A Nation at Risk, President Reagan’s 1983 Blue-Ribbon Panel’s review of American public education is frequently referenced as the benchmark and starting flag of the reform movement.
Its 37-year reign as the reference point for progress is over.
The pandemic has now taken the pole position; it will be the new reference point for the evolution of public schooling, and changes as a result of COVID-19 will be more rapid and far reaching than any measures of the past 37 years.
From fiscal restructurings to fresh configurations, from a renewed focus on vouchers to millions of new homeschoolers, there is no going back to a pre-COVID world for public education. And while the evolution will be messy, adversarial, and varied across the country, the results will be greater options for children and families and education structures that reflect the society they serve. Here are seven areas of coming change:
1 Remote Learning Is Here to Stay
Despite the forced adoption of remote learning and the absolute bumbling by most school districts during the school closures this spring, remote learning can be an effective, entertaining, mass-delivered, and mass-customized method of transmitting knowledge and enabling students to learn and explore at their own pace and schedule. Remote learning includes a wide array of delivery methods such as online synchronous and asynchronous instruction, large group lectures and small group discussions on products like Zoom, and pre-made lessons utilizing web-based services like Khan Academy and YouTube to explore specific topics.
In the coming years, remote learning will be primarily teacher-designed and led, but all learning is self-learning, and remote learning is a structure that allows students to go as fast and as far they desire. In the future, teachers will evolve to be more of a reference point or touchstone in the learning process as opposed to a planner and designer. Online curriculums, scope and sequence, and tags to delve into any aspect of a topic are becoming ubiquitous. Teachers as guides will be deeply familiar with the learning materials and help students on their learning journey to discern the paths and resources available.
In the final analysis, remote learning will become foundational in American schooling, not because it is effective, which it is, but because it is less expensive. Rick Hess, a scholar at the America Enterprise Institute recently estimated that a generous per-pupil expenditure for remote learning is just over $5,200. When compared to the per-pupil expenditure for in-person schooling of $13,600, remote learning will be widely adopted. The effectiveness and cost savings are simply too compelling to ignore.
2 School Choice and Vouchers Will Blossom
For almost 30 years, parents have been given greater choice in public education whether through magnet schools, open enrollment, district charters, or dual enrollment; but that choice will now flood into non-public school options. Choice will morph from a patchwork of private school choice options to statewide universal programs — a move that will hold down costs and increase opportunities.
Choice in special education can be found in over a dozen states. Parents of a child with special needs can use a voucher to pay for private schooling. The rationale is growing among families that the same choice should belong to the children who do not have special needs. Why should my child with special needs have a “free pass” to a private school, yet my other children must attend public school unless I pay tuition? The special education law developed in the 1970s that stresses meeting the individual needs of each student with exceptional needs will be applied to all students and will seed a revolution in school choice.
3 Homeschooling Will Mushroom
Millions of families will keep their children home this fall. Most will do it because of campus closures or to keep their kids out of harm’s way, but some will embrace designing the school day for their children. For those other parents who are just marking time until the “all clear” is signaled, public schools will need to rapidly rethink their classroom structure and have teachers move to serve children in their homes or in small family pods in community centers, Sunday schools, and heated garages. And after COVID is contained, there’s really no reason to stop the practice. School buildings are expensive to build and to maintain. Various organizations estimate the deferred maintenance on the nation’s 100,000 public school buildings to be in the range of $300 billion.
Just like shopping malls, movies theaters, and office buildings, school buildings will see their need diminish as learning becomes an anywhere-anytime reality. There are over a trillion dollars of school facilities in the nation. As schools evolve, other uses like senior housing will be found for many of those buildings.
Even after COVID is in the rearview mirror, the number of families that continue to homeschool will grow. Homeschooling is no longer exclusively the domain of religious isolationists, it’s an option for families who want more control not only of the curriculum but also of the schedule. The explosion of online learning options and paper-and-pencil curriculums have created a marketplace environment for homeschooling, one that has been discovered by the mainstream during COVID, and there’s no going back for millions of families.
4 Sport Will Uncouple from Schools
There is little doubt that sports programs are a vital part of development. Individual growth, team experiences, and coaching and mentoring can provide meaningful and developmentally significant experiences. But the sporting experience does not have to be organized through public schooling. Already there are abundant avenues to participate in team sports such as football, baseball, and soccer that are organized within communities and outside of schools’ purview.
