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LISTEN — Class Disrupted S3 E5: Where Are Students Learning This Year?

By Michael B. Horn and Diane Tavenner | November 2, 2021

Annie Spratt / Unsplash

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Class Disrupted is a bi-weekly education podcast featuring author Michael Horn and Summit Public Schools’ Diane Tavenner in conversation with educators, school leaders, students and other members of school communities as they investigate the challenges facing the education system amid this pandemic — and where we should go from here. Find every episode by bookmarking our Class Disrupted page or subscribing on Apple Podcasts, Google Play or Stitcher (new episodes every other Tuesday).

In this episode of Class Disrupted, Diane Tavenner interviews Michael Horn about exactly where students are learning formally this year, what’s driving the change in enrollment in public schools, and what the longer-term impact will be.

Listen to the episode below. A full transcript follows.

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Michael Horn: Hey, Diane. It is good to see you. And I will report that we got away for the weekend to Vermont, which was terrific because New England foliage is in full effect, so all the colors. And we actually realized we hadn’t been to Vermont since the pandemic began, so it was nice to renew what had been for us, some annual fall traditions. How are you doing?

Diane Tavenner: That is awesome, Michael. I’m so glad to hear it. I’m envious. We don’t get much of that fall foliage here in California where I am, but I will report, we are getting rain right now, which is….

Michael: That’s huge.

Diane: …. A huge cause for celebration. It’s interesting, I think one of the effects of the last few years has been just having incredible gratitude for things that, I hate to say it, but I used to take for granted. And droughts, and fires, and whatnot have made me really appreciate even light rain storms.

Michael: I hear you, I hear you.

Diane: And it’s in that vein, Michael, that I’m really grateful to be in conversation with you for a third season of Class Disrupted. Neither of us expected this. We truly thought we’d do one season, and then things would be back to normal or we were hoping for an improvement to normal. But here we are, season three, and things are far from normal and perhaps never will be.

I think the changes to our world and education, specifically, that were brought on by the initial pandemic, seem that they’re going to have ripples well into the future. And unfortunately, it remains to be seen if we will ultimately see positive impacts, but that won’t keep us from trying to nudge things in that direction.

Michael: Certainly not.

Diane: And so this season, we’re doing that by getting really curious and really nuanced about a bunch of fun topics.

Michael: Well, and if last episode was my turn to grill you along those lines, Diane, about how standards impact curriculum. I believe today, you’re getting to flip the tables and grill me, if I’m not mistaken.

Diane: That is the idea and definitely my intention, Michael. I’ve been tracking and getting really interested in one of the big conversations that has been sparked by the pandemic, and that is really where kids learn. I’m going to admit that as a lifelong public educator, I honestly have a really big blind spot about kids learning in places other than well, honestly in school buildings. And so like many others, I haven’t historically paid much attention to all the other places kids learn formally. That said, I know you’ve been tracking this for years, and so I’ve got a bunch of questions for you.

Michael: Let’s dive in. I’m looking forward to them.

Diane: All right. My first question is super basic and it really is, where are kids learning during this pandemic, Michael? I read these headlines every day about how districts are missing, in some cases, tens of thousands of students. I’ve seen reports of pods and private schools, and an increase in homeschooling, and online schooling, and increasing numbers in charters. Although in my view, that’s still a school building, so kind of the same. But all of that begs the question, do we have reliable data on where kids learn and what is our best guess about what’s happening as a result of the pandemic?

Michael: Totally good question, Diane. It’s interesting before the pandemic, just as quick context for folks, majority — obviously — of folks went to public schools, right? And to your point, that was largely districts. Charters had a nice, healthy, I think roughly 5 percent or so of enrollment. Private schools had a little bit more than that. Full-time virtual schools were just a few 100,000 students, so not that significant. Homeschoolers were roughly three and a half percent of students, maybe a little bit more depending on counts. And it’s always tricky to get homeschooling counts because they don’t always love to report and states don’t always collect correctly.

But as we look into 2020, so the previous school year, of course the data are, by definition, always lagging. But some things are starting to become clear. So first, you’re right. The number enrolled in districts dropped by roughly one and a half million students, so that’s out of a population of roughly 51 million or so. So roughly 3 percent of students dropped out of districts if you will. This was disproportionately among young children. So pre-K and kindergarten dropping by 13 percent.

