America’s Children Are Not Well, and Their Schools Are a Big Part of the Problem

Published May 31, 2024
kids in school

With “Teacher Appreciation Week” now behind us, it’s crucial that we pay close heed to the well-being of the students, and the news is not good. Gen Z-ers and the newest crop—Generation Alpha—are struggling, and schools are the focal point of the problem.

new report from Gallup and the Walton Family Foundation surveyed more than 1,000 Gen Z students between the ages of 12 and 18 and found that just 48% of those enrolled in middle or high school felt motivated to go to school. Only half said they do something interesting in school every day. On a similar note, a new EdChoice survey reveals that 64% of teens said that school is boring, and 30% feel that it is a waste of time.

Many students are venting their unhappiness by regularly ditching school. In fact, an estimated 26% of public school students were considered chronically absent in 2023, up from 15% before the pandemic, per the most recent data compiled by the American Enterprise Institute. Chronic absence is typically defined as missing at least 10% of the school year, or about 18 days, for any reason. AEI Senior Fellow Nat Malkus notes that in 33 of 39 states reporting data, chronic absenteeism rates improved in 2023 but still remained 75% higher than the pre-pandemic baseline.

According to Malkus, chronic absenteeism is the most critical issue in public schools today. It is projected to significantly impede any efforts to recover from problems incurred during the COVID era. The extended school closures mandated by teacher unions, which prevented in-person instruction, have led to unprecedented and long-lasting learning loss for students.

The AEI report further discloses that students from economically disadvantaged families have been disproportionately affected by chronic absenteeism. However, even in the most affluent districts, chronic absenteeism was nearly twice as high in 2023 as in 2019. Interestingly, the duration of school closures did not significantly influence absenteeism rates. In 2023, chronic absenteeism was at 28% for districts that remained closed the longest, only slightly higher than the 25% for districts that reopened the fastest.

Many children who do show up at school are acting out as a result of their unhappiness, anxiety, and boredom. District data show that in Los Angeles, violent incidents rose from 2,315 in the 2018-2019 school year to 4,569 in 2022-2023.

Too many K-12 schools pay no mind to the lack of student learning and, instead, blithely graduate many who have no business getting a degree. One of the consequences of this irresponsible practice is that about 40% of high school graduates who enroll in college don’t complete their coursework, according to a new report from the National Center for Education Statistics.

The increasing disinterest in post-K-12 education is showing itself in the number of colleges that are shutting down. In fact, per the Hechinger Report, about one college per week on average so far this year has announced that it will close or merge, up from a little more than two a month last year.

The question then becomes, what do we do about this alarming situation?