As schools restructure in the post-COVID era, sport will become more community organized – like it is in many other countries. There will still be organizational rules, eligibility requirements, conferences, and schedules with sport remaining a community focus and rallying point. They just won’t be organized through the schools. Currently, sport is the glue that holds public education together, and it’s time to let school evolve beyond physical facilities and an agrarian and sports-dominated calendar. Community and civic organizations will organize football, volleyball, and every sport currently offered. Opportunities for children and teens to participate in sports won’t be reduced, but as learning morphs from traditional school buildings to homes, pods, and jobs, sport governance organizations will separate from the organizational framework of public education.
5 Teachers Unions Will Shrink
Worker unions are vital in a capitalistic economy, but the economic, technologic, and demographic forces that will shape education in the post-COVID era will overwhelm the significant political might of teachers unions. As vital as the unions have been to the professionalization of teachers, the dispersion of learning and learners will erode the fundamental school-based organizational structure of unions.
Moving 50 million children every day to 100,000 school buildings is rapidly becoming antiquated. The nation will face dramatic business changes, taxes will increase to address the trillions spent to keep the nation afloat during COVID, robotics and AI will continue to replace employees, the gig economy will capture more workers, and the economic structure of the nation will change with the government promoting New Deal-like programs to rebuild infrastructure, build new energy and transportation systems, and support the growth of small and mid-sized clean manufacturing. A smaller portion of public money will be spent on schools and that will hurt teacher unions.
6 Public-Private Partnerships Will Flourish
A public-private partnership or PPP is a contract between a public entity and a private company for the execution of specific projects and services. PPPs are used extensively in schools for food services, maintenance, groundskeeping, and such services as security, legal, nursing, and financial management. While PPPs are not often found in the mainstream classroom, they are used frequently for students with special needs. An estimated 100,000 students are placed in private special schools through the Individualized Education Programs.
School districts are not self-sufficient empires. They need the private sector for everything from floor wax to number two pencils. So calling on companies that can do something better or most cost-effectively for students – foreign language, special education, field trips, athletic training, coaching, remote learning, and so forth — is not an embarrassment because a district can’t do it all itself, but an intelligent use of the marketplace for the benefit of the students. The fiscal challenges ahead combined again with demographic changes and technological advancements will make it more necessary for school districts to use the marketplace. In the name of quality and fiscal management, school districts will evolve from being the provider of everything to making sure that everything is provided.
7 Mass Customization of Schooling Will Be the Norm
As America plows though COVID-related supply chain disruptions and worker displacements, people have adjusted their buying habits. Online shopping has skyrocketed, window shopping and casual trips to stores characterized by “just looking” have plummeted. While individuals long for the return of fans to entertainment venues, friends to large group gatherings, and casual, mask-free trips to the grocery store, the nation has adjusted to evenings at home, walks in the neighborhood, and teleconferencing for both business meetings and social communication. While these changes do not come without adjustment, they will remain after COVID is gone.
So it will be with schooling.
The closing of school buildings this spring forced adjustments to family life. Some parents are longing for the moment they can drop the kids at the school gate and peel off in a cloud of dust. But school closings showed families that a quality school day can be accomplished in two to three hours and has raised the question of why school holds children for seven to eight hours a day. In coming years, the 8-to-3 model of school will fade. Half-day shifts and every other day schooling – schedules that get the school job done and meet families’ needs – will become the norm. For public schools to hold market share they will have to customize the product. Without it, parents will shop elsewhere.
The school closures and massive layoffs related to COVID have brought America’s education system to a tipping point. Changes brought by AI and robotics, the aging of the population, advances in technology, and decades of domination by an antiquated school structure make the return to school-life before COVID unrealistic.
Humpty Dumpty has fallen, and there is no putting him back together again.
John M. McLaughlin, Ph.D. is managing partner at McLaughlin Advisors and a Director at ChanceLight Education. He writes about the future of education, autism, applied behavior analysis, and the special education industry. He is the co-author of We’re In This Together: Public-Private Partnerships in Special and At-Risk Education (2015). His latest book is How Autism Is Reshaping Special Education: The Unbundling of IDEA, published by Rowman & Littlefield.
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