Now, interestingly enough, you said it was traditional, but enrollment in public chartered schools, and we should say all chartered schools are public schools, surged by 7 percent. So roughly a quarter million students, up to roughly 8 percent of the schooling population. Education Next’s survey says maybe it’s declined some back down to 6 percent, but it seems up regardless. Some of that growth does seem to be in virtual charter schools, so that would be not traditional, right? And then private schooling, we know a lot of people flocked to private schools during this. They found the money because they wanted places that were open and it went up to 11 percent.

And then the really interesting story, I think, is the pods and things of that nature. Homeschooling rose significantly. People love to talk about how it had been growing rapidly for years and years, not really true. Grew rapidly from 1999 to 2012, and then it sort of plateaued to be honest, Diane. And I kind of felt like it’ll never get above 10 percent based on our calculations because most people need a place to send their kids during the day, where they’ll be safe and with adults, and with other friends to learn from, and so forth. And yeah, homeschooling is not isolating, but it takes a certain parental structure or family structure to be able to give your kids those experiences. And I was wrong during the pandemic, 11 percent homeschooled, according to the census. And what’s really interesting is black students became the majority of homeschoolers for the first time. They’re generally the lowest participation. They went up to 16 percent.

Diane: Wow.

Michael: Right? And so last thing, which is there’s some findings recently from research out of Stanford. The 74 did a great piece on it, that suggested that the enrollment drops were highest in places that were all remote. So that says people were looking for in-person options, whether that was pods, or private schools, or chartered schools. But here’s the thing that’s interesting to me, it wasn’t uniform. Relative to other families, a disproportionate share of black families actually preferred remote. And it’s something we’ve talked about, of course, that there was great mistrust, not just for the reasons of the pandemic, but because of all the conversations around race and how our institutions have let so many black and brown families down, not just during the pandemic, but for years now.

Diane: Forever.

Michael: Right? And they were seeing it now firsthand. Where the schooling wasn’t coming online, or they did see the schooling and they didn’t like what they saw. This lack of trust in institutions really actually meant that where they were in person, those families just didn’t show up and that’s why you saw that rise in homeschooling, I think.

Diane: Well, so that is fascinating. And as you said, it’s lagging. It’s about last year. I know that the data lags, but do we know anything about this year? We’ve seen some significant changes this year. Schools going back to in-person like ours, where we were out most of last year and that’s happening across the country. Are there signals or trends? Is it too early to know anything?

Michael: Yeah, that’s a good question. Here’s the thing, there are actually a lot of data starting to emerge saying that enrollment perhaps is not rebounding as people had expected, which is really interesting. According to Titan Partners, one and a half million students are still in pandemic pods this year or micro-schools.

Diane: Wow.

Michael: That is a finding that I did not expect, right? I thought it would be more significant than people thought, but I was not one of those people who thought it’d be in the millions. So according to Titan survey, that’s what they think.

Los Angeles Unified, in-person. They saw a further decline of 27,000 students from last September when it was already down.

Diane: Wow.

Michael: So that’s another drop. The state of Hawaii has roughly 13,000 or so students generally, they’re down 2,000 students down to 11,000 students, so we’re seeing this drop persist. Now, it’s interesting. First graders seem to be up a little bit. So people that maybe held their kids out of kindergarten, kind of like my family, I’ve sent them back right into first grade. Although interestingly enough, as you know, my kids are in a private school, not necessarily what I expected going in. But second-, third-, fourth-graders, they’re still down.

And I would say one other thing which is, we saw a lot of policies over the last six to 12 months that put a lot more school choice into action, like West Virginia, Arizona, Florida, and elsewhere. A lot of education savings accounts and other vehicles to make these pods, and micro-schools, and other alternative schooling arrangements way more accessible to way more people that may not have had them before. And so my own sense is that we’re seeing a flourishing of options right now. And a lot of families, I think, feel empowered for the first time. They realized, “Oh, wait. We don’t just have to send to the school in our zip code. We actually have more choice perhaps than we realized.”

Diane: It’s interesting, Michael, there’s a little bit of a side note here, but we’ve been sort of tracking the trends around educators departing the profession. And one of my hypotheses is that they have a lot of other options to stay in education work, mission work, working with kids, but not in the traditional confines. And they similarly are making those choices, and so it’s interesting to hear your stats and wonder if those two groups are matching up.

Michael: So interesting. Yeah, it’s so interesting because you’ve been tracking this for a while now. You’ve been talking about this for at least six months to me, and you’ve basically said that there’s this other market materializing where teachers can get paid, if not the same, maybe more in some cases and have considerably more autonomy or flexibility over those working arrangements, and maybe not the same security, but it creates this optionality that I think people haven’t known before.

