Districts Should Be Able To Offer Virtual Schools In Fall

Not For Their Own Sake, But To Move Away From One-Size-Fits-All Schooling Model

Today’s newsletter focuses on three items:

  1. Why cracking down on full-time virtual school options isn’t wise;

  2. Reader reactions to the purpose of schooling;

  3. And a trio of extras with highlights from Future U, Class Disrupted (and Joel Rose’s provocative op-ed in The Hill), and a talk I gave recently about why Silicon Valley isn’t the source of disruptive, market-creating innovations as popularly believed.

When I was living in Korea studying its education system on my Eisenhower Fellowship in 2014, I learned firsthand how regulators and policymakers reacted to the growth of after-school cram schools (what are called “hagwons”) through a range of crackdowns and policies banning certain egregious practices.

And yet, like running water, families and entrepreneurs always seemed to find ways around the regulations.

What was happening? Rather than tackle the root cause of why families were desperately seeking private educational options—a constricted higher education system through which flowed economic opportunity and traditional schools that weren’t working—they tried to tackle supply through bans and restrictions. In other words, their responses continually ignored the demand-side—the struggle people were experiencing, the progress they were trying to make, and what they wanted to help them.

It turns out that simply cracking down on the supply of something doesn’t address those root causes. People were still frustrated and, as certain practices or programs were banned, found other workarounds (that were also suboptimal).

So it is in the United States now with full-time virtual schools.

Amid a nationwide push to get students back in school, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy has said that school districts in his state won’t be allowed to offer virtual learning next year—even for parents who want that option. He’s not alone.

Some have suggested that the theory of action here is that because in-person schooling is better than remote schooling for a majority of individuals, by mandating that people enroll, we will show the misguided families who want to opt for virtual learning are wrong—and that we can do in-person schooling safely.

But banning virtual schools in the U.S. is like banning hagwons in Korea. It’s a supply-side response, but it doesn’t address the root causes of the challenge: the demand side.

According to The 74, “one recent Ipsos/NPR poll found that nearly 30 percent of parents would rely on virtual learning ‘indefinitely’ going forward.” Although I’m pretty confident we won’t see 15 million children learning remotely next year, even a tenth of that number would represent roughly a quintupling of the virtual school population prior to the pandemic.

Why do they want to learn remotely? For many reasons, many of which aren’t safety related.

As I argue in a new piece for Education Next, “Don’t Ban Virtual School. Improve It.” a significant number report that full-time virtual school has been a blessing for them. In other cases, deep mistrust of the existing system explains people’s desire for full-time virtual schooling. As Johns Hopkins Professor Annette Anderson told me a few months ago, many minority families feel that the schools haven’t historically served them well, they lack trust in public institutions because of the rapidly shifting information they have received about the pandemic, and they have concerns around economic hardship and racism that pre-date the pandemic and George Floyd’s killing.

Eliminating options, like virtual schools, isn’t going to solve that underlying problem. You can only do that by improving brick-and-mortar schools and reestablishing trust.

In the piece for Education Next, I write that although full-time virtual school hasn’t been ideal for most, that it’s worked better for some is as it should be.

Our present-day school system was never built to optimize all students’ learning. Instruction happens at fixed intervals, and progress is based mostly on seat time, not mastery. Students can skate by while missing large chunks of knowledge. The choppy remote and hybrid offerings that districts launched in response to the pandemic generally doubled down on that system and were often clunky at best.

Bucking the poor online experiments of 2020-21 and launching a robust virtual school as part of a broader strategy to escape today’s one-size-fits-all system can be a tremendous positive—but only if districts take a thoughtful approach. Such an approach would involve identifying the desired end state and considering the student and teacher experience before picking technology and curriculum vendors. Check out my piece here in which I lay out a blueprint for how districts should tackle setting up virtual schooling options.

Reactions to the Purpose of Schooling

Several of you had a lot to say on my previous post around the purpose of schooling. So much so that I thought it worth quoting from a few of the responses.

Scott Ellis, founder of The Learning Accelerator and MasteryTrack (which many more educators should be using), made the point that part of this has to do with setting clear priorities and that perhaps the question ought to be what’s the most important purpose of schooling, not what’s the purpose of schooling. I’m sympathetic to that given I once saw a superintendent name roughly 15 priorities for the year in a presentation. As I remarked afterward, if you say you have 15 priorities, you really have no priorities. Scott also noted that schools are constantly reinventing the wheel on a lot of this work, and that the differences between schools and districts are far fewer than those inside of them might imagine.

Raymond Rose noted that many schools will say that they are doing all the things I talked about in the piece. “It’s less the what and more of the how.”

Bob Harris similarly expressed skepticism about educators who are saying they don’t want to return to normal. As a former head of HR in districts, he said he hears it, but is waiting for the evidence.

Mike Goldstein, founder of Match Charter Public Schools, told me to drop “Habits of Success” and “Health and Wellness” from my list. Why? Schools aren’t “so good at non-school work-related habits, and most don't transfer.” And “many places have a robust market of alternative ways to produce health and wellness in kids. Public Schools typically don't do very well in this domain.”

Bern Shen noted that while having different goals and models for different communities makes sense on one level, it could also “perpetuate some class and geographical differences.”

I think that’s right, but it shows that I should have been more specific! It also relates to one of the reasons why I included health and wellness on my list of five—which is based in research Julia Freeland Fisher and I published at the Christensen Institute back in 2015 in a paper called “The Educator’s Dilemma.” The basic point is that circumstance matters. In certain cases, families provide several of these supports so that students come ready to learn. In those cases, schools don’t have to concern themselves with, say, health. But in other cases, students don’t have this support—and if schools don’t ensure they have the supports, learning isn’t going to happen either. That gets back to Scott Ellis’s argument around what’s the most important purpose—and seeing other aspects as scaffolding to deliver on that “most important purpose.”

To stay on Bern’s point, equity in my view isn’t providing the exact same thing. In this case, it’s providing—or ensuring—that each individual student has the right thing for to maximize his or her odds of success.

I’ll have more to say on all of this in the months ahead, but I also found Paul DiPerna of EdChoice’s response with polling data on what parents and the public think is the purpose of schooling informative. For Grades K–8, a majority (58%) of Americans think core academic subjects are extremely important. For Grades 9–12, topping the list were core academic skills again (55%), but also skills for future employment (55%). Parents held a similar view.

Three More for the Road

On the Future U podcast, our penultimate episode of the season featured a “Reporters Roundtable on Vaccines and Visas” with Elissa Nadworny of NPR, Nick Anderson of the Washington Post, and Karin Fischer of the Chronicle of Higher Education and Open Campus.

On Class Disrupted, we hosted Joel Rose, cofounder of Teach to One, to talk about why now is the moment to lean into innovation—not back away from it—and how we need new learning models to advance the possibilities for all students, not just the third who get by in the current education system. Check it out at “Shifting Mindset To Upend Grade Levels.” I also recommend Joel’s recent provocative oped in The Hill, titled “Federal education policies will trigger a second wave of learning loss.” I agree with his argument—and hope people are ready to grapple with it.

Finally, I gave a short talk for the Tugboat Institute that I recommend titled “Innovative Theory: Framework for Executing Innovation.” Silicon Valley is widely believed to be the source of disruptive, market creating innovation. In the talk, I deconstructed this myth and argued that Evergreen® companies—operating under long planning horizons and a focus on profitable growth—are actually poised to be the engine for future market creating disruptive innovations. Check it out here.

Thanks for reading, writing, and listening.