Navigating the Future of Education: Trends Impacting Schools Today

Tracking the trends in an ever-evolving education landscape is a job in and of itself, and for school leaders who are in the thick of managing the challenges and opportunities these trends present, it’s even harder. But understanding what’s happening now and what’s on the horizon is critical to designing schools for the future. 

In our work over the past few years leading NAIS’s Strategy Lab workshops with schools, we’ve consistently heard five trends surface that are presenting challenges for school leaders—and will continue to for the near future.

1. Financial strain 

Inflation has negatively impacted both revenue and giving, and schools are still recovering from revenue loss due to the pandemic. In fact, according to the NAIS 2023-2024 Trendbook, schools have experienced a 7.6% increase in median total expenses from 2017–2022. What’s more, as many schools try to offer more aid to their neediest families, we are seeing a trend in which higher-income families are applying for assistance, which only adds to the strain on a complex business model. Beyond inflation, rising expenses, and the complex dynamics of granting aid, school leaders also have to contend with overall enrollment decline.

2. The rise of microschools and other educational options 

The National Microschooling Center estimates that 1.1 to 2.1 million students attend microschools as their primary schooling option––and they offer some advantages that can increase the competition for independent schools. In 2019, Bellwether Education Partners research found that 42% of microschools reported annual tuition within the same range as the average tuition for Catholic and other religious schools, and 60% of microschools cite per-pupil expenditures below $10K per year—which is less expensive than the average independent school. Microschool models also tend to have more flexibility, such as:

  • Leaner staffing 

  • More creative use of space with locations in homes, old malls and business buildings, and places of worship

  • A variety of schedule options, including full days, half days, and hybrid opportunities 

There’s also been a rise in homeschooling. The National Home Education Research Institute found 3.1 million children were attending homeschool in the 2021–2022 school year, up from 2.5 million in the spring of 2019. These alternative options cater to parents dissatisfied with the public school system and typically have a lower price point than the average independent school. 

3. The workforce 

There are long-term signals that the teacher pipeline is dwindling as fewer individuals are graduating with bachelor’s degrees in education or graduating from teacher preparation programs. And given that salaries haven’t kept up with inflation, it’s become harder to attract and retain faculty. Schools are also competing for talent in a market in which more people want more flexibility in their schedule and work-from-home opportunities, which is simply incompatible with the way most schools are currently designed. 

4. The evolution of rigor and excellence

According to the 2021 NAIS “Survey of Independent School Innovation Leaders,” the majority of teachers are now using methods like project-based and social-emotional learning to increase student agency across K-12 classrooms. The survey also found that about 25% of upper schools are moving away from more traditional academic programs and structures. For example, 23% of upper schools moved away from or are no longer using Advanced Placement coursework, and 24% have shifted from, don’t use, or have never used traditional report cards or transcripts. 

This coincides with the movement toward mastery-based or competency-based learning where knowledge and skills are the constant, but time is the variable. In these models, students can move at their own pace and have more choice and individualized learning opportunities. However, this poses a challenge because these strategies are different from the well-known educational experience that parents and caregivers are comfortable with. 

5. Leadership in the balance 

All of this puts additional pressure on school leaders who are already consumed with the everyday tasks of running a school. Add to that the complicated nature of managing budgets amid softening enrollment, a shifting workforce, diverse parental expectations, and increased competition — it is more challenging than ever to lead a school that delivers an excellent, mission-driven, educational experience.

In a recent NAIS Snapshot survey of the stressors on heads of school, about 44% of heads reported that staff and faculty management (including staff shortages) was one of the most challenging aspects of headship. This was followed by maintaining financial sustainability (32%) and focusing on their personal health (27%). 

Addressing the Trends

The good news is that many schools are making strides in addressing these challenges. During the Heads’ Summit in St. Louis earlier this year, we brought together 40 heads of school from a wide range of school types, sizes, budgets, and locations to discuss these challenges and hear how they’re managing the trends. During the robust two-hour discussion, we listened for and identified two recurrent themes on how school leaders can continue to address and manage the ongoing challenges:

  1. Focus on value differentiation and how it aligns with your mission.
  2. Create and design more flexible positions and systems to recruit and retain talent.

For those familiar with systems thinking, we might call these themes leverage points—an action or intervention that will have the greatest impact on results across the system. In other words, focusing on these two strategies could help schools produce the results they want to see across all the challenges the trends present. 

Value differentiation. Value proposition plays a critical role in a school’s overall brand. It tells a story of who a school is, what it does that makes it stand out, and how well it’s executing on the things it says it does. A well-articulated value proposition is an opportunity to combat financial strain and the rise of competition because it can more effectively help parents choose their school amid a growing amount of educational options and ultimately boost enrollment. It also helps schools define excellence, connect it back to their market and mission, and create a purpose-driven recruitment process. This all contributes to growing enrollment and finding faculty who have a passion for teaching.

Flexible positions and systems. Creating more flexibility in school positions and systems is a way to reimagine the role of the teacher and the structure of school. We see evidence of these practices in the emergence of four-day school weeks, teachers as “learning guides” that might support larger groups of mixed-aged students in a more student-led environment, and development of a community co-teachers where specialists lead enrichment work to free up faculty time. 

These strategies can ease financial strain by helping create efficiencies in school employment models, as well as helping schools differentiate themselves through the values of student agency and community involvement. Creating a more flexible teaching position, in particular, can lead to better work-life balance––and greater job satisfaction––and serve as a meaningful recruitment and retention tool for school leaders. 

By looking at how these trends connect and pose potential challenges, we have gained some clarity about the path ahead. The schools that focus on rethinking traditional structures while doubling down on what makes them unique will be able to thrive in the shifting landscape ahead. 

Jackie Wolking

Jackie Wolking is director of innovation at NAIS.