Diane: Yeah. It’s fascinating, which brings me to this question of what might drive families to choose something other than brick and mortar schools in their local geography? There’s a historical set of reasons, but then there’s also this interesting set today and you’ve already surfaced something is definitely happening with black families on this front. And that, of course, is not surprising given how poorly served they are, both historically and currently. But are there known reasons why families choose something other than their local school?

Michael: Yeah. So this is maybe my chance to geek out if you will… You did the curriculum last week, but yeah, I’ll keep it high-level. But I love the theory of jobs to be done, which is sort of the set of reasons that cause people to move and take action. And before the pandemic, we had done this research about why people would switch and choose independent schools and chartered schools. And it was interesting, we saw high-level for jobs to be done. The first was essentially parents saying, “My kid’s in trouble. I need to help get them out of trouble.” Right? That makes sense. And often success by the way, was getting that child to a place where they could go back to the neighborhood school interestingly enough. But the second one we see a lot of is, I want to be in a community of like-minded individuals and that could be for any set of sort of norms and values and beliefs.

OK. The third was I trust that my child is getting a good enough academic education. I really want to focus on the whole child. It’s something that we talk a lot about, right?

Diane: Right.

Michael: Social, emotional life skills, habits of success. I want a well rounded child. I’m not interested in the rat race of the academics for its own sake. And then the fourth is really all about the rat’s race that we’ve talked a lot about, which is essentially parents saying like, “No, I want my kid to follow my plan for them. And I want the school to help get them into that four-year dream college that I see.”

Diane: So optimizing for a particular outcome.

Michael: It is very like… And you see this friction a lot of times with schools where they want to be all about, say the third one I listed, right? The whole child and the parents they are attracting are all about like, “Get my kid into Stanford.” Whatever it is. Right? And so my sense is that the pandemic hasn’t changed those jobs, but it’s exacerbated several of them. Like the trouble is obvious, right? You’re not in-person. My kid needs support now. Get me into there.

Diane: Yeah, just compounded on so many levels.

Michael: Exactly. And it’s just exacerbated and frankly, for all of them. And so I think the order of magnitude and the passion around all of them is at heights that we’ve never seen before. And I think we’ve seen lotteries in districts for a long time and parents choosing to have their kids go to schools that maybe were not their neighborhood school but less of a change than perhaps a charter school or an independent school. But I’m curious because you’ve seen kids switch into your schools and I suppose some out for a long time, what have you learned over the years of this?

Diane: I mean, everything you shared, Michael, really resonates. I think in my experience, what I might be able to add to this is that, it’s a pretty significant choice when a family decides to not go with whatever sort of the normal traditional option is. And there can be a lot of costs to that if you will, from the community and friendships. And also there’s a lot of emotion that’s wrapped up in that, that it feels like judgment for people who aren’t making that choice. So there’s a bunch of stuff that goes on to suggest that people really… It’s a big choice when they make a choice to do something different. And I think that historically it’s been a private school, which for some people that was kind of their normal choice set up. And then as a charter school leader, we’ve experienced this for 20 years where many, many families choose to stick with the known quantity over a new school or a school of choice, even though it seems to be offering more of what they want.

And I think generally when people do choose, what I notice, it’s either at a natural transition point. So it’s much easier to make a different choice when you’re either entering in kindergarden or entering a middle school or entering a high school when there’s a natural transition. And as you said, when it’s not a natural transition time, what we see most often is that something really, really isn’t working for the child. And you talked a bunch about that just a minute ago. Of course, we haven’t talked yet about families do move. So, that is a factor. Although in my experience, a lot of families work really hard to keep the school year steady, quite frankly, they plan they’re moving around that and whatnot, so they don’t disrupt it. And so, one of the reasons that I am really interested in school design is because people really don’t make these whole school changes very often. And it’s why this trend and theme is really interesting to me.

Michael: Yeah. And just to amplify what you just said, Diane, what is so interesting is you talked about how big a decision it is and the social dimensions to it, with the fabric of your community and people having expectations of you and we’re social beings. We care about others’ perceptions and the emotion, right? All the research on learning loss aversion, excuse me, not learning loss, loss aversion. Freudian slip there, I suppose. But people become so worked up in this of like, what am I missing out on if I don’t go with that neighborhood school or they don’t have the homecoming and football team experience that I perhaps did not like as much as I think I did at the time, but I idealized, right? In my mind, and I think it’s interesting.

