction and academic programming: 30% of requests

  • Pedagogy: 16%
  • Multi-tiered systems of support: 12%
  • K-5 reading: 10%
  • Academic programs: 9%
  • Career and technical education: 8%
  • English language learners and dual language: 7.5%
  • Other (e.g., PE, science): 7.5%
  • Secondary-level English language arts: 7.5%
  • Math: 7%
  • Grading practices: 7%
  • Arts programming: 5%
  • Gifted and talented programs: 3%

#2: District policies and management

District leaders are responsible for a wider range of management duties than ever, as districts become more operationally complex over time. AskEAB received hundreds of inquiries about district policies and management from a host of district leaders. Some leaders showed more interest than others: questions about district policies and management made up more than one-third of all AskEAB questions from superintendents. The most common questions in this category centered around management, schedules, and student acceleration and retention policies.

In particular, our researchers noticed an uptick in questions about third-grade reading retention. This is no surprise, as 25 states (and Washington D.C.) either permit or require schools to retain students who are not reading proficiently by the end of third grade. States specifically seek to retain students in third grade due to a phenomenon known as the “third-grade reading gap.”

As EAB’s Narrowing the Third Grade Reading Gap report explains, students who still struggle to read by the end of third grade face significant long-term challenges. First, given that third grade marks the shift from learning to read to reading to learn, struggling readers remain at greater risk of falling behind in all other subjects, and become less likely to attend college or secure a living-wage job.

The percentage of students failing to read at grade level rose in the last several years due to the COVID-19 pandemic, which in turn led to new state laws (such as those in Tennessee) enforcing retention in third grade. However, the research on these laws’ effectiveness is mixed. While many studies show a dramatic increase in reading ability the year a student is retained, others show that this increased performance is a temporary phenomenon, with the effects diminishing in the years following retention. Additionally, some studies show that retention can lead to behavioral issues, increased absences, and lower peer acceptance among retained students.

District policies and management: 28% of requests

  • District management: 16%
  • Other (e.g., K-12 libraries, providing snacks): 16%
  • Schedules: 15%
  • Student acceleration/student retention: 9%
  • Building policies (e.g., cell phone policies, dress code, etc.): 7%
  • Parents: 6%
  • Strategic planning: 6%
  • School configuration: 5%
  • Classroom setting: 4.5%
  • Program evaluation: 4.5%
  • Exams and testing: 4%
  • Grading practices (as a district policy): 3%
  • School closure/merger: 3%

#3: People management

Following in a distant third among our most requested topics, people management questions comprised 14% of this year’s AskEAB requests. People management encompasses hiring, leading, developing, and retaining all district staff, including teachers, principals, and support staff (e.g., paraprofessionals, bus drivers). Our researchers responded to dozens of questions on professional development and hiring, along with inquiries about teacher recruitment, retention, and compensation.

We also received a substantial number of requests related to our Teacher Morale Collaborative. EAB’s Teacher Morale Collaborative helps districts focus their efforts and make progress on teacher morale initiatives through a series of guided workshops with peers. Our Teacher Morale Resource Center contains a wide range of resources to support districts with improving teacher morale, including recordings of collaborative sessions, diagnostic tools, communication templates, and more.

Most of the people management questions from district leaders and school administrators fall into two categories: professional development, and teacher and staff recruitment and retention.

People management: 14% of requests

  • Professional development: 22%
  • Teacher and staff recruitment and retention: 22%
  • Other (e.g., WFH policies, administrative leave): 22%
  • Teacher morale: 13%
  • Compensation models: 11%
  • Human resources: 10%

#4: Student support

This year, EAB saw a dramatic increase in district interest in student support, as evidenced by the introduction of our Building a Better Behavior Management Strategy Collaborative and our Support Chronically Absent Students in Returning to School research. However, because we were already providing advice and practices in our research on these topics, AskEAB received fewer student support questions. The most frequent queries we received centered around student engagement and attendance. We also received requests on graduation rates, student behavior and discipline, and vaping.

Alarmingly, during our research interviews for our Building a Better Behavior Management Strategy Collaborative, we heard frequent reports of students vaping. These contacts noted that unlike students who vaped in the past, they were seeing a proliferation of vaping among younger students (some in K-5) and an increase in students vaping THC instead of nicotine. To help support districts seeing higher levels of THC vaping, our researchers created EAB’s THC Vaping Addendum, an update to our previous vaping research.

Student support: 13% of requests

  • Student engagement: 24%
  • Attendance/absenteeism: 18%
  • Mental health: 16%
  • Graduation rates: 14%
  • Student behavior: 14%
  • Discipline policies: 8%
  • Vaping: 8%

#5: Diversity, equity, and inclusion

Diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) continues to be top-of-mind for district leaders, though we received fewer questions on DEI than in 2020 and 2021, as many district leaders now have DEI plans in place in 2023. Requests on this topic comprised 6% of all AskEAB requests last year, with a particular emphasis on DEI best practices. Unlike other topics with significant variation in questions, district leaders tended to ask about just three main subtopics: DEI best practices, closing gaps, and inclusion.

While DEI questions in previous years focused overwhelmingly on racial equity and inclusion efforts, recently districts have been expanding the focus of their DEI inquiries to include other identities and marginalized groups. In particular, district leaders were interested in best practices for supporting students with disabilities.

To support districts in their efforts, see our report on Establishing Postsecondary Transition Programs for Students with Disabilities. Research shows that robust, effective transition programs can greatly improve students’ chances of obtaining competitive employment after high school. These programs typically serve students aged 18-21 through a combination of classroom instruction, community-based vocational training, and specialized support services.

Diversity, equity, and inclusion: 6% of requests

  • DEI best practice: 40%
  • Closing gaps (e.g., narrowing achievement gaps, reducing disproportionality): 32%
  • Inclusion: 28%

#6: Technology

Finally, questions about technology made up about 3% of our total AskEAB requests from district leaders. These questions centered around two main topics: tools and vendors. While AskEAB does not vet or recommend specific vendors, we still offer guidance where appropriate.

We have research on Technology Product Management ModelsMitigating Technology Overuse Among Elementary School Students, and Student-Centered Classroom Design and Technology, among many other topics. We also anticipate receiving more technology questions in the upcoming year, as the use of artificial intelligence becomes more widespread in the education market and makes bigger waves across all industries.

Technology: 3% of requests

  • Tools: 62%
  • Other (e.g., district social media): 23%
  • Vendors: 15%

For more information on the topics listed above, see AskEAB’s On-Demand Research Library. This library contains AskEAB’s research and resources on a wide variety of topics, from strategies to engage parents and guardians at school districts to changing school start times. Can’t find information on the question you’re interested in? Reach out to your Dedicated Advisor to submit a question to AskEAB!

Kaitlin Hawkes

Kaitlin Hawkes

K-12 Custom Research Manager

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