The What and Why of School Websites
We analyzed 700 homepages to see what they include—and what’s missing.
It’s hard to imagine a world without school websites. Gone are the days when teachers sent home notes in backpacks and news spread by word of mouth. For the most part, school districts have migrated the majority of their information and updates to comprehensive websites and social media platforms. But as public favor of social media waxes and wanes, your district’s website is becoming increasingly important.
By this point, most districts feel obligated to have a website—and there are a plethora of laws detailing what districts must include on their websites.¹ But what does this mean for you? Regardless of how well your social media accounts are performing or how in-the-know your staff is, your district’s website should be your first line of defense against misinformation, disconnectedness, and confusion.
It’s imperative that your website is an easy-to-use and up-to-date resource for your entire community. In fact, user experience researchers find that approximately 88% of site visitors are less likely to return if they have a bad experience.2 So whether your focus is recruiting new teachers and families or serving those already in your network, maintaining a thorough and user-friendly website is essential to ensuring your audience comes back again and again.
Across our work with schools, we’ve noted patterns in the types of information districts include on their homepages. Some homepages exceed expectations while others leave plenty to be desired. These observations inspired us to systematically investigate what information is—and isn’t—typically available on district homepages and how that information is distributed across districts of various sizes.
Here—at the intersection of our observations, analysis, and existing expertise on school sites and marketing—we’ve built a comprehensive overview of what schools are and aren’t including on their homepages. We’ll also take a look at how you can use this information to elevate your website. Overall, we identified three areas in which district homepages vary the most:
- The frequency with which they address their roles within—and the services they provide to—their communities;
- The accessibility and visibility of the district’s careers page or job listings; and
- The frequency with which districts address privacy, accessibility, and technology concerns within their schools.
We found these takeaways by analyzing the presence of frames on each district website, which encompass specific types of information (see Our Methodology here).
Your Website, Your Community
While approval of public education has declined among Americans in recent decades, most people still have favorable opinions about their own local schools.3 This is no coincidence. Schools—especially those located in small, rural districts—fill a variety of social services for their communities extending far beyond the scope of academics. They operate as community centers, food pantries, and event spaces; they provide guidance, support, and safety for those in need.
Even the scope of what’s considered an inherent function of schools has expanded in recent decades. According to an article in the Journal of Applied School Psychology, schools have inherited “an increasing demand to meet children’s health and mental health needs in order for them to benefit from, and progress in, their educational experience.”⁴
One important function of your district’s website is to generate positive associations with your district by illuminating the roles it plays within your community. However, because the roles schools occupy and the services they provide vary depending on the needs of their communities, some of these inherent school functions may go unnoticed—and therefore unnamed—on district websites.
We found that only 41% of districts in our sample acknowledged, referred to, or provided information regarding their greater communities or the services their schools provide. Small districts’ homepages were significantly less likely to have the “community” frame than medium, large, and mega districts. In fact, only 33% of small school districts included information about their communities. Alternatively, approximately 67% of mega districts included this information—double the rate of small districts (Fig. 2).
This isn’t to say that small districts aren’t connected to their communities and families; in fact, research indicates quite the opposite. Small school districts are actually deeply involved with their communities and—if conditions permit—frequently exceed their community obligations.5
Why, then, are small schools neglecting to use their websites to acknowledge all the social services they provide? Because small schools frequently fill such expansive and fluid roles in their communities, it could be that explicitly defining all of these services is nearly impossible. Small districts may also hesitate to delineate all the services they provide because they’re often the only education option in their areas, and therefore don’t have to compete for students in the same way that larger districts do.
Your website has a unique ability to make the invisible—community support—visible. And if you aren’t using your district’s homepage to highlight the relationships you’ve built and the services you provide, you’re missing opportunities to connect your community to important resources—or even to recruit new teachers and students. What if a family in your district is experiencing food insecurity? They can find the help they need through your homepage. What if a teacher is considering relocating to your district and wants a workplace with a strong social support system? Your website can show them just how much your community loves your schools.
The larger districts in our sample did the best job of spotlighting this facet of their schools. Small districts could follow suit by foregrounding their presence in their local communities—and using their websites to advance this narrative.
Careers and Incentives
As we’ve already pointed out, your district’s website is an active recruitment tool for teachers. But successful recruiting takes more than just job postings; it’s an all-encompassing endeavor. Potential job candidates won’t just explore the pictures, stories, and news you share; they’ll also explore how accessible your district is, how easy it is to interact with your online spaces, and what they should expect from your application and hiring processes—all before they ever decide to apply.⁶ First impressions are everything, and these features will likely inform a teacher’s decision to pursue a career in your district—or not.
