How families and students — not institutions — are innovating education

We recently spoke with Adam Peshek, a Stand Together Trust senior fellow, who covers a range of education policy issues, from education choice to innovative learning models.

August 28, 2020

We recently spoke with Adam Peshek, a Stand Together Trust senior fellow, who covers a range of education policy issues, from education choice to innovative learning models. We asked him for his take on the short- and long-term impacts of COVID-19 on K-12 education, what educational developments will best help students, and what the future of education looks like in America. 

What short- and long-term impacts will COVID-19 have on K-12 education? In what ways can we ensure children are still learning during this time of disruption? Are there lessons there that can inform how we approach education long after the pandemic has passed?

The short-term impacts are already known. Many schools will have been closed for at least two semesters. That’s not only a year’s worth of learning, it’s a year without friends, teachers, teams, extracurriculars, and many of the other bonds that young people build in their formative years. It’s also meant parents have had to rearrange their entire lives — and many have been unable to return to work, which adds even more stress to an already stressful situation for families.

A key lesson learned is that we need a more resilient education system that can adapt to meet the needs of individuals regardless of the circumstances. Look at any poll, and there are wide differences of opinion regarding how education should look during COVID-19. It seems like everyone is looking for the option that works for 51 percent of families and teachers, instead of using this time as an opportunity to break up the bureaucracy and allow educators and families to create solutions that work for everyone involved.

There are teachers willing to teach in-person and families who want children to be taught in person. There are educators who are much better at online teaching than others. Some educators are incredible at building strong personal connections with students. Why are we not trying to rearrange the system so that educators can do what they’re best at while offering families the variety of options they crave? In many ways, this pandemic has shown that a one-size-fits-all system usually works for no one. 

What would you hope to see in education circles over the next one to three years?

We’re seeing a phenomenon that is uniquely American. Unwilling to standby with schools closed, families are coming together to create “learning pods,” microschools, homeschooling co-ops, and other innovations to ensure continued learning and socialization. Individuals — not institutions — are innovating during this crisis.

What if we actually took this and ran with it? What if we had a system that funded students,  not school buildings? What if we let educators build the type of schools that they’d want to teach in, and let families decide which ones appeal to them? It’s my hope that we get closer to this type of a system — one built by families and educators from the bottom-up.

Why are you so passionate about education? 

I’m passionate because education, if done right, leads to self-confident, enlightened, and independent individuals who are prepared for whatever comes their way.

Education should not be about coaching kids to get past the next checkpoint in the standardized process. Education is also not about pushing kids down predetermined paths or predefining what “success” looks like for an “average” student. Education is a lifelong process of discovering what you’re passionate about, developing your skills, and preparing you to do what you love in ways that contribute to society and help individuals live a happy and healthy life. If we can do this right, how many societal challenges will be solved? 

What does the future of education in America look like?

The future of education is individualized. The systems we have today were designed a century ago at a time when “the back door of the schoolhouse led to the front door of the factory.” It was designed with that world in mind: grouping kids into cohorts of the same age, teaching them a standardized curriculum, and moving them from subject to subject based on the time of the day, with little regard to how much learning was or was not taking place before the bell rang.  

Instead of a system so focused on the amount of time a child is sitting in a seat, the future of education needs to reflect the workforce and society as a whole. It needs to prepare students for a new world that requires different skills and mindsets than allowed individuals to succeed in a factory economy. We need a system that gives families more ownership of their education and one that treats students as unique vessels of untapped potential and not just a deviation from an imaginary “average student.”

Should we be optimistic that we’re moving towards this future of education in the near term, one that “gives family more ownership of their education” and treats students as unique and not an “average student?”

I think so, and I think it is happening organically. The largest contributor is that families are demanding more because they have come to expect more in all other areas of life. We no longer live in the world of three television channels, taxi cartels, or having to settle for what your local store offers. Nearly every sector of life is rushing to provide families more and better options, and families are increasingly asking for the same level of individualization from education.

The ability for families to “DIY” education has been democratized by the internet — the greatest vehicle for spreading knowledge since the invention of the printing press. Families not only have more access to curriculum, lessons, and answers to questions, they have unlimited sources of support on how to craft their child’s education from website and (increasingly) education support forums and groups. The internet has also provided the space for families to come together to form homeschool cooperatives, microschools, after-school clubs, and other innovations that reflect the sharing economy we live in.

Families that want to send children to a conventional brick-and-mortar school have far more options than were available just a generation ago, when most families only had the option of their zoned public school, paying out-of-pocket for a private school, or homeschooling. Today, families can attend a growing number of magnet schools, charter schools, virtual schools, an open enrollment public school, a program within a school, or even send state education dollars to a private school of their choice, as nearly half-a-million students do in states across the country. 

Governments have been slow to support this type of family-directed education, but they’re starting to catch on. In many school districts across this country, more than half the students are attending a school other than their zoned public school – something unheard of just a few decades ago.

The future of education will reflect how we live the rest of our lives: highly individualized options that continue to improve based on thousands of little, local innovations that continually propel the sector forward.