Feb 23, 2024 - Politics & Policy

School superintendents' big concerns: Guns, culture wars and AI

Illustration of a brain shape with a composition notebook texture

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

School safety, artificial intelligence, student mental health and academic freedom are top of mind for America's school superintendents, who gathered in San Diego last week for one of the biggest education conferences of the year.

Why it matters: The preoccupations of the nation's schools chiefs are a snapshot of what's most pressing for K-12 students — and a reflection of what's happening on the national political agenda.

Driving the news: The annual conference of AASA, the School Superintendents Association, drew 4,000 superintendents and assistant superintendents — with much of the talk focused, by necessity, on issues other than pedagogy.

  • AASA announced that it's starting up a Superintendents Recovery Network (SRN) for those who have experienced a school shooting.
  • Together with actor Matthew McConaughey — a native of Uvalde, Texas — AASA announced the Greenlights Grant Initative to help schools get safety grants.
  • And it announced grants to bring Hope Squad, a peer-to-peer suicide prevention program, to more schools.

What they're saying: "It's incredibly sad that we have to do this, but there's a need. There's a need," David Schuler, executive director of the AASA, told the crowd while describing the SRN.

  • "These are hard, lonely jobs," said David Law, superintendent of Minnetonka Public Schools in Minnesota and a candidate for AASA president, during his address to the conference.

State of play: Other pressing concerns for superintendents include cyberthreats, chronic student absenteeism, teacher shortages, high-stakes standardized testing (they're against it) and the "funding cliff" that threatens school budgets when COVID relief money runs out.

  • "The teacher shortage is real," Schuler told Axios in an interview at the conference.
  • In one pilot initiative with Arizona State University and Mesa Public Schools, AASA is experimenting with team-based teaching as an alternative to the "one teacher, one classroom" approach.
  • Lots of vendors in the exhibit hall offered temporary teacher staffing services — and many others hawked mental health support programs.

School shootings and safety

Companies selling safety systems for schools were out in force at the conference — reflecting, among other things, the fact that school shootings have hit a record high.

  • A company called Centegix puts panic buttons on the back of all teachers' ID badges, to be worn at all times — press it three times for a medical emergency, five for classroom disruptions, and eight for a buildingwide lockdown.
  • "It's really been a game-changer for us," said Brent Yeager, superintendent of Olathe Public Schools in Olathe, Kansas, which experienced a shooting in 2022. (Centegix buttons replaced a walkie-talkie system that was slower and less specific, he said.)
  • Michele Gay, whose daughter Josephine was a first-grader gunned down at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012, said in a keynote speech that her daughter might be alive today if her classroom door could have been locked from the inside.
  • "Without safety, there can be no learning," Gay said.

Yes, but: While shootings are the most dramatic threat to schools, they're far from the only one.

  • In Brockton, Massachusetts, violence has gotten so bad that four school committee members want to call in the National Guard.
  • Schools are sending more kids to psychiatrists if they show worrisome behavior, like drawing a picture of a gun, according to the Hechinger Report, which covers education.

Artificial intelligence

While the arrival of ChatGPT prompted some schools to reflexively ban it, those attitudes have changed.

  • School superintendents know that various forms of AI are here to stay — and can actually be harnessed as helpful academic tools.
  • "With AI, we have the opportunity to really think about the personalization of learning," said Ed Dieterle, a research and management consultant who specializes in the role of AI in education, during a panel discussion.
  • This could mean more individualized lesson plans that allow faster learners to move ahead with more challenging content, various educators noted.

"Culture Wars"

Hot-button issues like book censorship, fairness for LGBTQ students, critical race theory, and social-emotional learning have put many school superintendents on the defensive.

  • "How many of you have had the book-ban conversation?" asked Aaron Spence, the new superintendent of Loudoun County Public Schools in Virginia, where there's been a series of controversies over everything from mask-wearing to pronouns. (More than half the audience members raised their hands.)
  • "Have you heard the term 'parent rights?'" Spence continued, drawing laughter. "The term originated in Loudoun County."

After relating his experiences confronting enraged parents at public meetings, Spence described his approach.

  • "We need to protect academic freedom," he said. "We need to protect the right of children to read books about themselves and others."
  • "I don't mean that you put up with crazy people who want to harm children," he added. "I used to tell my principals: The minute they call you 'groomer,' you don't have to listen to them."

By the numbers: 50% of principals have felt pushback over the teaching of race and racism, and 48% over policies and practices related to LGBTQ student rights, according to a 2022 University of California study.

  • At least 17 states "have introduced bills containing gag orders or taken other steps that would restrict how teachers can discuss American history and current events, including pulling books off library shelves in an effort to suppress so-called 'divisive concepts' — a shorthand affectation nearly always referring to issues about race and identity," per the Center for American Progress, a liberal-leaning think tank.

The bottom line: While most schools are rebounding from pandemic learning losses, superintendents have no end of other concerns to address — and constituencies to please.

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