According to researchers from Kansas State University and the University of Illinois, there were an estimated 36,500 vacant positions in school districts across the United States at the beginning of the 2022-23 school year.7 Chances are, your district experienced at least a few of those vacancies. Similarly, in a July 2022 report from EdWeek Research Center, nearly three-quarters of the principals and district leaders surveyed said that the number of candidates for teachers and various support staff roles was “insufficient” to fill gaps.8
Even if you haven’t personally struggled to fill positions yet, a decrease in education majors at universities across the nation means that, at some point, practically every school district will struggle to recruit and hire teachers. But are districts doing everything they can to market open positions to potential applicants? And how visible are these positions to website visitors?
In our analysis, we found that 76% of school districts provided information about available careers—or at least referred to open positions—on their homepages (Fig. 3). However, only 20% of those districts had the “incentives” frame, meaning they included information on how to apply, benefits for working in the district, or further incentives for applying (Fig. 4). And overall, only 15% of districts included in our sample provided incentives for applying or offered help with the application process on their homepage. In other words, while more than three-quarters of district homepages listed information about or referred to open positions, less than one-fifth of districts in our sample provided any incentive or guidance for applying (Fig. 5).
Furthermore, we found that medium and large districts had a higher rate of “careers” frames than smaller districts. Our data also suggest that the mega districts in our sample had a higher proportion of the “incentives” frame than small and medium districts (Fig. 6). This doesn’t surprise us though—according to the Institute of Education Sciences, “smaller school districts have a higher three-year retention rate than larger school districts,”9 suggesting that smaller districts simply may not be under the same pressure to fill open positions as larger districts.
Of course, when teachers search for information about available careers, they’re looking for more than just a job posting. They want to see indicators of a school’s culture: what day-to-day life looks like, what resources are available, and how teachers are valued by families and administrators. Linking job openings from your homepage is the bare minimum—but it is a crucial first step. If prospective employees can’t even find where to apply, you’ll have no chance of hiring them.
Perhaps because teacher recruitment can look different in small or isolated districts, administrators in these tight-knit communities typically focus their energy on in-person recruitment rather than online efforts. These districts frequently share information about open positions by word-of-mouth, and recruitment often takes place face-to-face through relationship-building endeavors, such as local events or job fairs.10
But, as we’ve all learned over the past couple of years, making available careers readily accessible online is critical to ensuring that the best and brightest talents are—at the very least—aware the opportunity exists. It’s also particularly important for attracting candidates from outside your local talent pool. If an educator you’d like to hire is willing to relocate for work, then you’re competing with every other district you can imagine. So why wouldn’t you highlight job opportunities—and incentives—right on your homepage, where they’ll be as visible and accessible as possible?
Privacy, Accessibility, and Technology
Digital technologies such as tablets, computers, and even wifi-connected toys are now commonplace in most U.S. classrooms.11 As schools make these shifts, districts need to be prepared to describe the extent to which they utilize technology in the classroom, how accessible these technologies are, and exactly what measures are being taken to protect student privacy.
Even though most privacy concerns, such as identity theft, are unlikely to occur inside your schools, the expansion of digital technologies in the classroom inherently leaves students, families, and faculty at risk of having their data exploited, sold, or shared. Schools, like any other record-keeping institution, are vulnerable to data breaches. In addition, research suggests that faculty members—even those who have leaned into technology in the classroom—are largely unaware of the issues and concerns revolving around student data and privacy.12
Also, while technology improves the quality of some children’s educational experiences, it can greatly disadvantage others. In some cases, technology-oriented classrooms can exacerbate challenges faced by students with certain disabilities. According to research from Natalie Shaheen, an assistant professor of special education at Illinois State University, equitable access to learning is disrupted “because the technologies that mediate K-12 education often prohibit the forms of digital movement and interaction [that] disabled students employ.”12 That means districts should take extra care to ensure that technology-oriented advantages are equitably distributed to all students within the district and that families can find information about technology easily on the homepage.
According to our research, overall, approximately 29% of school districts acknowledged or referred to access or accessibility on their homepages, with approximately 19% discussing privacy. Unsurprisingly, mega districts discussed privacy more frequently than small and medium districts, while simultaneously out-performing all other district sizes in acknowledging accessibility. Over half of homepages analyzed referenced technology in schools, either by providing a direct link to a technology department or page, or by describing their student-to-device ratio. The only significant difference between districts regarding technology lies between medium and small school districts; medium school districts had more information about technology available on their homepages than small districts (Fig. 7).
