Ep. 243: Big Ideas – “Hybrid Homeschooling” with Mike McShane

March 23, 2021

Our Director of National Research Mike McShane hops on the podcast to talk about his recently-released book, Hybrid Homeschooling: A Guide to the Future of Education.

Jason Bedrick: Hello, and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at EdChoice, and this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today, I’m delighted to be joined by my friend and colleague, Michael Q. McShane, the director of national research at EdChoice. He’s been on the podcast a lot, but never on this particular version of the podcast, so I’m really excited to have you. He’s the author of a new book titled, Hybrid Homeschooling, which is the subject of today’s conversation.

Mike, welcome to the podcast. For those of you who can’t see this, he’s dancing and holding the book aloft. It’s a really colorful, nice-looking book, by the way.

Mike McShane: Well, thank you. Yes, Jason, long-time listener, first-time caller.

Jason Bedrick: Okay. Let’s just dive right in with the obvious question. What is hybrid homeschooling and how is it different from traditional homeschooling?

Mike McShane: So, you’re starting with a trick question, I see. No, I’m kidding. Thank you. Yeah, so hybrid homeschooling at its basic core are schools that are designed where children attend class at home for part of the week and are schooled in a kind of traditional school building for part of the week. So it takes different forms across the country. Some schools do like two days at home and three days at school, some do three days at home, two days at school, all different permutations of that. But it is some mixture of at-home instruction and in-school kind of what we would traditionally think of as a school instruction.

Jason Bedrick: Are there different types of hybrid homeschools? I mean, obviously, there’s a lot of different types of hybrid homeschools, but are there different types that are identifiable as subgroups of hybrid homeschooling?

Mike McShane: For sure, yeah. In the book, I create a kind of whole taxonomy of them because there are all of these different interesting ways in which they kind of intersect with one another and overlap with one another, but basically, I mean, what’s cool about hybrid homeschooling is that it’s not just part of one sector of schooling. A lot of stuff we hear in education debates now is like, “Oh, it’s private, or it’s charter, it’s public.” There are traditional public school districts that offer these types of programs, there are public charter schools that offer these types of environments, and there are private schools that are doing this.

Even within each of those groups, there’s all sorts of different flavors. So you’ve got within the traditional public school districts like larger and smaller programs, older and younger programs. Within public charter schools, I mean just the different types of charter schools that exist. Some are directly administered by school districts, some are independent charter schools. Then within private schools, you’ve got religious schools, non-religious schools.

Then where this all kind of folds back on itself are all the kind of pedagogical philosophies. So some of these are progressive like Waldorf or Montessori models, some are classical education. So you can actually fall into multiple things, right? You can be a Montessori charter or you could be a private Montessori or a classical charter or any of those. So there’s actually lots and lots of diversity within this kind of particular modality.

Jason Bedrick: How, in terms of the structure, for example, you said you might be doing two or three days in a traditional school environment, two or three days at home, are there recognizable differences in how some groups are taking one approach and some are taking another?

Mike McShane: Yeah. I mean, it’s a tough one because there’s actually, it’s kind of fuzzy around the edges. Like when we talk about hybrid homeschooling there are lots of things, like sometimes when I say, “Yeah, I did this book on hybrid homeschooling,” people say like, “Oh, is it like homeschool co-ops?” Well, it’s kind of like homeschool co-ops, but it’s not really. It was like, “Oh, it’s like online learning?” It’s like, well, not really. So I had boundaries around it, recognizing that there’s fuzziness around there.

What basically got you included in my book, I set up three criteria: It had to be physical, it had to be substantial, and it had to be regular. Basically, what I meant by that is that you have to go to a physical school building that is not your house, but it’s like a designated building for this at least one full school day per week. Right? Now, some do more than that, some do less of that, but that has to be something that’s normal. Because yeah, some homeschool co-ops get together every two weeks, or there are some enrichment programs that meet four times a quarter or something like that, so we had to create those things.

But then, underneath that, kind of to answer your question, there are lots of variations, right? There are some programs that really do see themselves as more of an enrichment where the kind of primary academic subjects are taught at home, but that time when you’re with the other students in the school are more for like art and music and computers and phys-ed or like those types of things. Then there are other where the flip side is true, where a lot of the, particularly for some older students where families might be less comfortable teaching advanced subjects like math, physics, chemistry, et cetera, that’s the stuff that goes on in the school where other things take place at home.

So, there are like an infinite number of permutations that can exist within this model and we see lots and lots of versions of them across the country.

Jason Bedrick: So maybe let’s go from the abstract to the concrete and give us some examples. I mean, there’s one I can think of in the book, you mention a friend of yours from AEI, Josh and Rebecca Good, who operate something called Augustine Academy in Delafield, Wisconsin. What’s their story?

Mike McShane: Yeah. So they were a part of, and I can’t remember if they’re still affiliated with, but there’s a group of these schools called the university model schools. The first one was Grace Prep in Arlington, Texas. They are kind of an official affiliated network of these schools. In fact, if you listen to other EdChoice Chats, my Cool Schools series interviewed the head of school for Grace Prep. We spoke to a couple other schools that were associated with this.

