Editor’s note: This commentary from Michael B. Horn, co-founder of the Clayton Christensen Institute and executive director of its education program, first appeared on Substack.
As pandemic pods have spread around the country and reporters and families are trying to make sense of this moment in the sun for micro-schools, I’ve been talking to the different entrepreneurs supporting these experiences for students, families, and educators.
A central question on reporters’ and educators’ minds has been equity. With over 50% of school districts planning on remote learning in the fall, there’s concern that those with the most resources can find or create good solutions, whereas those with the least will be stuck without any suitable schooling and child-care options.
Given the existing opportunity gaps for students from low-income and minority backgrounds before the pandemic, and the assumption that many have suffered deep learning losses since March while those from relatively well-off families likely found learning opportunities through their home environment if not their school, there is heightened sensitivity around the question.
This feels right on the surface.
But a recent conversation I had with Chris Bennett, the founder and CEO of Wonderschool—a company that matches families to child-care and micro-schools near them, gave me pause (you can watch the interview here on YouTube).
Think of Wonderschool like an Airbnb for launching education programs. The company has been operating since 2016. Before the pandemic it was growing fast, as it helped people start infant and toddler programs and preschools out of their homes.
When I asked Chris about the equity question, he urged caution around making presumptions.
“It’s really hard to get visibility into what’s happening for families all over the country that are coming through this,” he said. “But my guess is [that low-income and middle-income families], they’re figuring this out, just along with, you know, very wealthy families that are out there doing this.”
The son of immigrants from Honduras who grew up in Miami in a large family of 31 first cousins where he was the first to graduate from college, it’s a question Chris takes seriously. He credits his own success with having been enrolled in a great preschool program.
As he said, “It’s something I think deeply about. You know, the mission of Wonderschool is to ensure every child gets access to the education they need to fulfill their potential. And so, we are very, very committed to every child getting access, especially when I share my story.”
That’s where the second point comes in. Low-income and minority parents are far more likely to prefer that their children do not return to school buildings until the pandemic has passed than their counterparts. For example, according to one survey, 64% of black parents want remote learning versus 32% of white parents. Most families making less than $50,000 want remote learning, whereas 27% of families making more than $150,000 feel the same way.
As Morgan Polikoff, co-director of the study, hypothesized, “These communities may have already been harder hit by the virus, and they have seen more of what the actual impact is on people’s health.”
The findings, which have appeared in survey after survey, also suggest that these families do have child-care options in place.
The final thought also goes back to something Chris shared with me.
“What’s really exciting about this movement is this could potentially lead to funding for micro-schools from our school districts, from our state governments, from our from the federal government,” he said. “And if there’s funding for micro-schools, just like there’s funding for public school or funding for charter schools. Then, suddenly, you know, everyone gets access to a micro-school.”
As Chris observed there’s already a vehicle in some states to do just this: Education Savings Accounts (ESAs), which are funded with public dollars that allow families to spend the money on micro-schools and other education services. In Arizona, for example, ESAs allow students to attend micro-schools from Prenda, a hot startup in the micro-school arena.
“All I keep thinking is why isn’t that available nationwide? If that’s available nationwide, then the equity component is solved for,” Chris said. “Now the quality component is the next level, that’s something that we’re going to have to solve for, but that’s an issue about every type of micro-school, no matter how wealthy the parent is.”
Most public schools haven’t eagerly jumped in to support this trend Chris acknowledged, but given the funding exists, he’s bullish about the greater opportunity. And to be fair, there are some districts that have seized the moment to create learning pods themselves and ensure all their students have adequate options, such as the Adams 12 district north of Denver and others featured in this Chalkbeat article.
That resonates because although I’ve argued that disruptive innovation of schooling is unlikely in the United States, I’ve also long hypothesized that if it were to occur, it would come about in the form of an Airbnb platform making home-schooling and micro-schooling far more accessible to many more families who were over-served by the existing schools and just wanted a customized schooling option that fit their needs.
Stay tuned to what happens to Wonderschool. It was one of the hot startups before the pandemic hit, but in supporting micro-schools, it appears they are remaining relevant and will continue to grow. And in so doing, another part of the Wonderschool story is that they are enabling educators to earn significantly more money by pricing their services in the market. As Chris shared, one preschool teacher on their platform was able to earn the same salary that she earned in a year in just a month and a half by starting her own school.
To attract the talent in the teaching profession that children need to develop, that could also be a game-changer.
To continue reading this article and to learn why Horn believes community colleges shouldn’t be the answer to upskilling in America, click here.