Ep. 210: Big Ideas – “Let’s Get Small” with Matthew Ladner

October 8, 2020

Matthew Ladner joins Jason Bedrick in this episode of our Big Ideas series to discuss their co-authored report, Let’s Get Small: Microschools, Pandemic Pods, and the Future of Education in America.

Jason Bedrick: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy EdChoice. And this is another edition of our Big Idea series. Today I’m very happy to be joined by my good friend and mentor Dr. Matthew Ladner, a fellow at EdChoice who wears many hats, including executive director at redefinED. And he is the co-author with yours truly of a new Heritage Foundation report titled, Let’s Get Small: Microschools, Pandemic pods, and the Future of Education in America, which is the subject of today’s conversation. Matt, welcome to the podcast.

Matthew Ladner: Thanks for having me.

Jason Bedrick: So, before we dive into how micro-schools and pandemic pods are a solution to the problems posed by COVID-19, let’s talk a little bit about what were the challenges that parents were facing during the pandemic.

Matthew Ladner: Boy, I mean, there were plenty of problems in the system before the pandemic, but the pandemic tended to make a lot of them worse. I think that despite a lot of really heroic efforts on the part of people working in district and charter schools, the challenges of trying to create an impromptu system of distance learning were just monumental and predictably uneven in school’s ability to overcome them. But, the system was not designed to deliver digital learning at the drop of a hat and all kinds of problems like access to devices and internet access and just everything in between. So, it was a very trying time. And it’s, I think, just fascinating that I think it’s fair to say that a lot of families had a pretty rough experience with digital learning in the spring and in the summer, as sort of an example of spontaneous order, we started to see the rise of these pandemic pods just around the country, all on their own.

Jason Bedrick: Right. And parents were not looking forward to sending their kids back to school in the fall. We have a poll from EdChoice that 80 percent of parents of K-12 children were concerned that their child might be exposed to coronavirus in school. They weren’t too excited about going back to school. On the other hand, they weren’t terribly excited about having the schools closed and doing distance learning as well. So, about seven in 10 parents said that they were concerned about their kids falling behind academically. And we see that there’s quite a bit of evidence that that’s actually the case, that they lost a lot of learning during the spring. So, you’ve got this study from researchers at Brown and the University of Virginia saying that students were likely to return to fall 2020 with approximately 63 percent to 68 percent of the learning gains in reading relative to the typical school year and only about 37 percent to 50 percent of the learning gains in math.

So, far behind where they should be. Researchers at McKinsey said that this was especially troublesome among disadvantaged populations, lower-income, people of color, Black students might be behind about 10 months, Hispanic students behind about nine months on average. Low-income students generally behind by about a year. So, the achieve in gaps are widening. So, they don’t want to be doing learning at home from distance learning. They also don’t want to send their kids back into these large school environments where students may or may not actually be doing a good job of physically distancing. So, what do they do?

Matthew Ladner: Well, I mean, what we started to see families do around the country was to actually organize themselves into small groups of students. Sometimes with one of the parents taking up the role of sort of the teacher or guide as they’re sometimes called. Sometimes these so-called pandemic pods would actually hire a seasoned or experienced teacher, but these pandemic pods took a lot of different forms. Sometimes the students are just still doing a lot of learning through digital learning with their homeschool or at the school they were enrolled in last year, I guess, maybe what you would call it at this point, sometimes not, but it…

Jason Bedrick: Even in those cases, there’s actually an adult in the room making sure that they stay on task, not just like mom is in another room and dad is in another room down the hall and they’re also at work. Right?

Matthew Ladner: Right.

Jason Bedrick: There’s actually somebody who’s helping coach them, guide them, even if they are using some digital platform.

Matthew Ladner: Yeah. I think one of the interesting ways to think about the micro-school trend that we see out there right now is as working out the kinks of digital learning. Right? And if you think back to the sort of naive enthusiasm stage for say massive open online courses, right, you’ll remember this. Stanford’s giving away courses for free and everyone can take them and yay, we’re all going to have a PhD in quantum mechanics or whatever. I was as guilty of that as anyone, by the way. Right? And the reality is, is MOOCs are great for a lot of students. Right? And there are a lot of people that have access to college course work that wouldn’t have otherwise, but the process of education, many people feel very strongly, is inherently social. Right? That students need classmates, students need in-person access to teachers. Right?