But yeah, so that particular school was founded in Delafield, which is kind of between Madison and Milwaukee. The Goods, as is mentioned in the book, Josh and I worked together at AEI. It’s funny, they were one of the first people that kind of clued me into this whole school model just because they left Washington, D.C., and they moved to Wisconsin and I saw just like on social media that they were starting this school, which they started in people’s living rooms around their neighborhood through their church. I was like, wow, that’s kind of new, that’s different. I didn’t know what was going on there. So they were actually kind of my entry point into a lot of this.

But yeah, it’s a small school. It is an Ambleside school. So this is another one of these interesting things where this group of families got together and they were, Josh and Rebecca, particularly, were really into this Ambleside method, which is from Charlotte Mason, who was a British educationalist of like a hundred years ago. It’s like a quasi-classical education model, but it’s like deep engagement with great books and the teacher is kind of your guide to these great books. It’s the book that’s really teaching you and the teacher is helping you and it’s just a really fascinating model.

But these schools normally are full-time in-person and they’re super expensive. So what you had in that community was they didn’t have an Ambleside school and they didn’t have the sort of financial resources to create a full-time one, so they said can we work something out here where we do it part-time, families handle things, so that drives down the cost, but we’re still kind of all agreed to use this particular method?

So, it’s a really fun story of not just the educational side of it, because like I had never heard of the Ambleside method before and I think there’s a lot to recommend now that I’ve heard more about it, but it’s also about the kind of community building. It’s these families coming together in this shared enterprise where, I mean, they could be doing anything, they could be running a soup kitchen or starting a church or any of those sorts of things, but drawn together by this kind of shared philosophy and this philosophy about how to raise kids. Not just how to educate them, but how to raise them and the role of faith in their lives, rural community in their lives. So it was a really, really interesting group of folks.

Jason Bedrick: You know, there is an unfair characterization of homeschoolers as being sort of atomistic. In fact, most homeschoolers belong to homeschool communities. But you highlight many times in the book the role of community and institution building. In fact, you quote Yuval Levin saying in his recent book, A Time to Build, that we need “devotion to the work we do with others in the service of a common aspiration and therefore devotion to the institutions we compose and inhabit.” Which I thought was just phenomenal because it’s one thing to, let’s say, move to a community that has a good public school and enroll your child there, it’s another thing to then be an active participant in that school, right? It’s one thing to pay tuition to send your kids to a private school, it’s another thing to be volunteering at that school, really becoming a part of a community.

This is obviously, it’s a system in which the parents are heavily, heavily involved in both their child’s education and the community that’s created around the homeschooling. So could you talk a little bit more about the role that community plays in the desire? Like you mentioned a second ago, for example, that one of the factors was cost, right? It’s a lower cost model and so some families are going to it that way. For others, it might be an ideological drive, and for others it might be this idea of community. So what is driving parents? Is it more cost, is it more community, or something in between?

Mike McShane: I think it’s a little bit of everything. I mean, I think that it is a lot of the parents that I spoke to in this, they have different views about raising children that is often the sort of predominant view. So a great example, I gave this to one of the school leaders that I talked to, I remember sort of bringing up that back to school times, and we’re actually seeing it now as students go back to school after the coronavirus, you’ll see that meme where it’s like the kids are in the foreground crying, they’re in their school uniforms and they’re crying, in the background the parents are high-fiving or they’re like popping champagne or something. I remember that school leader telling me, “You know, our families don’t really share that, because these are people who they really want to spend more time with their kids. They don’t want to spend less time.” So they have just like a different view about the kind of rhythm of school and how it needs to fit within their life.

But the institution point that you brought up I think is a really important one because another point that Yuval makes in that fantastic book is this idea of formative institutions and the idea that the institutions in life that we participate in—and so that could be a variety of different things that we intersect with—are supposed to be there to form us, to kind of make us into better people, to cause us to sacrifice for the good of that institution, the other people that we’re doing this work with, and that when we work together in that shared enterprise, it can break down a lot of the barriers that we have with one another.

So, someone might be a different religion, or they might be a different race, they might be from a different country, but we’re trying to do this thing together. So just something like the Ambleside method, so you’ve got some folks who came together and said this is awesome, we would love to have a school like this. Cool, let’s do it. Let’s come together. Other differences that they had with one another became less important because they were engaged in this shared enterprise with one another and they allowed themselves to become part of this community.

It was really interesting, too, because as I was writing this book, I did a lot of the field work and research and all this stuff before the pandemic struck, so a lot of the later work I had to do was sort of over Zoom and then kind of focus groups and things which I was kind of hoping to do in-person but wasn’t able to. I was really impressed by the degree to which so many of these schools were able to really roll with the punches of the coronavirus.

