18 Big Ways Back to School Has Changed

Kids today! Whippersnappers! When we were their age, we walked uphill both ways to school with only one shoe! With a hole in it! And it was raining, snowing, and hailing at the same time! Also? Tornadoes! And dadgum, we liked it! But time’s arrow shoots in only one direction, and today’s students at all education levels and abilities must turn and face it as changes settle in academic year after academic year, sometimes slowly, sometimes not so much. What they eventually mean for the future of education obviously remains to be seen, but for now they definitely stand as something different than before.
  1. Healthier lunches:With public consciousness about health concerns about poor dietary habits swelling, more and more parents (and even some students!) demand that school lunches offer up fresher, nutritious options. The familiar soggy, fried chicken nuggets and greasy pizzas may be tasty and comfortable, but they come packed with so many salts and fats and other nasties, they ought to stand as “sometimes foods” as opposed to daily meals. Switching over to more nourishing noshes like salads and grilled meats may cost more, but it means lowering students’ risk of heart disease, diabetes, and other diet-related problems.
  2. Keep the cell phones on:Back when kids started carrying cell phones to school, teachers and administrators considered the newfangled devices quite the distraction, especially once text messaging caught on as a primary means of communication. Over time, this resulted in district-wide regulations of varying degrees, with many classrooms requiring complete power-offs. More tech-savvy educators, however, encourage them to stay running, smartphones in particular. With so many features and apps available, mobile devices hold the potential to enhance learning experiences when utilized correctly.
  3. Heightened security:Over the past decade, concerns over school shootings (Connecticut) and other tragic acts of senseless violence mean ramped-up security measures across the country. At some locations, this means metal detectors, surveillance cameras, and searches. At others, it means greater outreach for troubled students at risk of causing themselves, their peers, or both harm. Some researchers, such as Vanderbilt’s Torin Monahan and University of California-Irvine’s Rodolfo D. Torres, the editors of Schools Under Surveillance, question the efficacy of many strategies wielded in the interest of safety, pointing out it might wind up fostering an environment of even more fear and mistrust. It’s a grey area with scads of room for debate, but everyone can agree it did change the back-to-school experience.
  4. Greater awareness of bullying:Along with the increase in security measures came a broader public understanding of the mechanisms behind bullying. Once dismissed as “kids will be kids,” high-profile murders and suicides stemming from marginalizing experiences sobered Americans into thinking that unchecked aggression and teasing might not be a good, natural thing to just shrug off. While things could still improve these days, particularly when it comes to supporting LGBTQ students, schools actively working to curb and address bullying are definitely pushing things in the proper, healthy, safe direction.
  5. Greater awareness of cyberbullying:As the Internet inserted itself more and more into daily life, it also managed to provide yet another venue through which nasty kids (and sometimes even their parents) perpetuate bullying. Virtual environments grant them a layer of anonymity and fewer opportunities to wind up caught. Once again, though, it unfortunately took a series of suicides before the general public paid any amount of attention to cyberbullying. It requires a set of preventative measures entirely unique from the more physical counterpart, and education professionals and parents must play catch-up with their “digital native” students to promote and ensure safety.
  6. More tech in the classroom:Kind of a no-brainer, really. Discussions about the roles technology (simple and complex alike) plays in creating engaging learning environments happen about as often as technological advances do. Shifts toward new developments and strategies mean back-to-school experiences interacting with the latest digital trends constantly change, even if in subtle ways. Some schools even issue laptops to enrollees as a means of promoting computer and Internet literacy.
  7. Digital literacy:The aforementioned “computer and Internet literacy” actually comprises a point all on its own (we’re so proud!). Because digital devices and initiatives drive daily life, even for proud, avowed Luddites, understanding the basics of how it all works and (probably more importantly) how to harness its potential responsibly exist as essential life skills. Classrooms lucky enough to enjoy access to the latest and greatest in gadgetry must tackle them with a better-rounded, informed perspective. Otherwise, YouTube comments happen.
  8. Better parental communication:Online gradebooks, blogs, social media, and other digital outlets make it a piece of cake for teachers to share grades, performance evaluations, assignments, syllabi, and other educational resources with parents. Mild controversy surrounds this popular decision, as students believe this infringes upon their right to privacy. Their parents, of course, see things differently, with some of the more involved individuals appreciating knowing how they can help improve things at home.
  9. Gay-straight alliances:Because the LGBTQ community remains one of the last demographics where discrimination and marginalization stand as socially acceptable, gay-straight alliances at high school and college remain necessary institutions for creating safe spaces. While they unfortunately have yet to exist on every campus out there, the trend is definitely growing, and these organizations give hope to students brutalized for their sexuality and/or gender identity and expression, which just might make back-to-school time something a little less dreadful to face.
