LISTEN — Class Disrupted S3 E5: Where Are Students Learning This Year?
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Class Disrupted is a bi-weekly podcast on education featuring author Michael Horn and Diane Tavenner from Summit Public Schools. They engage in conversations with educators, school leaders, students, and other members of school communities to explore the challenges that the education system faces amidst the pandemic and discuss the way forward. You can find all episodes by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on popular podcast platforms such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play, or Stitcher (new episodes released every other Tuesday).
In this particular episode of Class Disrupted, Diane Tavenner interviews Michael Horn about the current status of formal learning for students, the factors driving changes in enrollment in public schools, and the long-term implications of these changes.
Listen to the episode below. The complete transcript follows.
Michael Horn: Hi, Diane. Its great to see you. I want to share that my weekend in Vermont was fantastic. The autumn foliage in New England was breathtaking, with all its vibrant colors. Interestingly, we realized that we hadnt visited Vermont since the start of the pandemic. It was nice to revisit our annual fall traditions. How about you?
Diane Tavenner: That sounds amazing, Michael. Im envious. We dont get to experience such fall foliage here in California. However, we are currently having some rain, which is cause for celebration.
Michael: Thats wonderful.
Diane: It truly is. You know, the past few years have taught me to appreciate things that I used to take for granted. I have developed gratitude for even the smallest rain showers, especially considering the droughts and fires weve experienced.
Michael: I completely understand what you mean.
Diane: On that note, Michael, Im grateful to be having this conversation with you for the third season of Class Disrupted. We never expected to continue after the first season, assuming that things would return to normal, or at least improve. But here we are, in season three, and its evident that normalcy is still far away, and may never fully return.
It seems that the changes brought on by the initial pandemic will have long-lasting effects on our world and education. While we cant say for sure if these impacts will be positive, we remain committed to trying to steer things in a positive direction.
Diane: So, this season, were exploring various interesting topics in detail, being curious and nuanced in our approach.
Michael: Well, last episode, it was my turn to question you about how standards affect curriculum. Today, I believe youll get the chance to turn the tables and question me.
Diane: Thats correct, Michael. Ive been following the conversation sparked by the pandemic, which revolves around where children are learning. As a lifelong public educator, I must confess that I have a significant blind spot when it comes to children learning outside of traditional school buildings. Like many others, I havent paid much attention to the other formal learning environments. However, I know youve been studying this for years, so I have some questions for you.
Michael: Lets get started. Im eager to answer them.
Diane: Alright, my first question is quite basic – where are children learning during this pandemic, Michael? Every day, I come across headlines about districts missing thousands of students. There are reports of learning pods, private schools, an increase in homeschooling, online schooling, and a rise in charter school enrollment. Although I consider charter schools to still be school buildings, it makes me wonder if we have reliable data on where children are learning and what the pandemics consequences are in this regard.
(End of transcript)
As we delve into 2020, specifically the previous school year, it becomes evident that the data is lagging and only now starting to become clear. It is true that there was a drop in enrollment in school districts by approximately 1.5 million students, which accounts for roughly 3 percent of the student population of around 51 million. This decline was primarily seen among young children, with pre-K and kindergarten experiencing a 13 percent decrease.
Interestingly, enrollment in public chartered schools, which are considered public schools, actually increased by 7 percent. This translates to roughly a quarter million students, making up around 8 percent of the total schooling population. Education Nexts survey suggests that it may have declined back to 6 percent, but the increase is still significant. Some of this growth seems to be attributed to virtual charter schools, which deviate from the traditional model. Additionally, there was a notable surge in enrollment in private schools, with approximately 11 percent of students being enrolled.
Another noteworthy development is the rise of homeschooling and the emergence of pods. Homeschooling saw a significant increase, debunking the notion that it had been rapidly growing for years. In reality, it experienced rapid growth from 1999 to 2012, but then plateaued. Prior to the pandemic, it was believed that homeschooling would not exceed 10 percent, considering the need for a safe and supervised environment for children during the day. However, during the pandemic, homeschooling reached 11 percent, according to the census. Whats particularly intriguing is that black students became the majority of homeschoolers for the first time, even though their participation rates have historically been the lowest. Their percentage increased to 16 percent.
