cicada nymph climbs a tree with the US Capitol dome seen in the background


Schooling Brood X

A lot has changed since these cicadas went underground 17 years ago—especially when it comes to education. Let’s catch them up.

After living underground for nearly two decades, billions of large, winged, scary-looking-but-harmless insects have begun emerging with a deafening buzz. Brood X is back—whether we like it or not.

Every 17 years, in one of nature’s more anticipated, dreaded, and mysterious spectacles, Brood X cicadas swarm out of the ground, en masse and in unison, to play their part in a cycle that has been witnessed by countless generations of humans: the insects feed, they mate, and lay eggs, and when the next generation of cicadas hatch (in six to 10 weeks), the tiny nymphs fall to the ground, burrow in, and start the precicely-17-year cycle again. (They are believed to possess some method of counting the number of times deciduous trees regrow their leaves.)

This year’s cicada cohort have been underground since 2004, and, wow, are they emerging into a very different world. When they last appeared, we were lining up to watch Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (remember when we could go to the movies?), grooving to the inescapable earworm hits off Usher’s Confessions (remember albums?), and weeping through the finale of Friends (remember must-see TV?). Humans are now fidgeting with smartphones to order food, listen to music, and read news. There are now electric cars on the roads. What was a small virtual bookseller 17 years ago now dominates how we shop and how we use technology. And then there are all the cryptocurrencies. (Maybe the cicadas can make sense of dogecoin.)

But I can hear from the buzzing that the cicadas have questions about how education has changed these last 17 years—especially in the United States. Allow me, a humble Homo sapiens who has lived above ground while you grew in the ground below us, to help you make sense of things. I hope you don’t mind if it’s in the form of a letter.

Pages of a letter linked to a paper clip in the shape of a golden cicada

nobtis/Getty Images

Dear Brood X Cicada,

Welcome back! Thank you for keeping your buzz underground for the past 17 years. Since you were last up here with the rest of us, a lot has changed—a lot—in all facets of the life, for better or worse. There are a lot more of us humans around—about 1.5 billion more since you burrowed into the earth. Climate change has also become a bigger challenge. Technology unimaginable by science fiction has permeated every facet of human lives in unimaginable ways. And those kids you knew as teenagers are now the largest generation in the U.S. labor force.

But you want to know about education! Here are a few trends that you will immediately observe as you reemerge:

Overall education performance lags peers—Based on the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA) 2003 results, the country fared statistically significantly below the performance of other OECD countries. By 2018, the U.S. performed relatively better in reading: average instead of below average. But as with math in 2003, the U.S. continues to underperform compared to its peers.

Accountability in education has increased—Last time you were around, No Child Left Behind (NCLB) governed K–12 public education policy. No longer. It met with much criticism and was replaced in 2015 by Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which places more emphasis on accountability to the states. ESSA also aims to increase the country’s education standards by equipping teachers with better resources to meet the demands and ensuring policymakers, principals, and educators in every state are held accountable for the education of every child.  

Student demographics have shifted—Racial/ethnic distributions of public-school students across the country have shifted. According to NCES K–12 data, over the past 17 years, the percentage of White students dropped from 58% to 46% and Black students fell from 17% to 15%, but Hispanic students increased from 19% to 27%. Increasing birth rates among immigrant families from Asia and Central and South America, combined with lower birth rates among White families, means that White students are now the minority in U.S. public schools. This demographic swing has forced schools to work to accommodate children of varying language abilities and socioeconomic backgrounds.

Photo of a cicada perched on a man's finger, with the man in the background smiling and out of focus

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

A periodical cicada climbs on Benjamin Verschell's finger at his home on May 20, 2021, in Takoma Park, Maryland.

Online education has exploded—Seventeen years ago, some students could take a class online and the dream of virtual school was just that. Brick-and-mortar institutions still dominate the landscape, but gone are the days when online education was limited to higher education, long distance learning, diploma and certificate programs, or adult education. Much of K–12 is now taught online. In fact, the ongoing covid-19 pandemic has required K–12 education to move fully online. (Someone has told you about the pandemic, right? No? Hoo boy…) A plethora of ed-tech companies have sprouted in the last decade—Khan Academy, Coursera, Instructure, Chegg, Newsela, and Kahoot!, among many others—to deliver online education services. Challenges continue to exist, such as equitable access to devices and reliable high-speed internet, and engagement with class materials, maintaining motivation, and time management. But one thing is certain: While in-person learning will never go away, human kids are embracing both access to and engagement with online learning materials and approaches in such numbers that it will likely become a major component of the education system post-pandemic. (Really, no one told you about covid-19?)

There is a teacher shortage—Sadly, not much has changed on this front. Schools continue to be plagued by shortages of qualified teachers. This year, the teacher shortage has become more prevalent. The top reasons are a dearth of fully qualified applicants, salaries and benefits are lacking when compared to other careers, and there are fewer new graduates from education schools. But organizations like Teach for America are bridging the gap by mobilizing diverse leaders to commit to teaching, particularly in schools in low-income communities. So we’re not totally without hope.

There’s plenty more I could share with you, but this should be enough to bring you up to speed. Plus, you have more important things to do, like feed and breed. But I hope this helps you make sense of this strange-yet-familiar world you’ve returned to.

It’s really good to see you—let’s do it again in another 17 years!

Yours Buzzingly,

PS: J.K. Rowling completed the Harry Potter series. It was a gripping, thrilling, and utterly satisfying end. Buzz by a local library while you’re back. You won’t regret it.