kids high five as they get on school bus

The 10 Major Challenges Schools Face in Fostering an Equitable, Engaging Culture

Written by Sam Medley

In a school staff meeting, talking about goals is easy. Everyone from the principal to the counselors can agree that a central priority is creating an exciting, instructive, and welcoming community for learners. But before coming up with a plan, they need to do something a little more uncomfortable. They need to have a realistic conversation about their school’s biggest problems in order to start brainstorming solutions.

For 25 years, Jon Konen, principal of Columbia Falls High School in Montana, has been a key player in helping schools overcome struggles of all kinds. Recently, he sat down with to talk about the top 10 issues today’s schools face in their quest to make education more equitable, engaging, and relevant.

Jon Konen

jon konenIn 1998, Jon Konen began his educational career as a second grade teacher in Anchorage, Alaska. Since then, he’s been a principal, a summer school teacher, the superintendent of the Corvallis School District in his home state of Montana, and earned his Master’s in K-12 Educational Leadership. Recently, Mr. Konen accepted the principal position at Montana’s Columbia Falls High School to do what he really loves: interacting with students, families, and educators every day. While he’s a fixture in the school itself, Mr. Konen can also be found at basketball games, concerts, and any event where his staff and students are celebrated.

1. Funding

Though public education’s funding issue is nothing new, Mr. Konen sees another aspect of it developing:

“People are abandoning the public school system to go into charter or private schools. In some places, public schools become kind of a dumping ground for students who can’t afford to have that type of education. And so a lot of states are having a movement for parents being able to choose where their tax dollars go.”

In Florida, for example, charter schools are allocated funds from the Florida Education Finance Program, a program funded by state sales taxes and local property taxes. Supporters say this gives more students more resources. Critics say it allocates funds to for-profit schools and robs at-risk students of much-needed resources. Mr. Konen says a similar situation is brewing nationally and in his home state of Montana:

“We just had charter school legislation passed and it’s being challenged constitutionally. In the Montana State Constitution, it states that we will have a free and appropriate public education and the money is only to be used in public school settings.”

With legislation like this becoming more common, school leaders must be prepared to enter the fray with a healthy dose of facts-driven advocacy.

2. Teacher Recruitment and Retainment

In Mr. Konen’s experience, teachers are harder to find and retain than ever:

“Once, there would be an opening in a school and you might have a hundred applicants. Now, we’re only seeing a handful. I’m in a high school of 700 students. It’s about the 15th largest school in Montana. We had an English position open. I had three applicants. And out of those three, only one was certified. ”

In the 2020-21 school year, the national teacher turnover rate reached 10%. High-poverty districts often exceed that statistic. Similarly, the Pew Research Center reports that in 1971, over 176,000 people earned a bachelor’s in education. In 2020, that number dropped to barely 85,000.

With that decline in educational generalists comes a decline in specialists (special education teachers, AP teachers, etc.) and the shrinking of a once robust professional community. This puts all students, but particularly the most vulnerable ones, at risk of falling through the cracks.

By implementing measures that lend toward more positive learning cultures, schools can have a better chance of attracting – and retaining – top teacher talent.

3. Addressing Salary Stagnation

Public education’s funding and staffing issues merge into one undeniably pressing problem — teachers just don’t get paid enough:

“Salaries are lower compared to other professions with similar types of education. If you’re coming out of college with $50,000 in college debt, that return on investment doesn’t come for a while. Salaries definitely need to be increased in order to be more attractive to high school kids coming into college.”

cost of university graduation with grad caps and price tags

In a survey conducted by the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, only 18% of respondents said they would encourage a young person to become a teacher. While the teacher pay issue needs long-term solutions, Mr. Konen says leaders in his district are also working on more immediate ones:

“Columbia Falls luckily has a partner who has purchased an old part of our school. They’re going to develop it into apartments for educators first and then  for the elderly. And so that’s one way that I think school districts are gonna have to continue, especially in our rural areas.”

4. Leadership Gaps

Given the obstacles teachers face, Mr. Konen sees fewer of them entering leadership positions:

“School districts across the nation are finding it hard to recruit and retain administrators. It makes our leadership lean. And, unfortunately, there’s some ineffective leadership within school districts across the nation.”