So, the sort of pandemic pod model where you have an in-person guide or teacher, and you have a small number of classmates, right, and you can be mixing in digital learning, right, is a way to kind of take away the problems of digital learning. Right? In the sense that just taking a course online doesn’t provide those sayings. This model does provide those things and actually allows for the creation of some very tight-knit communities, right, which is something that people inherently want.

Jason Bedrick: Right. So, I mean, here, you’ve got a solution that actually meets the needs of the families in the pandemic that’s not a very large institution with hundreds of kids running around and you’re able to minimize the risk of exposure to the virus. But at the same time, it’s not just your kid at home with a laptop and a packet. There’re other kids they can socialize with, which was something parents were also expressing frustration that their kids were feeling isolated socially. So, they’ve got some other kids to socialize with. They’ve got an actual physical teacher in the room who can help coach them and guide them and provide that in-person instruction that they need. And let parents get back to work, which was something else they were concerned about that when it’s just their kid at home, they need to be there for them.

And I can tell you personally, at our house when we, at one point, we had four kids doing zoom learning with their private school. And there was a lot of time management, right, if we get the kid and making sure, “Oh mom, this thing’s not working right.” It’s been tough on parents. So, this was something that actually worked in the pandemic.

Matthew Ladner: Right.

Jason Bedrick: That said, micro-schools were already on the rise before COVID-19. I think this has given a huge boost to them. A lot of parents who’d otherwise didn’t know they existed or wouldn’t have considered them said, “Hey, this is something I want to check out.” Why were they already on the rise? What are they doing that’s so attractive to families?

Matthew Ladner: Yeah. I started paying attention to this trend back in 2015, when I read an article in Wired magazine called, “The Rise of Homeschooling in Silicon Valley.” Right? And the author of this piece was almost apologetic. Right? At first, he was like, “Oh, homeschooling, I know what you’re thinking.” Right? But, this is not what you’re thinking. He featured a family. The father was a software engineer systems manager, and the mother of the family was a feminist blogger. Right? These are not, were not sort of the stereotypical homeschoolers of, at least of 2015. And the overall vibe that I got reading this article was that basically there’s a long established academic literature about enrichment spending at K-12. Okay. And what that literature shows is that high income Americans are spending more and more and more money on enrichment activities for their K-12 students. Right?

This could be anything from private tutors, to Mathnasium, to Kumon and the summer camps, very broad definition. That trend amongst lower income families has been flat over the years, but very steep increase amongst higher income people to the point where it was in 2006, it was almost to $9,000 per year per family. Okay. This is so ubiquitous that we don’t even recognize it for what it is. Right? And that because when you hear about it, this is, “Oh, we’re so busy. I’m driving my daughter here. I’m taking my son there.” Right? That’s kind of what we’re talking about, but that in essence is a form of multi-vendor education. Okay. And the vibe I got from reading this Wired magazine article was that the Silicon Valley families had basically could have done that. Right? They could have done the typical thing for higher income Americans, where they have their kid attended school during the day.
But, then they do all these activities at night. Right? And the vibe from this Wired magazine article was it just simply that these people were saying, “You know what, like the time opportunity cost for putting my kid in the school in a day is too much.” We’ve set up this homeschooling slash homeschool co-op type situation to the point where we get to do the enrichment type stuff all the time, whether that’s field trips or projects, the featured family was setting up what they called hackerspaces for K-12 students. Right? Where they did robotics and coding and things like that. And to me, it was like a bell was just ringing in my head like, “Wow, this is something. This is really going somewhere.” So, before the pandemic, there was already this trend towards establishing small… The line between homeschool co-op and small private school had started to blur.

We started to see multiple different models of people doing this around the country. And pandemic pods did not just spring up out of nowhere, like Athena being born from the skull of Zeus. That was sort of the thing that was already bubbling out there in the space. And necessity is the mother of invention. And suddenly people found themselves in spring often very dissatisfied with the digital learning they got. And when people got online and described to them a pandemic pod and then that their children could have socialization, they could have classmates, they could have that element, but in a lower risk environment, they were like, “Sign me up.” And so that’s a quick version of how I think we got to here.

