redefinED’s best of 2020: You better start swimmin’ for the times they are a-changin’

Matthew Ladner

Editor’s note: During the holiday season, redefinED is reprising the “best of the best” from our 2020 archives. This post originally published July 20.

Come gather ’round people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You’ll be drenched to the bone

If your time to you

Is worth savin’

Then you better start swimmin’

Or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin’

 — Bob Dylan

We at redefinED and others have been writing for years about the rise of the micro-school movement. Five years ago, an article in Wired magazine, titled The Techies Who Are Hacking Education by Homeschooling Their Kids, discussed the rise of homeschooling in Silicon Valley, quoting Jens Peter de Pedro, an app designer from Brooklyn:

“There is a way of thinking within the tech and startup community where you look at the world and go, ‘Is the way we do things now really the best way to do it?’ If you look at schools with this mentality, really the only possible conclusion is ‘Heck, I could do this better myself out of my garage!’”

Matt Kramer, CEO of the Wildflower Foundation, which supports a network of micro-schools, told Education Next in 2017:

“We’ve seen a 30-year decline in teacher satisfaction to an epically low level. Micro-schools offer a creative new way of thinking about teachers acting like social entrepreneurs.”

You didn’t need to be a soothsayer to see this was going to get much bigger.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if, 5 to 10 years from now, everyone looks at this and thinks, ‘That grew a whole lot faster than I thought it could,’” observed Andy Calkins, deputy director of the Next Generation Learning Challenges, in the same article. “There is a slice of the market that is not being served by public education. They’re saying, ‘The public schools don’t work, [and] I can’t get into the charter schools.’”

Simply visiting a few of these schools is enough to convince you that they would grow. They’re fun, but their approach to the education equity issue is just as obvious.

Step Up For Students’ director for policy and public affairs Ron Matus gave us multiple examples of how Florida micro-schools are leveraging scholarship programs to allow disadvantaged students to access teacher-led micro-schools (see here and here). These education innovators have created a path for the micro-school movement to proceed in an inclusive and diverse fashion.

And then the pandemic struck, slamming the pedal to the metal.

The Washington Post reported last week in an article titled, For parents who can afford it, a solution for fall: Bring the teachers to them:

Fed up with remote education, parents who can pay have a new plan for fall: import teachers to their homes. This goes beyond tutoring. In some cases, families are teaming up to form “pandemic pods,” where clusters of students receive professional instruction for several hours each day. It’s a 2020 version of the one-room schoolhouse, privately funded. Weeks before the new school year will start, the trend is a stark sign of how the pandemic will continue to drive inequity in the nation’s education system. But the parents planning or considering this say it’s an extreme answer to an extreme situation.

And this weekend, education writer JoAnne Jacobs shared a post from a Berkeley, California, mom that read in part:

If you are not a parent/in a mom’s group, you may not be aware that a kind of historic thing is going on right now. This week, there has been a tipping point in Bay Area families looking to form homeschooling pods. Or maybe ‘boiling point’ might be a better term.

Sound niche? It’s actually insanely involved and completely transformational on a lot of levels. Essentially, within the span of the last 48 hrs. or so, thousands of parents (far and away mostly moms because that’s how these things work) are scrambling through an absolute explosion of Facebook groups, matchups, spreadsheets, etc. to scramble to form homeschooling pods.

These are clusters of 3-6 families with similar aged (and sometimes same-school) children co-quarantined with each other, who hire one tutor for in-person support for their kids. Sometimes the tutor in question is full time and sometimes part time/outdoor classes, depending on the age of kids and individual circumstances … Suddenly teachers who are able to co-quarantine with a pod are in incredible demand.

This is maybe the fastest and most intense PURELY GRASSROOTS economic hard pivot I’ve seen, including the rise of the masking industry a few months ago. Startups have nothing compared to thousands of moms on Facebook trying to arrange for their kids’ education in a crisis with zero school district support.

I swear that in a decade they are going to study this because I have never seen an industry crop up and adapt so fast. Trends that would typically take months or years to form are developing on the literal scale of hours.

The writer goes on to acknowledge the equity elephant in the room: Only families with means are going to participate in this trend, absent programs to assist disadvantaged students:

The race and class considerations are COMPLETELY BONKERS. In fact, yesterday everything was about people organizing groups and finding matches; today the social justice discussion is already tearing these groups apart. For one thing, we’re looking at a breathtakingly fast acceleration toward a circumstance where educational access and stratification is many times more polarized even than it already is.

Distance learning is hell on all children. Suddenly high-income families are going to all supplement it with quarantine pods and private tutoring, and low-income families will be stuck with no assistance for 8 yos who are supposed to be on zoom for 5 hrs. a day. This is on top of already not having a way to work with children stuck at home, and being more exposed with “essential” jobs.

For another, the most obvious solution to this, i.e. individual family clusters scholarshipping disadvantaged kids into their pods, doesn’t even work at scale because there is a high correlation between kids who can’t afford tutors and kids in families where strict distancing rules just aren’t an option. None of us have any idea where this is going to go. All possible actual solutions require government-level intervention beyond what school districts can do, and that’s clearly not going to happen. I don’t even have a kid the right age, but I’m volunteering in some places around this and the situation is just … a really major story.

A major story indeed.

What can be done? Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt included scholarships in the use of federal emergency aid. More governors should follow suit. Moreover, states need to allow K-12 funding to follow children now more than ever.

In the meantime, you better start swimmin’ or you’ll sink like a stone. The age of K-12 self-reliance is here. Forced by harsh circumstances, it has arrived while our ability to include equity remains tragically limited.

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