Another important finding comes from a Stanford research study, detailed in a piece by . It suggests that areas with fully remote learning experienced the highest enrollment drops. This indicates a preference for in-person options, such as pods, private schools, or chartered schools. However, its worth noting that this preference was not uniform. Black families, in comparison to other families, showed a disproportionate preference for remote learning. This mistrust may be rooted not only in the pandemic but also in the longstanding dissatisfaction with how institutions have failed black and brown families over the years.
In terms of this years data, there are some emerging signals that suggest enrollment may not be rebounding as expected. Surprisingly, according to Titan Partners, around 1.5 million students are still participating in pandemic pods or micro-schools this year. This was a finding that was unexpected but interesting. Los Angeles Unified, which has returned to in-person learning, witnessed a further decline of 27,000 students from September of the previous year when enrollment was already down.
And I would like to add another point, which is that in the past six to 12 months, we have witnessed the implementation of numerous policies that have increased the availability of school choices. States like West Virginia, Arizona, Florida, and others have introduced education savings accounts and other means to make alternative schooling options, such as pods, micro-schools, and other arrangements, more accessible to a wider range of people who did not have access before. In my opinion, we are currently experiencing a flourishing of options, which has empowered many families for the first time. They have realized that they are not limited to sending their children to the school in their local area; they have more choices than they previously thought.
Diane: Its interesting, Michael, there is a tangential point Id like to mention. We have been observing the trends of educators leaving the profession, and one of my hypotheses is that they have numerous other opportunities to remain involved in education or working with children, but not within the traditional confines of a school. It seems that they are also making choices similar to what you described. Its intriguing to hear your statistics and wonder if these two groups are aligning.
Michael: It is indeed interesting. You have been monitoring this situation for quite some time now. You have been discussing it with me for at least six months, and you have consistently pointed out that a new market is emerging where teachers can potentially earn the same or even higher salaries in some cases, while enjoying greater autonomy and flexibility in their work arrangements. Perhaps they may not have the same level of job security, but this creates new options that were previously unknown.
Diane: Yes, its fascinating. This leads me to question what might motivate families to choose alternatives to traditional brick-and-mortar schools in their local area? There are historical reasons, but there also seem to be contemporary factors at play. You have already mentioned the significant impact on black families, which is not surprising considering the inadequate education they have historically and currently received. Are there other known reasons why families choose alternatives to their local schools?
Michael: Yes, this might be my opportunity to delve into a topic Im passionate about… You covered curriculum last week, but Ill stick to a high-level overview. I am intrigued by the theory of "jobs to be done," which explores the reasons behind peoples actions and decisions. Prior to the pandemic, we conducted research on why parents would switch to independent or chartered schools. Interestingly, we found that there were several common motivations. Firstly, parents would often state that their child was facing difficulties in their current school and they needed to find a solution. Surprisingly, success was often defined as being able to return the child to their neighborhood school. Secondly, many parents sought to be part of a community that shared similar values and beliefs. This could be related to any set of norms.
Michael: The third common motivation was the belief that their child was receiving an adequate academic education, but the focus was on the holistic development of the child. This is a concept we discuss frequently, emphasizing social and emotional skills and habits of success. They desired a well-rounded child and were not solely interested in academic achievements. Finally, the fourth motivation revolved around the idea that parents wanted their child to follow their own personal plan. They expected the school to assist in preparing their child for admission to their dream college or university.
Diane: So, they were optimizing for a specific outcome.
Michael: Exactly. Its very much… And we often see friction between schools and parents when their priorities do not align. For example, a school that prioritizes the holistic development of the child may attract parents who are solely focused on getting their child into prestigious universities like Stanford. My sense is that the pandemic has not altered these motivations, but it has heightened several of them. The difficulties of remote learning have made the need for immediate support more apparent.
