Pandemic School Models Accelerate Disruption

In the mid-90s, the late Clayton Christensen introduced the world to “disruptive innovation,” a process whereby smaller organizations, that often are less well-resourced, are able to successfully challenge established institutions. The disruption cycle begins when the well-established institution focuses on “improving their products and services for their most demanding (and usually most profitable) customers, thereby exceeding the needs of some customers and ignoring the needs of others.” When this occurs, new entrants emerge to target overlooked customers, attracting them first by a lower price, while slowly improving their performance. When the established organization’s mainstream customers are attracted to the new entrant, disruption occurs.  

The seeds of disruption have been germinating in the education marketplace for years, growing as many private schools priced themselves out of reach of the middle class. Charter, micro-, and online schools were among the first disruptive entrants, with other variations proliferating over the last decade. Although these early disrupters have not been significant competitors to most independent schools to date, the conditions created by the pandemic may accelerate parents’ openness to considering alternative education options.

Homeschooling and Learning Pods Gain Traction

As the pandemic raged through fall 2020, weary parents looked for ways to meet their children’s education needs, either through a replacement school or with supplemental resources. Homeschooling, learning pods, and other models captured their attention as they grew concerned about costs, quality, and safety. Although homeschooling has been around for decades, COVID-19 accelerated its move upmarket, making it perhaps a more disruptive force than it was pre-pandemic.

When schools shuttered in spring 2020, almost all parents found themselves running a homeschool to some extent. Although independent schools quickly moved to distance learning, many public schools did not, and those families struggled to support their children’s education needs. Even as schools opened in the fall, many parents chose to continue with homeschooling, some out of safety concerns, and others because they found that homeschooling offered unexpected benefits. Education futurist Michael Horn is writing a series for Forbes on his choice to homeschool his own children, taking readers through the reasons for the choice and the successes and challenges his family is facing.

According to an EdWeek Research Center survey, 9% of parents who were not homeschooling their children last school year planned to do so for at least part of this year, whereas in a typical year, only 3% of families homeschool. An EdChoice survey noted that safety historically has been the primary driver for choosing homeschooling and that still holds true through the pandemic. The survey also uncovered that the pandemic has opened some families views to the benefits of homeschooling, with roughly half (47%) of parents who were not homeschooling last February viewing it more favorably in May/June, compared to a quarter (24%) who viewed homeschooling less favorably. Of course, the big question is how many families will continue to homeschool once a vaccine is available and most schools return to traditional modes of operation. Many who have tried homeschooling say that issues around socialization and managing their own work schedules will drive them back to their pre-pandemic school, while others say they may continue to homeschool.

One form of homeschooling, learning pods, has received much attention during the pandemic. Learning pods are groups generally made up of 10 children or less who learn together with a hired teacher or a parent as a guide. The EdChoice survey found that most parents using pods see them as a supplement, rather than a replacement for school, with the main driver being educational enhancement or socialization. Parents choosing learning pods tend to have younger children and higher incomes.

Learning pods are unlikely to compete with traditional school post-pandemic. “For pods and microschools,” says Tom Arnett, senior research fellow in education at the Christensen Institute, “the runway offered by pandemic-induced nonconsumption will likely run out some time next year—long before they can evolve into attractive alternatives to conventional schooling. When the pandemic ends, most families are going to say ‘good riddance’ to their COVID-19 stop-gaps and go back to the incumbent system they’ve long relied on.”

But pods may have staying power as education supplements. Organizations like Outschool offer thousands of classes in everything from arts and crafts workshops to more traditional core subjects like reading comprehension. We need to observe how these more structured organizations evolve, as they may become competitors over time as they enhance their offerings. They also could challenge independent schools by competing for the teaching workforce.

Online Schools Evolve and Expand

Not surprisingly, online schools also have evolved this year. One of the most interesting new entrants is WorldOver International School, which bills itself as a private online school built for the 21st century learner, with this mission:

WorldOver International School fosters a global, virtual ecosystem for students in grades K-12 to thrive. Borderless learning for students across the globe leads us to discover that we are more similar than different—and that together, we can solve problems. Using the best of 21C technology, collaboration tools, design thinking, project-based learning, and a focus on the whole child, WorldOver International School provides a comprehensive educational experience. An experience that fosters global relationships, spurs local action, cultivates student interests and strengths, enhances critical-thinking skills, and develops lifelong learners who become problem-solvers and changemakers in their communities and the world.

The school is a nonprofit and has established a special tuition rate for founding families of $10,000/year. Given families weariness with the online environment, it will be interesting to see if new online entrants like this appeal to families when the majority of  schools return to face-to-face operations.

Models that combine high school, college, and work experiences will continue to evolve. DaVinci Extension, a program offered to DaVinci charter school seniors, allows them to earn one year of transferable college credit for free through their college partners—Southern New Hampshire University, UCLA Extension and El Camino College. The program also includes work experience through internships and boot camps that are part of the DaVinci community.

I predict that we will see an expansion and evolution of gap year programs. According to Ethan Knight, executive director of the Gap Year Association, “Broadly speaking, I’ve seen data that says we might expect 400,000 youth taking a gap year this year. And normally, we see close to 40,000.” Knight says that he also expects increased interest in AmeriCorps service programs and gap year programs with small cohorts “to provide a small group of students with mentorship and in-person opportunities outside of their families’ homes, while still following social distancing rules.” Given the number of students who are putting off college next year, there is an excellent opportunity for independent schools to reimagine the gap year and begin offering alternatives as early as summer 2021.

So how should independent schools approach this pandemic-driven disruption? In a 2013 interview on the topic of managing disruption, Clayton Christensen pointed out that, when we want to make sense of the future, we generally look at data from the past and that is insufficient to the task. Instead, he suggests that we use theory to investigate the future, noting that “You have to have a viable perspective about why things might turn out differently than they did the last time.” To develop theories, Christensen suggests focusing attention on those questions that you need to ask so that you can “catch the issues of the future.” This will be important work for both leadership teams and boards in the years ahead.
Donna Orem
Donna Orem

Donna Orem is NAIS President.


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