The National Education Association (NEA) reports that 75% of their members take on duties outside of their traditional teaching responsibilities, a circumstance that breeds burnout, rushed policymaking, and more large-scale issues:

“It also leads to other areas that we feel are becoming ineffective, as well: our local legislators, state departments, and even our governors. I think it’s playing  a role in the upheaval in many communities.”

With fewer experienced educators jumping into administration and advocating for their communities, public education could very well lose its voice at a time when it should be the loudest.

5. The Complexity and Importance of Individual Needs

With all of the problems Jon Konen has already discussed, it’s no surprise that students’ needs often go unmet. But Mr. Konen doesn’t think this problem stems solely from ineffective leadership. “It’s hard to have the number of personnel in our schools to be able to do that,” he told us. “And so we’re doing the best we can with the resources that we have.”

According to educational advocates, federal programs like the Individual with Disabilities Education Act are underfunded by almost $700 billion. This leaves schools (and especially schools in low-income areas) without the resources they need to put decades of child development research into action. Administrators must advocate for reform, craft inclusive policies, and do some creative budgeting, but in the meantime, they must also remain realistic and encouraging about the hard work their staff do with the little they have.

6. Old Traditions and Negative Cultures

When it comes to enacting impactful policies, Mr. Konen says one of the main challenges is a basic tenet of human nature. “Change is hard,” he said. “But having a strong school culture is the number one way to increase academic achievement.”

When Mr. Konen spoke with us about positive school cultures, he described environments where relationships are the main focus and no achievement is too small to celebrate. But he also discussed how building such cultures takes deliberate action and accountability:

“It’s more difficult from the time I started in education to hold people accountable to how we treat each other, how we treat kids, and how we work with parents. Positive leaders that know how to do this are making tremendous gains. But we need to nurture and find those teacher leaders that want to get into administration.”

7. Resentment and the Assumptions That Feed It

National arguments about curriculum have turned some school districts into political battlegrounds. However, Mr. Konen doesn’t think that’s the only reason for resentment towards public education:

“Most schools have either a complaint process or a curriculum review process. Some districts are doing a great job at promoting parent communication and engagement by doing that. But some districts aren’t. Unfortunately, the small minority becomes generalized to all of public education.”

8. “Us vs. Them” Mentalities

As confident as Mr. Konen is in the power of open communication, he urges school leaders to stay on guard against divisions in their communities:

“There are some parents’ rights movements and parents overall that aren’t necessarily tearing down public education, but are questioning us. They want answers. We shouldn’t think of it as opposition. We just need to continue to keep finding ways to team up. We need those parents and those strong relationships.”

Research collected by the National Center on Safe Learning Environments indicates that family involvement in schools has a positive effect on academic performance, behavior, and even teacher job satisfaction. With so much at stake, seeking out critical-yet-informed parents could be one of the most effective moves school leaders can make outside of the classroom.

teachers with questions

9. Reliance on Technology

Pandemic restrictions forced educators to get creative with technology. But as helpful as it can be, Mr. Konen reminds his team to use it wisely:

 “One of the things I tell my own staff is what can we do in classrooms that they can’t do online at home? Collaboration, talking, teaming together, all these life skills that students need in their jobs. Those are the powerful things that we can teach in our classrooms right now.”

Along with developing much-needed life skills, Mr. Konen says collaborative activities are also essential to developing a positive school culture.

10. Remembering the Positives

Though facing the harsh realities of today’s education system is important, Mr. Konen doesn’t want educators to lose sight of what they’re fighting for:

“If people knew what’s going on in public education, specifically like the 98% of things that are positive, the 2% we need to continue to work on wouldn’t look very big.”

In 2020, the national public high school graduation rate reached 87%, the highest it’s ever been. Local, state, and federal agencies are investing more money into equitable, engaging STEM programs. And despite loud opinions to the contrary, a 2022 NEA survey found that the vast majority of voters on both sides of the aisle trust and support teachers. So while we may need to invest in more nails, gut a few saggy walls, and agree on what color to paint the kitchen, the foundation for a better future is there — for students, for teachers, and for education in general.

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