Diane: Yes, the challenges have been compounded on multiple levels.
Diane: I understand what youre saying, Michael, and I agree with it completely. In my experience, its a significant decision for a family to deviate from the traditional options. There are costs associated with this choice, such as community and friendship ties. Theres also a lot of emotional baggage involved, as it often feels like judgment from those who dont make the same choice. So there are various factors that suggest people really consider their decision when opting for something different. Historically, private schools have been the norm for many, and even as a charter school leader for 20 years, weve seen many families choose the familiar over a new or alternative school, even if the latter seems to offer more of what they want.
Ive also noticed that people typically make a different choice during natural transition points. Its easier to make a switch when starting kindergarten, middle school, or high school. And as you mentioned, when its not a natural transition time, it often means that something isnt working well for the child. Of course, we should also consider that families may move, which is a factor to consider. However, in my experience, many families try hard to keep the school year stable and plan their moves around it to minimize disruption. Thats one of the reasons why I find school design so intriguing, as whole school changes are rare. This trend and theme really catch my attention.
Michael: Absolutely. I want to emphasize what you just said, Diane. Its fascinating how big of a decision it is with social dimensions involved. Our community fabric and peoples expectations of us play a role. As social beings, we care about how others perceive our choices and the emotions tied to them. Learning loss aversion, sorry, I mean loss aversion, comes into play here. People worry about missing out if they dont choose the neighborhood school or if they dont experience the homecoming and football team aspects that they might have idealized. Its an interesting aspect to consider.
Diane: Weve discussed nostalgia and its impact extensively.
Michael: Absolutely, nostalgia can hold us back. Its real. When we think about the reasons for making a switch, there are push factors and pull factors. The pull factors are the promises of what could be, but whats often more interesting are the anxieties and habits that prevent us from switching. We dont talk about those as much. And as you mentioned, people are more likely to make a change during transitions. I agree. Thats why we see younger students opting for non-traditional schools. Its their first time entering a school building, so they dont have that established community and friendships. Parents see this as an opportunity to start fresh and ensure their children have friends. On the other hand, I believe that middle and high school students are more involved in the decision-making process because they dont want to leave their friends behind.
Michael: Yes, there are some major news stories here, and without delving too deeply into the specifics, there have been significant declines. As you mentioned, community colleges were particularly affected last year. And it seems they are facing similar challenges this year, based on what Ive heard anecdotally. Whats interesting about this is that community colleges are usually counter cyclical. What I mean is that during tough times when people are searching for jobs, they often turn to community colleges. However, last years recession was an exception to this trend. I suspect its because community colleges were not proactive in embracing online learning. They didnt provide accessible options for parents who couldnt leave their children at home while school was out of session. Perhaps they didnt offer the short-term programs that could quickly get people back into the job market.
We recently interviewed a community college president on my Future U Podcast about higher education, and he talked about online learning resembling correspondence courses. This reflects a dismissive attitude towards the flexibility that adult learners, who make up a large percentage of college students, truly need. Now, looking at the bigger picture, all undergraduate programs, except for for-profit universities that have a stronger online presence, experienced a decline. Freshman enrollment overall dropped by approximately 13 percent, and this disproportionately affected low-income and minority students. Many argue that this represents a missing class, the students who needed the social capital that comes with a degree to succeed in the workforce more than anyone else. So, there are legitimate concerns about the long-term ripple effects from an equity perspective.
Now, lets consider another perspective. Interestingly, enrollment in graduate programs, especially among part-time and minority students, actually increased. Whats the reason behind this? Im not entirely sure, but I believe graduate programs tend to have stronger online offerings. Even before the pandemic, around 35 to 40 percent of masters programs were fully online. In some ways, this sector was better prepared and could provide more flexible options. We know that people desired short-term options that were not full degrees, such as certificates and credentials that could quickly enhance their job prospects and help them reenter the workforce.
Diane: Its an intriguing twist, but also concerning as we continue to focus on educating those who are already educated and leaving others behind.
