Educators are quite familiar with overcoming challenges, as the last four years have presented more disruption to school districts than at any time in recent history. Despite the unparalleled levels of disruption, several developing K-12 education trends have emerged.

This post highlights four prevailing education trends and provides an overview of how-to action plans to get your district proactively addressing its highest-priority challenges.

Cyberattacks on K-12 Schools Continue to Rise

Cybersecurity attacks present a costly threat to school districts across the United States. According to Comparitech, a cybersecurity and online privacy product review website, global ransomware attacks against K-12 and higher education institutions—breaching over 6.7 million personal records—cost over $53 billion in downtime between 2018 and mid-September 2023.

Cyberattacks on K-12 school districts are rising as cybercriminals identify districts as lucrative targets. Student information systems (SIS) store personally identifiable information (PII) of both students and staff, and many districts simply lack the resources to layer essential cybersecurity measures. The result is district data remains increasingly vulnerable to cyberattacks.

The Lightspeed Systems 2022 EdTech App Report showed most districts have more than 2,000 apps in use across their student population, but that only 300 apps account for 99 percent of student use. Regardless of usage rates, district IT leaders are responsible for safeguarding students’ personally identifiable information (PII) on all apps in the district, including the remaining 1,700 infrequently used apps. Unsecure websites and “rogue” apps, those used by staff and students but not vetted by IT, easily slip through the cracks, creating openings for cybercriminals to enter.

Recovering systems after an attack is both costly and time-consuming. In addition to often paying hundreds of thousands of dollars in ransom, district networks are down an average of four days, and require30 days to fully recover.

Action Plan:

  1. Audit all applications in use across your school district, their privacy policies, and data security practices. Third-party analysis of privacy policies provides a reliable source of expertise. These steps can be completed manually or accelerated with digital intelligence software.
  2. Block students and staff from accessing new and unknown websites. Millions of new sites come online each day and the vast majority aren’t educational. These sites can be malicious and until they are categorized by your web content filter, the safest option is simply to prohibit access. If you’re using a web filter with an AI-driven dynamic database, educational or appropriate sites won’t remain uncategorized for more than a couple of hours.
  3. Inform all stakeholders about the importance of cybersecurity and data privacy to empower them with the knowledge to protect their privacy and the community. Mitigate risk by teaching staff and students about phishing emails and rouge apps to help prevent them from unintentionally opening malware that will leave them and your district vulnerable.

Generative Artificial Intelligence (AI) Continues to Grab a Foothold

Since its widespread introduction in November of 2022, ChatGPT ushered in the hottest of all topics throughout K-12 districts: AI in Education. However, while it’s an often-discussed topic, adoption of AI apps has been, to this point, rather slow.

In October, over 90 percent of Lightspeed Filter™ customers were blocking AI apps. This clearly isn’t a long-term solution, for AI is unquestionably here to stay; there’s no putting the genie back in the bottle. Nor should there be, as AI offers up a tremendous amount of potential, not only for students and their learning activities but in time-saving applications for teachers.

Despite its promising potential, AI should be carefully vetted by school districts, for they need to get it right. It’s not just academic integrity policies that are of concern, as other factors are included, like digital equity and student data privacy.

  1. Conduct an AI app data policy review to ensure generative AI apps comply with your district’s data privacy policies. Utilize edtech solutions to receive immediate notifications whenever an app’s data privacy policy changes so your team can reevaluate and block or otherwise prohibit access as necessary.
  2. Analyze AI app usage data to understand which AI apps are used, at what sites, and at what grade levels, as well as who is using them and for how long. Ascertain if AI app usage is increasing and use data as a guide for professional development and curricular planning.
  3. Update academic integrity policies with specific AI use cases.

Student Well-Being Requires Early Interventions

School districts in the United States face a growing student mental health crisis. Suicidal ideation is on the rise, and its growth rate in younger children is alarming. Suicide is now the third leading cause of death in teenagers and events of school violence are increasing. Declining student mental health is not only the result of school violence, but also a direct contributor.

Students require their mental well-being to be prioritized to support their safety and improve the school climate. Fortunately, federal and state governments are increasing their grant funding for crisis prevention efforts, including a recent $334 million grant from the Department of Justice.

  1. Take a holistic approach to student safety as grant funding reaches the district. Dedicate resources to prevention and intervention tactics in addition to more customary response and recovery efforts.
  2. Increase the visibility of your safety and student services teams into students’ online activity, leveraging your edtech tools to intervene before a crisis. Technology helps ensure intervention is focused where and when it needs to be, and combats staffing shortages. Identify where your teams need to be supported and let technology tools fill in the gaps.

District Needs Surpass Available Budget

The three prevailing trends mentioned above lead us directly to the fourth trend—K-12 school district needs are increasing. Budgets, however, are not. Therefore, data-informed decision making is key to maximizing a district’s limited budget investment.

District administrators grapple with declines in enrollment and other considerations that present potential funding shortfalls. As a result, they find themselves trying to balance meeting the needs of staff and students while keeping within financial limitations.

Addressing concerns like staff shortages, student learning outcomes, physical and mental safety and well-being, and cybersecurity requires informed, data-driven decision making.

Action plan:

  1. Collect the data your district needs to make informed decisions now. Decisions will be more pragmatic with data collected over time.
  2. Purchase data analytic tools now, while funding exists. When it comes time to make purchasing decisions, visibility into what is actively used by district users will enable leadership to understand where to invest, identify priority needs, and cut underutilized resources and/or redundancies.

Summary—Get Started Now!

K-12 educators are well-versed in leading through disruptive change, and they can rely on bountiful reservoirs of knowledge, skill, creativity, and experience. Over the past years, district leaders have been put to test after test, and they’ve succeeded out of necessity.

The short- and mid-term horizon for K-12 districts has its fair share of challenges. Early, proactive efforts by leaders not only give their districts a head start to success but also allow them to increase their efforts’ efficiency.

Use the action plans highlighted above to best position your district to successfully navigate the prevailing trends seen in K-12 education.