Education is essential. It’s somewhere between food and roads on the list of essential services (less essential than food, more essential than roads). The American educational system is pretty good, but has needed a redesign for quite a while, and, as with so many other things, covid-19 has shone a spotlight on both the needs and the problems.
Covid-19 also gives us a perfect opportunity to redesign how we provide education, from early childhood through advanced degrees.
Everything is figureoutable.
As an innovator, I need to make clear right up front that it’s insane to think that we can assume and build the perfect answer within a couple months. All the affected parties need to understand and accept that the only way to do this is to work together, try things, stay flexible, and assume positive intent. (Or, I guess I should esay, “assume positive intent with the suggestions for new ways to provide education.” I’m not sure that “pretend like everything’s fine and cram thousands of kids back together” is positive intent. At best, it’s lazy.)
As an experienced innovator, I also know that getting a large group of humans to do those things is going to be far harder than actually creating a great, safe, educational system. But let me lay out my plan and see if there’s any part of it you can pick up and run with.
A note on formatting….
This is a really long and involved essay, but I really want it to start a conversation and maybe prompt action, so I’ve marked places in it with icons from The Noun Project:
|This is an action you can do right now|
|This is a question or request for input|
|This is a BIG IDEA|
I think this plan, which I’m calling “schoolhoming,” addresses some of the main issues with education in general and education during pandemics in particular. Please let me know what you think is good about it, what’s problematic about it, or any ideas you have for improving it.
What I don’t want to hear is “that will never work because it’s not how we do things now.” I know it isn’t, but we created the system we have now…we can create a different one.
I also don’t want to hear that we can’t do it because it’s hard. We put people on the Moon. This is the future of our nation and possibly our planet; it’s worth a little effort.
We need to stop collecting hundreds or thousands of kids and adults in large enclosed industrial buildings. Instead, I suggest that we establish many small “schoolhomes” or school houses throughout each district. We group students into cohorts of about 12, and each cohort has their own location where they get all their schooling. I believe this plan combines the best of what we know about homeschooling, student-teacher ratios, group sizes, psychology, and pedagogy. It also addresses epidemiology, as the cohort functions like a macro-organism, just like the family or care home residents that have been quarantined together.
Belief: Chunking out school into geographically distributed small cohorts is better than the large industrial processing model we use now.
There are several testable hypotheses from this belief. For instance, my school district has offered families the choice of 100% online education or 2 days per week in-person. We could offer a third option of schoolhoming and measure how many families sign up for that. That would give us a go/no-go. If it’s a go (and my prediction is that demand will exceed supply), we select families for the pilot year and provide the education this way, at the elementary, middle school, and high school levels. We then measure the academic achievement, psychological well-being, and rate of infection of the students, teachers, staff, and family members of the whole district and compare the 3 approaches. We also measure the cost of each approach for a cost-benefit analysis.
UPDATE: I go into more detail about cohorts (or pods) here.
I have to hope that school districts are planning to measure all those things this year already, and compare the fully online approach to the in-person approach for a risk/benefit analysis, but I have to admit I haven’t heard anything to suggest they are. If you are a teacher, school administrator, student, or have a kid in school, you might contact your school board and ask them to collect actual data.
So how would this work?
This is obviously a huge change from how we do things now. Public schools are set up to benefit the stakeholders rather then the users – they are as easy and cheap to administer as possible. Everything else is the best you can do within those limits. This is why they are big central buildings: easy to clean, easy to run the physical plant, easy to provide food, easy to transport students to and from.
The benefits schools have over homeschooling or small private schools is that you have a large and diverse student body so kids get exposed to people and cultures they wouldn’t otherwise, and you can have sports teams and musical groups and interest groups because the small percentage interested in an activity is still large enough to do it. I haven’t figured how to get these benefits with Covid-19, so if you have ideas, please share!
If we limit cohort size to 12 students, we would need about one teacher for every 12 students. That is a wonderful ratio for learning! I say “about,” because at the elementary level, the teacher would be part of the cohort and remain with the students from kindergarten through 5th or 6th grade (there are discussions about when to shift kids to specialized learning). Let’s say 6th grade. From 7th to 12th grade, however, each subject should be taught by a subject matter expert, so while the student cohort stays together, teachers rotate between cohorts. We’d need to do the math on how many of which expertise we’d need.
Either way, we need a LOT more teachers.