Diane: I think that we’ve talked about a lot about nostalgia and its impact.

Michael: Totally, right? That nostalgia holds us back, right? Those are real… When we think about jobs to be done, we think about what’s pushing you toward a switch and there’s push factors. Like it’s not good enough the pull of the promise of what could be, but maybe more interesting is the anxiety and the habits that hold you back from switching. And we tend not to talk about that so much. And what I think is interesting around that is you talked about the transitions, people being more likely to make it then. I think that’s right. It’s why I think you see more younger students not in traditional schools, because for the first time they were going to enter a school building in effect, they didn’t have that community, those friendships and so forth. And parents looked at it and were like, wait, they’re not going to develop those things. I get to choose now and start whole cloth and make sure they have those friends. Whereas in middle or high school, I suspect a lot of students were way more part of that decision-making process and saying, I don’t want to leave my friends behind. Right?

Diane: That’s definitely consistent with my experience. And you’ve got other voices making those decisions. And I was curious about the difference between younger and older and you’ve answered some of those. I’m also wondering about the next phase of life. What about college, Michael? I’ve seen a lot of headlines and some data reporting that the number of students entering college since the pandemic has dipped pretty significantly, I’ve seen some nuance on that around males. So I’m curious if we know anything about that. The little bit of pulling apart that I’ve done seems to suggest that a lot of that dip might be in community college going, which that’s a whole other conversation we could have given the democratic proposal to heavily, heavily invest in community college, wondering if that’s the right choice. But anyway, what do you know about college?

Michael: Yeah, there are some huge headlines here and without getting too much in this specific data, there are dramatic declines. As you said, community colleges in particular were significant last year. And they seem to be significant this year as well. So far is what I’m hearing anecdotally. And here’s the thing that’s so interesting about that, community college tends to be counter cyclical. And what I mean by that is when times are rough and people are looking for jobs, they tend to go to community college. Well, we had a recession last year that did not happen. Right? And so I suspect that’s because community colleges weren’t really that forward leaning into online learning. They didn’t create accessible options for parents that couldn’t leave a kid at home now, right? Because their school wasn’t in session, maybe they didn’t have the short-term mix of programs that would get someone back into the job market quicker that they wanted.

And so we interviewed one community college president on my Future U Podcast around higher ed. And he was talking about online learning as correspondence courses.

Diane: Oh, no.

Michael: So that was 20, 30 years ago at this point, right? So I think it just shows the dismissive attitudes toward the flexibility that adults who make up a huge percentage of college really need. And here’s the bigger picture though, which is that all undergrad, except for for-profit universities, which are more online, had declined, it was roughly 13 percent overall for freshmen and it fell disproportionately on low-income and minority students. So a lot of people are speculating, this is kind of a missing class, right? The students that probably needed the social capital that comes with the degree to get ahead in the workforce, maybe more than anyone else. And so there are serious concerns from equity perspectives around what’s the ripple effect longer term.

Now, I’d just like to flip this on its head for a moment. Interestingly enough, enrollment increased in graduate programs and especially part-time and minority students. So what’s going on there? I don’t know, but I think graduate programs tend to be more online. And so roughly before the pandemic, 35 to 40 percent of master’s programs were fully online already. So in some ways I think that sector was better prepared and can create more flexible options because we know people wanted even really short-term options that were not degrees, just certificates, credentials that would quickly be job relevant and get them back into the workforce.

Diane: It’s a fascinating twist and a little bit worrisome as we just continue to educate the educated and leave the others behind.

And it makes me wonder. That was just a whole bunch of statistics there that we talked through. And you’ve alluded to this, but does this all really matter or is it still around the edges? I mean, these sound like big numbers, but when you’re talking about 55 million plus students and in America, will it actually impact the system? Will anything really change, do you think?

Michael: I’m super curious about your answer on this, Diane, but my sense is that I think it’s likely to matter more than we might expect, but in the longer run. And what I mean by that is, no, I don’t think pods are going to be a majority of school. And I don’t think most people are going to go to micro schools. I’m not sure they even should, but it’s a significant enough minority of people that are making these decisions, which has ripple effects on the system. So seeds are being sown right now. And parents realize they have more choice. They’re experiencing new options and having deeper senses of what schooling could look like. A lot of these micro schools are introducing mastery or competency based learning, for example. Well, that’s going to change their minds, right? There are a lot of formal instances of these pods or micro schools now being created where we’re seeing companies spring up that are raising venture capital and other things to create formal mechanisms.