  10. No Child Left Behind:This initiative passed in 2001, with tenets rewarding schools with funding proportionate to their standardized test scores. Makes sense in theory, but in application all the money went toward supporting institutions with enough money and resources to fluff up scores in the first place. Meaning, of course, that underprivileged kids wound up, well, left behind. President Obama started hacking away at the frustrating failure by granting states waivers from the legislation if they agree to greater accountability and higher academic standards. While more work needs doing to heal the educational divide between rich, middle class, and poor, this motion pushes things in a more inclusive direction.
  11. Shifting from SATs:And ACTs. And other standardized tests that, for decades, dictated the general curriculum to the point critics consider it a detriment to a well-rounded education. Seeing as how No Child Left Behind uses them as a guideline for how much funding schools need, it’s easy to understand the slow drift away. To address the mounting concerns, parents in New York, Texas, Oregon, Washington, and other states have started opting their children out of sitting down for these exams. Because this movement seems to be gaining momentum (and with the support of many education experts), it might very well mean even more of a major transition in what and how kids learn in school.
  12. Online classes:This change walks hand-in-hand on the beach at sunset along with the increase in educational technologies. Although Internet-based courses so often receive attention as core components to online degrees or supplements to a brick-and-mortar plan, they have been known to drift into lower education levels as well. Obviously, such a system involves a particular set of positives and negatives, but advocates praise it for providing flexibility to students whose circumstances render it more difficult to regularly access mainstream classrooms. Which ties into …
  13. Greater accessibility:Heightened understanding of physical, emotional, and mental challenges mean more effective strategies for teaching special needs students. Education is a basic human right, and tightening accessibility standards brings it to demographics so often left sidelined because of stigma or limited resources. The more researchers, teachers, and parents know of the conditions, the better they can ensure edifying lessons for child, adolescent, and adult learners alike. As one can easily assume, technology certainly holds quite the influence over this positive, progressive motion, with more options available to meet more unique requirements.
  14. Tax-free weekends:Back-to-school time usually means a healthy amount of expenditures, even for only-child, public school households. Some states help alleviate some of this financial burden by hosting tax-free weekends, waiving the sales taxes on necessary supplies and clothing. In addition, many retailers offer up specials to accompany the legislation, enhancing the savings for cash-strapped and comfortable families alike.
  15. More women in college:In a move surely aggravating to the men’s rights activist and pickup artist contingents, more women now enter into and graduate from college than men. The male set completes degrees at a rate of 25% less than the female, which has never happened at any point in history until now. Schooling in America undeniably crawled a long way from the days when the ladies were only expected to sit at home, squeeze out a few screaming babies, and make sandwiches. Although many programs still remain segregated by gender, at least on campus women no longer have to feel like marginalized freakazoids for trying to earn a degree.
  16. More resources and opportunities for homeschoolers:Stereotypes continue painting homeschooling families as ethereal creepsters with a Laura Ingalls Wilder aesthetic and penchant for religious extremism. Stereotypes are often wrong, as reasons for setting up classrooms at home are as varied as the moms and dads who decide this method works best for their children. Although definitive numbers prove difficult to accumulate, an estimated 1.5 million American kiddos receive their education at home — though the reality is likely higher than that. While obviously not the mainstream choice, the increasing popularity of online classes and curricula, homeschooling groups (Internet-based and in person), standardized testing requirements, and outreach from more traditional private and public schools have all chipped away at the stigma. As a result, more and more resources pour into the market and provide students lucky enough to learn from informed, engaged parents, tutors, and other educators with all the necessities for a well-rounded academic and social experience.
  17. Uniforms and tighter dress codes:In the 2009-2010 academic year, around 19% of public school principals reported that their schools required uniforms, and 57% claimed heightened enforcement of existing dress code policies. This marks an increase from 12% and 47%, respectively, since 1999-2000. New Jersey is one state where public schools trend toward uniforms, with Newark requiring them for all elementary and middle school kiddos. Supporters point to cost, safety, and tighter social bonds as tantamount priorities, and as the trend catches on, fashionable students might gradually lose out on planning creative new outfits for the upcoming school year.
  18. Year-round education:Proponents of year-round education have a point. Extended summer vacations compromise knowledge retention, meaning precious classroom time the succeeding year goes toward review rather than fostering new skills and mentally downloading new information. Summer lovers chide the 10-week model, but cities such as Indianapolis have considered transitioning toward it in order to better compete academically. Two years later, Virginia and Maryland are debating the structure’s merits as well. Many districts in the United States already operate such programs as an opt-in, to varying degrees of participation, but if they break into more and more as mandatory, it will pretty much literally alter the back-to-school experience.