An overview of the K-12 school system

Matt and I are just beginning our journey to contribute to the education space. We want to make sure we build something here that: has meaningful impact to affect many people, fulfills needs of a student, teacher, parent, or school admin, and creates a sustainable business to ensure ongoing product development and scalability.

Where are the biggest opportunities for meaningful impact?

We started by looking at the K-12 school system. We looked at how students move through from kindergarten to 12th grade in an effort to understand: how many students (and teachers) are in the public school system? Where are drop-off points? What are schools/teachers/students dealing with and how is progress being made?

Some key takeaways:

  • Majority of U.S. students (91%) attend public school (vs. private school or other schooling alternatives).
  • Public school students are successfully making it through elementary school and high school graduation rates have increased over time for all demographics.
  • More than 50% of public school K-12 students are poor (as measured by eligibility for free-/reduced-lunch).
  • There is a large achievement gap that has been growing between low-income students and high-income students that begins from Kindergarten and does not significantly improve through schooling years.

Ok, let’s dive into the details…

There are 130,000 K-12 schools in the U.S., the bulk of which (77%) are public schools. When we look at students, the vast majority (91%) are in public schools. Public school teachers are a similar majority at 89%.

So when thinking about impact, it likely makes a lot of sense to focus on public schools.

How Students Progress Through the K-12 System

The general trends show that public elementary school enrollment has gone up in the last couple decades — 3.7M students were slated to enter elementary school in 2015, while private school enrollment has decreased. An increase in charter school enrollment (which is counted within public school numbers) may have contributed to the decline in private school enrollment. This was interesting to learn and makes us wants to research more about charter schools and what they are accomplishing.

High school graduation rates have been a concern in the U.S., but in good news, these have gone up as well over the last couple decades and are now at 82%. This is important because high school graduation is closely linked with getting a job, staying healthy, making civic contributions, receiving health insurance and generally living healthier and fuller lives. A lot has gone into this improvement particularly since 2002 when the federal government got involved. Efforts affecting these numbers include identifying risk factors for high school dropouts, bringing attention to the nation’s “dropout factories” (schools with a graduation rate of less than 66%), and unifying the ways in which states measure high school graduation rates (which has improved accountability). Also, having a high school degree has become more essential in the workforce which has increased motivation for students to complete school. The GradNation campaign, a coalition of organizations, is working to push the U.S. graduation rate up to 90 percent by 2020.

Main takeaway on K-12 progress: more kids are enrolling in the public school system. High school is when people start dropping off, but graduation rates are increasing and will hopefully continue to increase given the importance of H.S. degrees for employment.

Income’s Impact on Achievement

Digging into the challenges that students and teachers are facing, we found that for the first time in 50 years in the U.S., over 50% of students in the public school system qualify as low-income (as measured by free lunch/reduced price lunch eligibility). This number has been increasing for years and tipped to majority in 2013. Immigration, a high birthrate amongst low-income families, and the 2008 recession have largely fueled this change.

The shift to a majority poor student population has a huge impact on what goes on in the classroom. A growing number of children who start Kindergarten are already trailing their higher income peers in terms of skills and measures of school readiness. Often basic needs aren’t being met at home for these young students which inhibits optimal learning in the classroom. They are less likely to have exposure to enriching activities outside of school and support. Additionally, many children are dealing with a myriad of problems that relate to poor diet/health/emotional well-being.

“Getting rid of bedbugs, that took us a while. Night terrors, that took a little while. Hoarding food, flushing a toilet and washing hands, it took us a little while,” she said. “You spend some time with little ones like this and it’s gut wrenching. . . . These kids aren’t thinking, ‘Am I going to take a test today?’ They’re thinking, ‘Am I going to be okay?’ ”
- Romero-Smith, 40, who has been a teacher for 19 years.

Because this income achievement gap is evident by Kindergarten, efforts have increased to enroll more low-income students in pre-K, as pre-K education has shown to have some positive impacts on early childhood development and school readiness along with longer-term success metrics, such as high school graduation rates and college enrollment. This makes us want to investigate a bit more on preschool efforts to understand if that is potentially a larger place to have impact.

Charter schools will also be interesting to explore given they tend to enroll low-income students, have more flexibility for innovative methods, and are held accountable to show academic results (can be shut down if standards are not met). We’d like to learn more about what is and isn’t working in these models and also look into scalability.

The income achievement gap does not seem to considerably narrow through the schooling years. Only 46% of low-income students enroll in college directly after high school compared with 76% of high-income students. Given the impact a college degree can have on employment and earning potential, this is also worth looking into more.

Main takeaway on income’s impact on achievement: we should prioritize thinking about when and whether tech can play a role in helping low-income students/classrooms given this is where there are strong needs and huge numbers. We should look into pre-K and college to learn about issues at those impactful periods. And given their demand and focus on low-income students, we should investigate more on charter schools.

In Summary…

Based on these learnings, we believe that there is potential to have meaningful impact within the K-12 public school system, given 1. the vast majority of students attend public school and 2. there’s a lot of room for improvement, particularly in narrowing the income achievement gap. We will need to keep in mind and learn more about the needs of the low-income student majority (and their teachers), particularly figuring out when tech may be helpful vs. other interventions.

Before focusing on the K-12 public school system, we think there’s more to explore on either side of these schooling years — pre-K along with post-secondary education. We’ll cover these areas in upcoming posts as we figure out where to invest our energy. We’ll also look into charter (and other alternative) school options for low-income students.

In terms of fulfilling user needs — we’ve done some interviews with people who have taught in or been working in the education system and have learned some interesting insights about the problems students/teachers/administrators are dealing with in the public school system. We’re setting up interviews this week with K-12 public school teachers. If you are or know of any public school teachers, please send them our way. We’d love to have a brief chat!

Up next…

Now that we know there’s potential to have meaningful impact in K-12 education, we’ll explore whether it’s possible to create a sustainable business in this space.