Not all of them will succeed, but some of them are going to grow. And I think that will increase the pressure on the existing system to innovate or else they’ll keep losing more students, and you know you lose 10 students in a very tight budget, and that has impacts on your per pupil funding with fixed costs. You can’t just adapt very quickly to that, right? It’s a huge ripple effect. And so even with these school choice trends that I think are going to have more popular support behind them, I think in the short term I’ve been dismayed at the lack of real change, but I think it leaves me more optimistic that districts will have to figure out ways to be responsive or else in the longer run. What do you think?

Diane: Oh, goodness. I wanted to talk with you about this because it’s really provoking me. I’ve spent two and a half decades building and redesigning schools. And as you know, those designs include expeditionary learning and elements that really break down the walls between school and community. And so I’m not in schools that have these really tightly bound ways of doing things. And right now I am feeling like my thinking to date has been super constrained.

Michael: That’s fascinating because I would not have put you in that corner.

Diane: Well, given what we know about the science of learning and what it takes to prepare students for a fulfilled life and given the technology we have access to, and as you and I both think education has not truly really taken advantage of any of that yet. And honestly, all of the rich community resources that exist, I’m really questioning myself as to why does school have to be in a school building five days a week? And even in my mind, that’s sort of been a given and as we’re talking about this, and we’re seeing what’s going on, there are so many issues with that traditional model. And I really am starting to wonder if the pandemic will ultimately in all the extenuating factors of ripples will enable enough people to say no it’s time to rethink.

And in a way that presses real options, the real innovation at a scale that is interesting and meaningful, the reality is school is not working for a significant number of students and families. And I would argue for our communities and our society, quite frankly.

Michael: Agreed.

Diane: And I’m just starting to wonder, are we finally seeing the catalysts to meaningful change? And so, of course that’s a big question we’re grappling with here.

And it makes me really excited for our next episode. But before we wrap, what have you been thinking about reading, watching that’s not education? So people don’t think we’re completely one dimensional.

Michael: Good question. So I just finished a book called Maverick, which is an intellectual biography of Thomas Sowell. And I confess, so it’s written by Jason Riley of the Wall Street Journal. I am totally embarrassed, Diane. I wasn’t familiar at all with his works before, or some of the intellectual tradition, even from which they come, which feels like a bit of a travesty. As I’m saying this to you, you probably were more familiar given that Hoover Institution at Stanford is in your backyard, but I just hadn’t been exposed to really any of it.

And for those that don’t know, Tom Sowell was born as a black orphan in the Jim Crow South, and he’s had this incredibly voluminous career writing across a lot of different topics from race to economic history and so much more. And he comes across as a really independent and important thinker, who’s never stuck to the orthodoxy opinions. So as a result, I learned a lot from it, Diane. I’ll say one takeaway I had, which is similar to a lot of our conversations, which is the importance of not leaving any individual behind the value of each individual. And realizing they’re not described by any one thing and no label should constrain their ceiling, if you will. And so that was a message that I took to heart from that. What’s on your list?

Diane: That’s fascinating. Sowell has done some writing on charter schools, but I didn’t know his personal history. And so I’m fascinated by it. I am deep into a book called Design Justice by Sasha Costanza-Chock. And Constanza-Chock is in your neck of the woods, Michael, a faculty member at MIT and Harvard. My work with Summit has been all about design and redesign and using what we believe are sort of the most advanced approaches. But the design justice community that is described in the book is calling into question the limitations of some of those practices. And I think it goes back to what you just said, who gets overlooked in the design process? And who sort of gets left out and left on the margins? And to their credit, they’re not just being critical, they’re really offering some interesting promising new practices. And so I think it’s filled with some really important ideas.

Michael: I love the hope. I love the solutions, right? That’s what we need. And that’s the outlook of all this as we sum up, I think there’s a lot of change happening. No one knows exactly where it’s going to land, but if it lands with all of us being more responsive to the individuals that need it the most, that’s a win for society. And I think we remain optimistic that we’re seeing movement hopefully in that direction. And with that, I’ll just thank all of you for listening to us. Once again on, Class Disrupted.

Michael Horn is the author of numerous books on the future of learning including Disrupting Class: How Disruptive Innovation Will Change the Way the World Learns. He works with a portfolio of organizations to help transform education so that all individuals can build their passions and fulfill their potential.Diane Tavenner is CEO of Summit Public Schools and co-founder of the Summit Learning Program. She is a life-long educator, innovator, and the author of Prepared: What Kids Need for a Fulfilled Life.

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