Personalizing K-12 Learning to Meet the Needs of Students & Families

CKI's Lisa Snell offers her perspective on how the ongoing pandemic may affect education, challenges of our current educational system, and how she’d like to see a “permissionless” system.

August 18, 2020

Lisa Snell, director of K-12 education policy partnerships for Stand Together Trust, leads the effort to promote a more diverse range of educational options for students and families so that every student can thrive. A policy expert on topics such as education funding, homeschooling, money following the student, and the future of schooling in America, Snell offers us her perspective on how the ongoing pandemic may affect education, challenges of  our current educational system, and how she’d like to see a “permissionless” system.

Are we seeing tectonic shifts in how America approaches K-12 education, and what role is coronavirus playing in that? 

COVID-19 has made starkly clear that at the end of the day it is the parents’ responsibility to make sure their children are educated. With many schools now closed and remote learning becoming the norm, parents have become much more intimately involved with the day to day education experiences of their children. Seeing more closely how their children learn has led to an unprecedented level of questioning about our traditional schooling practices that largely rest on a one-size-fits-all approach to education. Some of this is out of necessity (parents need to work and take care of their children), and some of this is out of a new curiosity about whether there might be other education options that better meet the needs of their children. There are several tectonic education shifts that COVID-19 has helped to accelerate: the recognition that students can learn everywhere; the realization that learning is foundational to our entire lives, and not just something that only happens in formal K-12 schools; the knowledge that a much broader range of adults can be teachers; and the idea that education should be more family-driven with families having more engagement, autonomy, and decision rights about how their children learn. Ultimately, COVID-19 has moved us further down a pathway where education is customized to meet the individual needs of students and families and the purpose of education is to help students reach their potential based on their own interests and capabilities.

How is the pandemic changing homeschooling, and the perception of it? 

Between 30-60 percent of parents are expressing discomfort in multiple polls with sending their kids back to school in Fall 2020. Last Spring parents around the country experienced their children learning at home for the first time and it brought a new awareness about how homeschooling can meet the needs of their children. Many are now focused on a range of unconventional education arrangements for hybrid models of homeschooling, from parent-co-ops to microschools or nanoschools with a few students and a teacher. While many may return to more traditional schooling arrangements, we’re currently seeing an unprecedented turn to new models of homeschooling and family-driven education models.

On balance, is America’s educational system serving our children well — and why, or why not? 

The quality of our education system is too often tied to arbitrary geographic school district boundaries and the ability of families to afford expensive housing in the United States. These boundaries are often gerrymandered by school boards and school districts to keep property wealth inside a community and that property wealth is tied to the quality of public schools. There is not equal opportunity for every student to have access to a diversity of education options, and the existing residential assignment system denies access to high quality schools to too many children. The K-12 public education system is structured so that students cannot move freely between education options, and therefore there is little incentive for improvement or change. The system has been on automatic pilot for a long time as an industrialized model that was originally designed to serve a factory-based model of employment.

Why should people pay attention to the debate about education policy in America? 

Educational opportunity and progress have already helped to create a more inclusive and peaceful world. Education plays a crucial role in securing economic and social progress and improving income distribution to help every person rise. In the United States our relatively free economy has mostly overcompensated for our rigid and anti-competitive public-school sector. In other words, despite mediocre performance of our public-school system, many people have benefited from relative economic freedom in our country. Historically, there have been other countries with higher academic achievement but with more limited economic freedom, and this has been detrimental to individual prosperity. However, if the United states could work toward an education system that helps every individual reach their full protentional through educational freedom, we could usher in a new era of opportunity for individual prosperity.

What’s the one reform that can make the most difference toward improving education for our children?  

We need to disentangle education opportunity from residential assignment. Every student should have open access to a diversity of education solutions regardless of the student’s home address. We also must create a modern school finance system that unbundles public resources from school districts and attaches funding to individual students, much more like the funding model for early education and higher education in the United States. Students should have access to public education resources as they move freely through a more diverse set of education options.

What does the future of education look like in America? 

I imagine a future for education that looks much more like other sectors where people make important lifestyle decisions driven by individual choices and preferences from higher education to entertainment to health care; where folks can choose individualized pathways and endpoints based on their interests and needs. My hope is that we will move to a “permissionless” education system that looks much more like the rest of the economy, where people use technology to support their individual decisions and are able to move autonomously through different service providers based on individual relationships. This will be in stark contrast to our current system driven by the desire for standardized outcomes where individuals are assigned to institutions, to teachers, and to learning models regardless of their individual preferences.