Turns out there’s a high level of unemployment in the US right now, so that might help…but we should still take a hard look at the incentives for teachers. First up, we need to increase the pay scale for them, and it needs to reflect how much they actually work. We need to fund schools so that teachers don’t have to purchase supplies and furnishings. We need to provide strong health and pension benefits. We should get creative with other benefits – the psychic income is great (I’ve been a high school teacher), but it would be nice to get other bennies.
One thing we might consider is counting teaching as national service, along the lines of military service. Currently education is funded locally, which makes sense, but federal assistance for training and certifying teachers as well as paying for relocation if needed would help. Teachers should get the same corporate love that uniformed military does: preferential seating on airplanes, private lounges, discounts for goods and services, things like that. Our nation has no future without teachers; they are national security.
Obviously, right? This is where we will need to get super-creative in the short term. The key is to locate each schoolhome near where the cohort lives if possible, so they don’t have to travel much (to reduce risk, contagion, and time loss). If a family is already homeschooling, they might consider opening their home to more students and that home becomes the schoolhome/cohort. (I’m working with some medical folks on “How to De-Distance Safely”). Otherwise, we need to find spaces that are in the cohort’s neighborhood, in the school district, or at least very close to the school district.
In the long term we might want to build schoolhomes that are specifically designed for the purpose, but for the 2020-2021 school year we should have open minds about what can be a school. Here are some of the first options that come to my mind about finding space for groups of 12+ kids and a couple adults. In all cases we need to figure out custodial services (enhanced ones, for covid). School meals can be provided the way they are now in many districts, with busses running the bus routes to deliver them, but some schools may develop the Cupertino model where parents bring hot lunches to the school. Some neighborhood groups may pull together to provide breakfast and snacks.
Empty stores/strip mall pads and empty mall spaces – these are common, and becoming more common by the day, in suburban and some urban areas.
Pro: they already have electricity, HVAC, WiFi, and maybe even plumbing. They have parking. Pre-schools and commercial “supplemental learning franchises” like Kumon and Mathnasium use these kinds of commercial spaces, so we can use them as models (both for space design and for insurance/legal/zoning).
Con: Landlords need rent and may or may not see their way clear to discounting rent for schools (see the section below on “Convincing Business to Help.”). Not a biolphilic learning environment; little to no nature or outdoors. Not usually an option in dense urban areas.
Airbnbs – Owners of rental vacation properties are being hit hard by the recession and the pandemic. Perhaps some would be happy to host school in their property?
Pro: It’s a win/win for owners who are parents. The location might be in the middle of the residential area where the cohort lives, reducing commute distance. Already have bathrooms, electricity, HVAC, maybe WiFi. A home environment is nice for learning. We could use the same legal/zoning cover as homeschools. May have yard or outdoor area. Apartments may have existing building security.
Con: Only full-unit rentals are a good match. Insurance is a big question. Not a long-term solution in most cases.
Empty office building spaces and co-working spaces – WeWork needs a PR boost, and all coworking spaces are feeling the financial pinch of the pandemic. Office buildings in urban and suburban areas are rarely at 100% capacity. The business owners have a strong motivation to support this, because parents aren’t coming back to work without school options.
Pro: Coworking spaces are ideal for learning/education, especially for junior high and high school. Already finished space. Even unfinished space in office buildings has power and water. Parking is available and most are near public transportation. The buildings have other amenities such as food options. Schools have been housed in office buildings in cities since the early 1900s. Existing building security.
Con: No outdoors/running space in most cases.
Trailers/containers (good enough for our government officers) – More than a few of my friends aned family have lived and worked in converted shipping containers, in the US and in warzones. It’s not ideal, but the USG (especially the DOD) has the acquisition plan in place for these. The standard shipping container is too small for a cohort of 12, but pre-made portable buildings already exist as temporary classrooms and office space. And really, nothing says zombie apocalypse quite like this, right?
Pro: there’s already a whole market segment for portable school buildings, designed with the stuff you need.
Con: we’d need to find places to locate them. The whole point of schoolhoming is to keep cohorts together and not mixed with a larger population, and to distribute the school population, so parking a bunch of trailers on school grounds is exactly the wrong answer. Could we find enough vacant lots, unused parking lots, etc?
Let’s get creative – Schoolhoming is more artisanal than industrial. The important thing is that the physical structure(s) fit the area and the needs of the cohort. At the elementary level this can be a general classroom, but at the high school level we’ll need the space to be a science lab in addition to a standard classroom.