Very few schools in any size category addressed data and privacy concerns or issues of accessibility—particularly regarding technology—on their homepages. But given that trends indicate an increasing digitalization and technologization of society, these technologies are likely a permanent fixture in American classrooms for the foreseeable future. Using your website’s homepage to make information about technology and privacy easily accessible will go a long way toward improving the accessibility and safety of your schools. What could be a more important investment?
What does this mean for you?
While we designed this study to reveal what district websites actually include, our in-house expertise is all about what school websites should include. So we’ve built a checklist to give you a new perspective on the functions of your district’s homepage. While not all these features will be important to your district’s specific goals, we hope this list serves as a guide to strategically assessing whether or not your district’s website—especially its homepage—is addressing your community, recruitment, and accessibility needs.
- Is there a tab for your community on your homepage?
- If your school has an education foundation or parent-teacher association, can this information be found easily?
- Is your tagline or mission statement clearly listed?
- Do you specifically address your district’s role in your community—and how the community has supported your schools?
- Are job openings listed and up-to-date and linked to from the homepage?
- Does your website have a designated careers page?
- Do you share information about what it’s like to work in your district or live in your community?
- Do you talk about what incentives are available to new hires?
- Are visitors able to contact the district from the homepage?
- Are highly sought-after resources (lunch menu, handbook, etc.) clearly linked?
- Is your accessibility policy clearly linked to?
- Can visitors easily find information about student data or privacy policies?
1. U.S. Department of Education, National Center for Education Statistics. 2003. “Weaving a Secure Web Around Education: A Guide to Technology Standards and Security.” National Forum on Education Statistics. Washington, DC.
2. Northern Arizona University. 2022. “Great UX Is the Art of Invisibility.” NAU Experience Design. (https://in.nau.edu/experience-design)
3. Mahnken, Kevin. 2022. “New Pole: Majority of Adults Don’t Trust Educators to Handle Sensitive Topics.” The74. August 25. https://www.the74million.org/article/new-poll-public-rates-local-schools-highly-but-is-split-on-teachers/ .
4. Hughes, Tammy L., Pamela A. Fennings, Franci Crepeau-Hobson, and Linda A. Reddy. 2017. “Creating Safer and More Nurturing Schools: Expanding the Capacity of Schools in the Era of Future National Reform.” Journal of Applied School Psychology 33(3):195–213.
5. Eccles, Jacquelynne S., and Robert W. Roeser. 2011. “Schools as Developmental Contexts During Adolescence.” Journal of Research on Adolescence 21(1):225–41.
6. Podolsky, Anne, Tara Kini, Joseph Bishop, and Linda Darling-Hammond. 2016. “Solving the Teacher Shortage: How to Attract and Retain Excellent Educators.” Learning Policy Institute. September 15. https://learningpolicyinstitute.org/product/solving-teacher-shortage-brief.
7. Will, Madeline. 2022. “How Bad Is The Teacher Shortage? What Two New Studies Say.” Education Week. September 6. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/how-bad-is-the-teacher-shortage-what-two-new-studies-say/2022/09
8. Lieberman, Mark. 2022. “The Outlook Is Bad for School Hiring This Fall.” Education Week. July 28. https://www.edweek.org/leadership/the-outlook-is-bad-for-school-hiring-this-fall/2022/07.
9. TeacherCertification.com. 2022. National Turnover Rate in Early Education. https://teachercertification.com/national-turnover-in-early-education/.
10. Saenz-Armstrong, Patricia. 2022. “How Are School Districts Using Strategic Pay to Attract and Retain Teachers Where They Need Them?” National Council on Teacher Quality. September 8. https://www.nctq.org/blog/How-are-school-districts-using-strategic-pay-to-attract-and-retain-teachers-where-they-need-them.
11. Kumar, Priya C., Marshini Chetty, Tamara L. Clegg, and Jessica Vitak. “Privacy and Security Considerations For Digital Technology Use in Elementary Schools.” Proceedings of the 2019 CHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, May 4-9, New York, NY.
12. Shaheen, Natalie L. 2022. “Technology Accessibility: How U.S. K-12 Schools Are Enacting Policy and Addressing the Equity Imperative.” Computers & Education 179.
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