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Briefing

Back to school: 4 key questions

The Northeast and other states head back to school this week, as a new civil rights education law replacing No Child Left Behind begins to take effect this fall.

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    City Year members give students a 'power greet' as they enter Gilbert Stuart Middle School on June 02, in Providence, R.I. Gilbert Stuart Middle School is part of the pilot stage of the My Brother's Keeper (MBK) Success Mentors Initiative, a national campaign to address chronic student absenteeism.
    Alfredo Sosa/The Christian Science Monitor
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In the 2016-17 school year, about 50 million students will attend public elementary and secondary schools in the United States, according to the National Center for Education Statistics.

What is the makeup of the student population in the US?

Racial and ethnic proportions have been shifting. According to the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES), whites accounted for 59 percent of public-school students in 2003 and 50 percent in 2013, and they are expected to constitute 46 percent by 2025. Black students, meanwhile, went from 17 percent in 2003 to 16 percent in 2013, and they are forecast to drop one more percentage point, to 15 percent, by 2025.

Hispanics are the only major group to have seen an increase, rising from 19 percent in 2003 to 25 percent in 2013. They are projected to reach 29 percent by 2025. But regional patterns vary widely, with Hispanic students actually constituting the biggest student group in the West.

As for the number of students receiving free or reduced-price lunches – considered a proxy for poverty – 21.5 million children participated in that program in the 2014-15 school year, according to the Food Research and Action Center, an antihunger nonprofit in Washington.

What are some top concerns for teachers as the academic year begins?

“They’re concerned about the kids ... and whether they are coming to their classrooms prepared for the kind of rigorous work that [teachers] want to do – and about meeting the personal needs of each of those students,” says Katrina Boone, who taught high school English in Kentucky public schools for eight years and now directs teacher outreach at the Collaborative for Student Success, a nonprofit supporting high-quality state standards and assessments.

“Anywhere you go, you are going to find kids who are deeply affected by poverty,” she continues. “Most teachers are going to come across kids who are foster children, kids with special needs, kids who have been in and out of the juvenile justice system.... It’s really hard for a 21st-century teacher to do all the things they are trying to do ..., particularly when they’ve had little preparation or training in how to best support those kids.”

Another top concern has to do with a desire for more collaboration.

“Teachers consistently report that the best professional learning they get is when they have time to collaborate.... But teachers have very little time to do that,” Ms. Boone says.

Where do things stand with the law that is replacing No Child Left Behind (NCLB)?

Educational leaders will be straddling the old and new federal laws during the school year. Some policies forged under NCLB are still in place as states and local districts shift toward the Every Student Succeeds Act, signed into law by President Obama last December.

The new legislation gives much more flexibility to the states. Whereas NCLB focused on student progress in math and reading scores, the new accountability plans must include multiple measures of academic performance, such as graduation rates, as well as one nonacademic measure, such as school climate and safety. And states get to decide what to do, if anything, when schools aren’t measuring up. NCLB mandated certain responses.

Many state leaders have been on listening tours in recent months as they develop their plans. Meanwhile, the US Department of Education has been taking public comments on proposed rules for implementing the law. And advocacy groups have put forward reams of recommendations.

The new law takes full effect in the 2017-18 school year.

How far has the nation come toward the higher-education goal that Mr. Obama set for 2020?

At the beginning of his presidency, Obama set sights on the US regaining its spot at the top of world rankings for college degree completion. The percentage of 25- to 29-year-olds who have at least an associate degree has climbed steadily, from 39.7 percent in 2008 to 45.7 percent in 2015, NCES reports. The rate of increase is higher than that shown in the previous seven years. And it may continue to accelerate as many private and public efforts to boost such numbers start to bear more fruit.

But the US still lags behind other countries and is not yet on pace to reach the 2020 goal. In a 2015 report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development on postsecondary education among 25- to 34-year-olds, 12 countries had graduation rates higher than the US. The top three – South Korea (67.7 percent), Japan (58.6), and Canada (57.7) – outdid the US (45.7) by more than 10 percentage points. The goal may be reachable by 2025, Stan Jones, head of the nonprofit Complete College America, told The Chronicle of Higher Education last year.

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