I know some parents are probably wondering about security against school shooters and other assholes. One of the benefits of distributing a student population like this is you take away the target for school shooters. If they come from outside the school, they are looking for a big dramatic target environment. If they come from inside the cohort…well, that’s much less likely to even get to that point with a cohort model and a low student:teacher ratio. Some of the space options, like office buildings, come with security. For others, we’d want to consider hiring security, and what that should look like given the environment of the schoolhome. Without the large industrialized school, there’s rarely going to be a need for large industrialized security.
Hey, more jobs! And possibly closer to home.
One of the things that has been a pain point in the American system for years is that the school day doesn’t match the work day. While it would be nice if employers would subsidize child care, since they expect employees to be at work for 8 or more hours a day (whether they need them or not), let’s assume that’s not going to change by this fall.
What is likely to change is that employers will want employees to start coming back into the office, or to be trackably online from the home office for 8 straight hours…which conflicts with getting a kid to and from school and taking care of that kid when it’s at home. With schoolhoming, additional adult staff could provide childcare before and after classtime at the schoolhome, further reducing US unemployment numbers.
Bussing could shift to vanpooling or carpooling. We don’t want lots of students on busses for contagion reasons, but family members are part of the cohort’s virus organism, so those family members who have a schedule that allows them to transport the kids should do so. Ideally each schoolhome would be within walking distance of the student’s home, but that’s not going to be achievable so some schoolhome will require transport. Partnership with Lyft or another rideshare company could help.
Contracts with local cleaning services or the building’s janitorial service help grow the economy.
Parents or school staff can be rotating IT support.
For middle and high school, where subject teachers move between schoolhomes, plexiglass barriers and other distancing measures will be needed. These teachers should also have their travel reimbursed. Some classes can be taught remotely, with the students attending from the schoolhome and the teacher video-ing in.
One of the problems with online classes as they were done at the end of the 2020 school year is that the instructional design assumed traditional in-person, and that doesn’t translate to online. A flipped classroom model asks the students to read the topic, watch the lecture, and uptake any other foundational instruction on their own, then, when the teacher is available, do the “homework.” (Traditional instruction is that the teacher provides the foundationals then you are on your own for homework). A cohort model would allow either approach as needed; some students will do better struggling to figure out the work on their own for some subjects; at other times it’s easy to watch a video about the basics and then work through it when help is available.
One Size Never Fits All
Just like our industrial education solution is a pretty poor fit for most students, we shouldn’t be overly prescriptive or mandate what each schoolhome is like. Some cohorts will be super-advanced students, others will need special accomodations. Some will be in parks in wealthy areas, others will be in empty storefronts in sketchy areas. Each community and neighborhood needs to come together to make a safe, good, space for students and teachers.
Convincing Businesses to Help
The burden of providing education during a pandemic can’t fall completely on schools. Life is too interdependent for that. If businesses don’t participate, parents will be ground up in the friction between the two systems, and childless employees will be forced to pick up the slack at work. Everyone will be even more stressed and miserable and productivity will decrease.
Many large companies already provide some day care or other aids; rather than having to take on all the support and insurance and everything, they could help financially offset the cost of the schoolhomes. This could take the form of providing space for a schoolhome in their office building (after all, if the parents are already working together the kids are a biological cohort already), contributing furnishing or technology (tax writeoff), donating teacher and staff benefits, etc. If a company that’s already providing day care instead gives the space and the amount of money they are spending on it to their local school district for schoolhoming, it will go much farther.
Smaller businesses are similarly impacted and could team up to help with rent offsets or material contributions. Restaurants could help donate meals, getting advertising and good will as well as the knowledge that their employees won’t quit or call it sick because they have no childcare options.
Essentially, childhood education and childcare is everyone’s business in any community, even for people who don’t have children. If you want a strong economy and a nation that continues to develop, you need to figure out how to provide some element of it. If you don’t want to be the one forced to come into work during a pandemic because the people with kids can’t, you need to help your business figure out how to help.
The data and tracking of all this will be a huge lift, so data science and AI companies and tech companies can help! Designers and architects can help.
What have I not thought of (good or bad)? How might we try this on a small scale in certain places? If you homeschool, can you contribute your best practices or advice? If you are a public school teacher, would you be more or less comfortable with reporting to a small home or office every day, where you and 12-25 students were the only people?
What does a rough-and-ready prototype of this look like in your neighborhood?
We can figure this out!
Chunking out school into geographically distributed small cohorts is better than the large industrial processing model we use now…let’s try it this year!Tweet