Jason Bedrick: Right. And of course there’re things like just the flexibility, the ability to customize, the personalized attention. And a switched to mastery-based learning as opposed to seat time in the so-called Carnegie Units where all the kids that are the same age are moving at the same pace across all classes at the same time. And that means that some kids inevitably are going to be falling behind and struggling to keep up and other kids are going to be way ahead of their average peer and so they’re terribly bored. This allows them to go at their own pace so they’re never too bored and they’re never struggling. They’re challenging themselves, but they’re going at whatever pace they want. You visited a school. We didn’t talk about this in the paper, but I’d like to talk about it on the podcast, you visited a micro-school in Connecticut that blew my mind. Can you tell us about that?

Matthew Ladner: Yeah. It’s called Workspace in rural Connecticut.

Jason Bedrick: It’s like an airplane hangar or something. Right?

Matthew Ladner: It’s actually housed in a big, giant red schoolhouse. Right? And it’s a fascinating model. It’s a K-12. I wouldn’t even necessarily call it a school. It’s kind of a school. But the way it works is, it’s 95 percent of the teaching going on is being done by parents. The kids are basically signing up for classes almost in a college style fashion. Right? They have guides to help you kind of put together a coherent set of classes and coursework and whatnot. There are mechanisms whereby the students review the teachers, so to speak. So, I might go teach a class there. And I might think I’m the greatest teacher ever, but if they don’t agree with me, then guess what? There’s a minimum number of kids that have to sign up or the course doesn’t make. Again, kind of like college.

Jason Bedrick: Right.

Matthew Ladner: The space also has a business incubator. I met two senior kids. They were running a real estate business where they’re using drones to photograph houses and had a website built and were running their business out of the space. And then to facilitate parent participation teaching, it’s also a coworking space. So, people could run their business out of the space and say, “Oh, look, it’s 2:00. It’s time for me to go teach Algebra.” Walk out the door, teach Algebra. Right? It was absolutely fascinating. And it was very apparent that very tight-knit community, lots of student activities. They basically told us that they have to take a broom and swat the kids out of the door out at 6:00 at night because they don’t want to leave.

And maybe the most interesting thing was that someone asked our guides about summer. They said, “What do you do in summer?” And they kind of stared at us, lost and blinking and they said, “Oh yes. Yes. Summer. That’s a thing. Well, so around here, summer’s kind of like any other time. There are still courses being offered. You could take them if you want. You don’t take them if you don’t want. If you want to travel, that’s fine. You can.” Right? So, the very choose your own adventure, very tight-knit community, and a very interesting way to structure education.

Jason Bedrick: And one thing we talked about in the paper as well is that this isn’t just good for the students and the families. It’s also good for the teachers. So, maybe you can address that.

Matthew Ladner: Yeah. So, last year I was listening to the radio here. I was listening to a talk radio show here in Phoenix, Arizona, and the host had a call in from a gentleman who identified himself as a 44-year classroom veteran teacher here in the state of Arizona. And this gentleman offered the opinion that what was wrong with education was not money. Okay. And he said very clearly, “Because money has always been tight.” Okay. He said, “The problem with education today is that the joy has been strangled out of the profession.” And I happened to be listening to that radio program about a week after I had visited a micro-school that was operating out on the Apache Reservation in Eastern Arizona. And it was just so striking to me because what I saw at that micro-school was not joy being strangled out of the teacher’s profession. Right?

Quite the opposite. The process, and this is like a very politicized thing obviously, but one of the things that we will often hear talking points from, from for instance the education unions, is things about the teacher shortage, right? The teacher shortage is always framed as a financial issue. We’ll hear things like, “Well, there’s X number of people certified to teach in state X, but they’re not teaching; ergo, what we need to do is put a lot more money into the system to lure them back into teaching.” Right? But when you do surveys, job satisfaction surveys of teachers, and this has been down for decades, right, what you find is that money, of course, is a factor. Money is a factor in any profession. But it’s never at the top of the list of what people don’t like.

