When the pandemic passes and the shutdowns end, I expect that the American institution to encounter the most profound changes will be the K-12 public school system. Parents, teachers and administrators are seeking solutions for the moment we’re in, which is rattling long-held assumptions about education. Policymakers should prepare — now — for the school of 2021 (and beyond), not the school of 2019.
While the school cancellations this spring were inconvenient, parents were cooperative, even adventurous: “We’re working at home, the kids are learning at home, let’s give this a shot.” As the long summer passed, a question emerged, and it became more insistent: “The schools will open, right? Right?”
The decisionmakers running public schools encountered state-specific pandemic restrictions, teachers reluctant to return to the classroom and parents with strong opinions on both sides of the question.
Many parents of school-age children came to realize they would have to find alternatives to meet the family’s needs. An October EdChoice poll shows how widespread that sentiment spread into action: One-third of families report they participate in a learning pod with other families; 53% have joined or considered forming a pod. More than half of parents surveyed are considering a tutor this year. Even the parents who want to send their children to the local school expect it to provide multiple learning options (65%).
In other words, decisions about education are not on autopilot. Parents are not necessarily becoming the teachers, but they are most certainly becoming the administrators. And this is hardly insurmountable for the Millennial generation accustomed to on-demand solutions.
Innovation will disrupt long-held assumptions and may cause parents to ask uncomfortable questions: Is it up to me to figure all this out? Must a child go to a school building to be educated? Why must it be this local school? What are we paying for and why can’t that funding help my learning pod or cover supplies? Could I do this? What did that teacher just say in the Zoom meeting?
We don’t have polling numbers yet, but economics suggests that once a family has adopted a “choice mentality” for education, it is more likely to stay on that course. At the very least, a certain number of families will significantly change their lifestyle. First, it happened because they had to, and then they discovered it was worthwhile. The pandemic has caused us to identify the things we truly value, including in education.
One might expect the National Education Association to celebrate the new forms of education, but that person would be wrong. The NEA published a September 2020 “opposition report” about pandemic pods. (Readers will recognize the report for what it is — a competitive analysis.) The report breathlessly exposes philanthropic support for education innovation and blasts the for-profit model of some providers.
Parents will now ask: Is education a public system or an outcome? As more of them do, they will drive much-needed innovation.