It makes me wonder, though. We discussed a lot of statistics, and as you mentioned, does it genuinely matter or is it just on the fringes? These numbers may appear significant, but when we consider that there are over 55 million students in America, will it truly impact the education system? Can we expect any real changes?
Michael: Im very curious to hear your thoughts on this, Diane, but my impression is that its likely to have a greater impact than we anticipate, but perhaps in the long run. What I mean is, pods and micro schools are unlikely to become the majority of education models. Most people probably wont choose them, and perhaps they shouldnt. However, these alternative options represent a significant enough minority that their decisions have ripple effects on the system. The seeds are being planted now, and parents are realizing they have more choices. They are experiencing new possibilities and gaining a deeper understanding of what education could look like. Many of these micro schools are introducing mastery or competency-based learning, for example. This will undoubtedly influence their perspectives. We are witnessing the emergence of formal instances of pods and micro schools, with companies raising venture capital to establish structured mechanisms for these models.
Diane: Oh my, I really need to discuss something with you because its really bothering me. For the past twenty-five years, I have been involved in the construction and transformation of schools. These designs incorporate expeditionary learning and elements that aim to break down the barriers between schools and the community. I have always been against schools that have rigid ways of doing things. However, lately, I feel like my thinking has been extremely limited.
Michael: Thats interesting because I never would have expected that from you.
Diane: Well, based on what we know about the science of learning and what it takes to prepare students for a fulfilling life, along with the technology we have access to, its clear that education has not fully utilized any of these resources. Moreover, there are abundant community resources that are being overlooked. Im starting to question why schools have to be confined to a physical building five days a week. Until now, that has been the norm in my mind, but as we discuss this and witness the issues with the traditional model, Im beginning to wonder if the pandemic and its ripple effects will lead enough people to realize that its time for a change.
In fact, I believe this could spark meaningful innovation on a larger scale. The reality is that school is not working for a significant number of students, families, and even our communities and society as a whole.
Michael: I agree with you.
Diane: Its got me thinking, are we finally seeing the catalysts for significant change? This is a big question were grappling with here.
Im really excited for our next episode, which will delve deeper into this topic. But before we wrap up, have you been reading or watching anything unrelated to education? We dont want people thinking were only focused on one thing.
Michael: Thats a great question. I just finished a book called "Maverick" by Jason Riley, which is an intellectual biography of Thomas Sowell. I must admit, Diane, I had no prior knowledge of his works or the intellectual tradition he comes from, which I now realize is a shame. You probably have more familiarity with him since the Hoover Institution at Stanford is in your backyard.
For those who are unaware, Tom Sowell, a black orphan from the Jim Crow South, has had an incredibly prolific career writing about various topics including race and economic history. He comes across as an independent and influential thinker, never adhering strictly to orthodox opinions. I learned a great deal from the book. One takeaway that resonated with me, and something we often discuss, is the importance of valuing every individual and not leaving anyone behind. Labels should never limit someones potential. That message really struck me. What about you? What are you currently reading?
Diane: Thats fascinating. I knew Sowell had written about charter schools, but I wasnt aware of his personal history. I find it intriguing. Currently, I am engrossed in a book called "Design Justice" by Sasha Costanza-Chock. Constanza-Chock is a faculty member at MIT and Harvard, based in your area, Michael. Through my work with Summit, I have been focused on design and redesign, using what we believe to be the most advanced approaches. However, the design justice community described in the book challenges the limitations of some of these practices. It goes back to what you mentioned earlier – who is overlooked in the design process and who is marginalized. To their credit, they dont just criticize, but also offer interesting and promising new practices. The book is filled with important ideas.
Michael Horn, a prolific writer on the future of education, has authored multiple books, including his renowned work "Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns." He collaborates with a diverse range of organizations to drive the transformation of education, aiming to provide all individuals with the opportunity to pursue their passions and unlock their full potential.
Diane Tavenner serves as the CEO of Summit Public Schools and is also a co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. As a lifelong educator and innovator, she brings her expertise to the forefront and is known for her book "Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life."