And one of the statistics we cited in the paper, Jason, was a survey from the National Center for Education Statistics. And they found that only 12 percent of teachers feel like they have a high degree of autonomy. They feel scripted. They feel controlled. They feel sort of beat down. Right? And there’s no reason for me to believe that you can just money whip people back into that profession that they left largely because they were unhappy. Okay? So, I think how all of this relates to micro-schools is that these micro-schools are giving teachers the opportunity to run their own school, free of bureaucracy. To be their own boss, to hang their own shingle, so to speak. And to kind of rediscover the joy of teaching. Right? Because, that is the main thing that attracts people into the teaching profession. No one ever in their life was a 21-year-old college student who got up from bed in the morning and stretched and yawned and said, “I want a state pension. That’s what I want to achieve in life.” Right?

People go into teaching because they love being around kids, because they want to help kids and whatnot. And they very often feel stymied and prevented from doing that by this gigantic impersonal, bureaucratic system. Okay? So, the micro-school trend is a gigantic opportunity for educators, and it’s a way for us to access some of those teachers who otherwise won’t come back. Even before the pandemic, we had a huge problem looming on our hands, in the form of the baby boom generation retiring. Right?
A whole general gigantic generation of teachers, many of whom were already eligible for retirement. Once the pandemic hit, I heard this anecdotally from a lot of people I know that teach in public at the age where a lot of teachers kind of said, “Well, look, man, if you’re eligible to retire, what better time to do it than right now?” Right? So, we need a lot of those people. We do need some of those people to come back, but we could have those people come back in charge of their own education community, telling us their own vision for what a high quality education looks like, not the states or the federal governments or the local school districts or their unions or all this multiple generators of red tape that have sort of strangled the joy out of the system.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. In that survey you mentioned from the National Center for Education Statistics, as you noted, 12 percent of teachers said they had a high degree of autonomy, more than six out of 10 felt they had a low degree of autonomy. And when you compare the satisfaction levels of these two groups, the low autonomy teachers were five times more likely to report being dissatisfied with their job as those who had higher autonomy. So, it really does seem to be a driving factor. Now, one of the major critiques of these micro-schools and especially the pandemic pods is the equity question and the accessibility question. So, I mean, the New York Times basically said that rich white families are doing this and this is going to widen the gap between their kids and the children of lower income, people of color. Now of course, buried in there is a concession that what the district schools are offering right now is far inferior to that, which the micro schools and the learning pods are providing, but even setting that aside, is there a legitimate question of equity here? And if so, what’s the best way to address it?

Matthew Ladner: Yes. In short, there certainly are very serious equity issues here, but you can’t take seriously those that don’t want to address them. Right? For instance, some families can easily afford to pay a micro-school teacher out of their own pockets that can’t. Internet device access is more readily available to some families than others. There’s a whole list of things like that. Right? All of these things can be addressed, but the unstated assumption of many of the pieces criticizing pandemic pods, Jason, that I read, seems to be, we shouldn’t allow people to do this. Right? If we allow people to do this, then the gap will widen. Right? Well, we can’t stop people from doing this. People are free individuals and they are trying to protect the interests of their own children. And we should not get in the way of that.

What we should do is make resources available for low income families so that they can pay a teacher, so that they do have access to devices and whatnot. This is being done around the country by some school districts, by charter schools in some cases, and through the use of private choice programs in some cases. Right? There’s more than one way to solve these problems. The problems are real, but it’s very important that we not stop at the, “Let’s ring our hands and tuck this.” Right? Rather, what we need to do is to have a thoughtful plan to address the equity issues.

Jason Bedrick: Right. And so, we’ve seen that the civil society is rallying. We cite a whole bunch of examples in our paper. I’m not going to read all of them, but for example, you’ve got the homeschooled pod grants from the National Parents Union, which is providing hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of grants that they’re distributing to low-income families so that they can get access to these. You see those groups stronger together. ATX in Austin, Texas, which is connecting lower income families with pods that are willing to accept students at little or no charge. You’ve got the community learning sites by the Mind Trust in Indianapolis, which is providing actual sites that the low-income families can use for their podding. And then you have even some States or local governments that have decided that they’re going to get into this podding.

So, for example, Southern Nevada Urban Micro Academy in the city of North Las Vegas is now, for just $2 a day, providing K-12 students with pods of about up to 18 students. And they’re even providing needs based scholarships if that’s too much. So, there are some that are doing this sort of thing, but there are also some things that policy makers can do. So, maybe you can talk about the way that families in Arizona in particular are accessing Micro-schools.

