If the pandemic vanished tomorrow and all U.S. schools instantly reopened in exactly the same fashion as they were operating last February, how many parents would be satisfied to return their daughters and sons to the same old familiar classrooms, teachers, schedules and curricula?
A lot fewer than the same old schools and those who run and teach in them are expecting back!
Of course there’d be plenty of pent-up anger and frustration over the “lost year,” anxiety about kids struggling to catch up, and resentment of educators, administrators, and school boards (and unions!) that couldn’t or wouldn’t get it together for them during the plague. But would all that fade into gratitude for being able to resume the status quo ante? Nope.
Some fading would doubtless happen over the months. But how many millions of families would insist on something different instead of docilely accepting schooling as it operated before the plague hit?
This will not forever be a thought experiment. By September, it’s likely that the overwhelming majority of U.S. schools and school systems will “re-open” in some fashion. But how many families will docilely troop back to the same-old, same-old?
We have mounting reason to believe that plenty won’t just accept a “return to normalcy” even if schools offer it, and will instead insist on educating their children differently.
According to a prominent pollster, less than one-third of U.S. parents even want their children returned to full-time, on-campus instruction in fall 2021 in the same schools they attended in March 2020. His data indicate that 13 percent seek full-time in-person education in different schools, 8 percent favor home schooling, and nearly half prefer either hybrid or wholly on-line instruction.
Some of this stated reluctance to resume the status quo ante is surely health related. Many kids won’t yet have been vaccinated. But consider this, too: As deeply ingrained as is the habit of “going back to school” in familiar ways and places, after you spend enough time doing it differently, you get different ideas about how it should work, greater clarity as to what you’re really looking for, and less willingness to take for granted that it can’t be any different than it used to be.
Mike McShane has a fascinating long essay in the latest National Affairs that describes and lauds what he terms “hybrid home schooling.” (And while you’re on the National Affairs website, please also read Kay Hymowitz’s superb piece on the “cultural contradictions of American education,” derived from her chapter in Mike Petrilli’s and my recent Templeton Press book on How to Educate an American.)
McShane has an expansive view of hybrid home schooling, whereby children “attend formal classes for part of the week and are homeschooled for the remaining days.” This takes many forms and he offers multiple examples, lots of which were functioning well before Covid-19 hit. Most of his examples are private, often religious, but by no means all. For instance, Mountain Phoenix Community School outside Denver is a progressive charter school, organized on the “Waldorf school” model, and offers both in-school and hybrid options. McShane comments that the variety of alternatives available in the hybrid home-schooling space appeals to many kinds of families—liberal and conservative, religious and secular—and to children with all manner of differing needs and interests. What they have in common are parents who are willing and able—often eager—to shoulder at least part of the educational burden for their daughters and sons.
Which is, of course, what millions more who hadn’t set out to do it have been doing—whether eager or just stuck—during the past year. Even as many will be relieved to get out from under that responsibility, think how many more may want to persist with some form of it.
The Wall Street Journal also reports an upsurge of interest in home schooling: not just parents hybridizing with their children’s regular school to manage remote instruction, but actual home schooling in which parents take on responsibility for imparting the requisite skills and knowledge to their children. Says one mom of her kids’ previous school during the pandemic-induced shut-down: “They were having to build the ship as we go. But after they built the ship? It still wasn’t floating.” Because her seven- and twelve-year-olds were “increasingly frustrated and bored,” over the holidays “she and her husband decided to rejigger their work schedules, pick a curriculum and start home schooling….” The reporter recognizes that “It isn’t clear how long new home-schooling families will stick with it” once traditional schools get back into full swing. But some surely will, whether full time or in hybrid fashion, the more so if a lot of parents find that they can continue working from home, at least some of the time.”
This is not a new insight. Back in May, Mike Petrilli was pointing to the emergence—and merits—of “half-time high schools.” Back in August, Bruno Manno (among others) was helpfully cataloging the many new forms of schooling—and school choice—that were emerging in response to Covid-19 (and sometimes long before that), driven by the inability of traditional schools to give millions of families what they want and need, by the creativity of parents (and education entrepreneurs), and by the proliferation of flexible forms of instructional organization, governance and financing that have emerged in state after state.
A century ago, as American GIs returned from the Great War, a popular song asked “How ya’ gonna keep ‘em down on the farm (after they’ve seen Paree)?” Which is to say, what’s going to bring people back to the old familiar school once they’ve seen and experienced something better?
We cannot yet know how many U.S. families will demand something different, but it won’t be a small number. Educational innovation and change may be in for their biggest boost in memory. Not everything different will work better—we’ve seen that in the variegated performance of charter schools, for example—but some will.
I know it won’t be equitable—as was sadly true of “same old” schooling and has been exacerbated in many ways by the Covid-19 experience. Low-income and single-parent families won’t have as many options or opportunities. There will be supply problems even for upper-middle-class families located in districts and states, where—by law, by regulation, or by economics—the only options on offer are “same old” public schools, pricey private schools and full-time home schooling.
Yet some enterprising families will find ways to overcome those obstacles. Maybe a lot will. Some laws will change. Some hybrids will emerge that have never previously been sighted in those communities or accessible to those families. Certainly the opportunity is immense—and the appetite appears keen.
If a lot fewer families settle for the “industrial-style” school model that previously enveloped them, I say bravo. I also note that this moment was created in large part by the failure of most industrial-style schools to provide what their clients needed and wanted during a period of enormous stress. To channel the late Clayton Christenson, the situation is ripe for disruptive innovation. Much as Paris was enticing to American farm boys in 1919, new forms of schooling are appealing to Covid-weary American parents today.