Matthew Ladner: Sure. We have school districts in Arizona that have partnered with sort of micro-school service providers to create pods for their own students. We have similarly happening through the charter school mechanism, there are charter schools that partner with these people that have a lot of deep experience with how to run these micro-schools. And then we also have students accessing them through the SA program.

Jason Bedrick: That’s the Empowerment Scholarship Account Program. It’s a form of K-12 education savings accounts where 90 percent of the state portion of per-pupil funding follows the child into a restricted use account that they can use for tuition, homeschooled expenses, online learning, two years textbooks, educational therapy, and more. Right? Go ahead, continue.

Matthew Ladner: Yeah. Yeah. Though it’s unfortunate that there is some controversy surrounding these things in Arizona, there was a proposal to expand the number of district students that would be able to access micro-schools in the Mesa Unified School District that elicited a lot of opposition at a school board meeting and they decided not to move forward with the project. It’s unfortunate. Those students would have remained a part of the enrollment counts of the Mesa Unified School District. And instead, they might be podding anyway, just without Mesa. Right? So, we do see, I know in Indianapolis, there’s both a partnership with the school district and philanthropic. I think it’s the mind trust that partnered to create pods for students. And that project is really focused on the most vulnerable students. As bad as the pandemic shutdown was for general education students, it was a catastrophe for students with disabilities and special needs. However bad zoom learning is for most students, there’s a lot of special education therapies that just don’t translate to additional format.

And it was profoundly disruptive for those families. So, the Indianapolis project actually focused on creating pods for children with disabilities and also homeless children. Right? It’s one thing to say, “Hey, you’re going to learn at home.” What if you don’t have a home? Right? So, those kids needed somewhere to go and it was wise for the district to set up, I think they called it learning centers. But basically, it’s the same concept. Right? A safe place where students can go with adult supervision and participate in digital learning with device and internet access and these things. We have examples of districts like Houston partnered with churches to do these similar sort of activities. So, it is certainly possible to be very mindful of equity issues and to address them. Right? But too much of what I see, I would crass a bit uncharitably describe as people saying equity issues are so important that we refuse to do anything about them.

Jason Bedrick: Of course, you don’t hear those same people saying that equity issues are so important we should shut down the district school system because lower income families are assigned to poorer performing schools and higher income families are assigned to much better performing schools or at least have access to them. That we don’t hear, but what we do hear is if they leave the system, suddenly equity becomes a barrier. You almost might say it’s pretextual and that they’re not as serious about equity as they are about protecting the system, but that would be perhaps cynical and uncharitable to make such a statement as that. So, I guess just in closing to sharpen the question, so what would your final thoughts be? What would your advice be for policy makers that want to make sure that families do have access to these types of learning pods?

Matthew Ladner: Oh, we’ve seen some really good action by a number of governors around the country to use some of the federal dollars related to education in the pandemic era to help families directly, to give families direct control over their money and allow them to figure out what works for them instead of trying to do it from the top down. I think that that’s why it’s gotten worse. I think that the most important thing for policy makers to do is to allow this trend to continue. Right? To stay out of the way. Right? I mean, what we’re seeing right now is an amazing example of permissionless innovation. Right? Families came up with these institutions on their own to suit their own needs. And there will inevitably be attempts to quash it, right, out of fear, out of a misguided urge to sort of protect the status quo. That is a dark instinct that we should suppress as best we can.

Jason Bedrick: I’ll close with this. It’s the way we open our paper. And it’s a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville in Democracy in America. And he writes, “As soon as several of the inhabitants of the United States have conceived a sentiment or an idea that they want to produce in the world, they seek each other out. And when they have found each other, they unite. From then on, they are no longer isolated men, but a power one sees from afar whose actions serve as an example. A power that speaks into which one listens.” Hopefully the policymakers will be listening to the families that are seeking each other out to form these incredible learning pods for their children.

Our guest today has been Dr. Matthew Ladner. He is a fellow here at EdChoice, as well as executive director of redefinED. Our paper is, Let’s Get Small: Microschools: Pandemic pods and the Future of Education in America, which you can find at the Heritage Foundation website. Matt, thanks so much for joining us.

Matthew Ladner: Thank you.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any other ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Idea series, please send them to media@edchoice.org and be sure to subscribe to our podcast wherever you get your podcasts. Follow us on social media at EdChoice. And don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.