I think it’s when you have those tight knit communities who really care about each other, they care about their kids, they care about what they’re trying to do together, when catastrophe strikes, that’s the type of group you want to be a part of, right? It was amazing how many of these folks were saying, “Oh, well I still have to go into work, so the kids come over to our house. Or we figure someone lost their job. And so we went to help them.” So those types of tight-knit community, again, even setting aside all the educational benefits, like in-meshing people in these communities, I think, is good for them, it’s a social support network. You’re right, any problems that we have in like the atomization of others, it helps to be an antidote for that.

So, I think these schools are interesting because they work across a couple of different levels, that they’re not just like an educational environment, but they’re also these cool little communities.

Jason Bedrick: I mean, I know we’re doing a podcast on your book, but I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that we recently did a podcast with Professor Eric Wearne from the Economic Center at Kennesaw State University, and his book, Defining Hybrid Homeschools in America, also goes a great length in sort of like the philosophical approach and the importance of community. One area that your book covers, though, I think at had much greater length, which makes it in some sense a more practical volume for policymakers, is the question of policy.

So of course, it’s great if parents have a desire to do this sort of thing, but they have to be in a policy environment that makes it easy to do this kind of thing. So let’s go to sort of later in your book where you get into these policies. You identify six different areas, and we don’t have time to cover all of them because I also want to touch on your chapter on innovation, but you talk about homeschooling laws, private school regulations and accreditation, charter school authorizing, interestingly, competency-based education frameworks, which I didn’t think about, but that makes perfect sense, part-time enrollment statutes, and private school choice programs.

So, let’s start with the homeschooling laws. What are you looking for in a homeschooling law to make it easier for parents to engage in hybrid homeschooling?

Mike McShane: So many of these schools start not as sort of formally designated private schools. Speaking on the private school side, it’s different when public schools are doing it. But just talking about these private school ones, a lot of them do start as small groups of homeschoolers, homeschooling co-ops, etc. So I don’t think it’s surprising that starting in places like Texas that have very permissive homeschooling laws. So, I think in order for this hybrid version to start, just to get off the ground, you have to be in places where homeschool is more permissive.

Interestingly, on the public school side one of the reasons I spoke to a lot of folks in Colorado that have a lot of these in the public school sector, but a big reason that many of those folks cite it is a strong homeschooling community. So that was driven by, I think, that their laws intersect with that. So yeah, having homeschooling laws that give the freedom to get these types of organizations off the ground, give them some time before they maybe incorporate as a private school, becomes very important, because they kind of decentralize in small ways in which these start that they’re not able to scale up that quickly.

Jason Bedrick: So then what sort of private school regulations are important here? Because you think that the private school regulations are designed to regulate entities that physically have all the children there for a certain number of hours, right? We still are very much have this sort of seat time requirement, right? So if the private school says, oh, well we’re only a private school two or three days a week, and then the other two or three, the kids are not here, but they’re doing something that’s connected to what we do here, how does the law take that into account?

Mike McShane: Yes. So you’ve identified that exactly. Right? It sort of ties into the competency-based stuff as well, which is if you have private schooling regulations that are based around seat time, if you have them based around, exactly, in order to classify as a private school, you have to be there five days a week or you have to meet a certain number of days or any of those sorts of things, or even in some ways, if you have curricular requirements or others, that can get in the way. Because it’s like, well, that’s a class that is taught by parents at home versus one that’s done at school, so any of those things can get crosswise. That’s why it’s interesting.

Jason Bedrick: Right. So if the state says in order to be considered a private school, you have to teach English, language arts, math, science, they go down the list, and they say, well, actually English, language arts, and math is done by the parents and we’re only focusing on science and history and a few other things, the state says, well, you don’t look like a private school to us.

Mike McShane: Exactly.

Jason Bedrick: But you don’t look like a homeschool either.

Mike McShane: Yeah. In some of these states, some schools try to incorporate as enrichment programs because they run afoul of these private schooling regulations.

Jason Bedrick: Okay, so there are ways around it that families have figured out how to operate despite the law not officially recognizing what they’re doing as a school?

Mike McShane: Yeah. It would be interesting to talk to, and I didn’t do this for the book, but it might be interesting to talk to in the future, sort of talking to lawyers about that. Because in some ways these schools are very small and people don’t know about them. Now, I don’t know if folks sort of identify as a school and act as a school at some point whether the government will come calling and say, well, you don’t call yourself really an enrichment activity except in all the forms that you fill out.

So I think it’s important longer term than part of that chapter on policy. If we want to see more of these, as long as they are kind of small peripheral thing, I don’t think people are going to get too worked up over the distinction between an enrichment program and a private school and others. But if these things are going to grow, having some sort of legal understanding of where they sit in the firmament matters.

Jason Bedrick: Right. You alluded to the importance of competency-based education versus seat time. Why don’t you just clarify what you mean by those two things and why it matters here?

Mike McShane: Yeah. So, lots of states, whether you’ve completed the fourth grade or you’ve passed ninth grade algebra is on the number of hours of seat time, of you counting the hours that you sat in a chair in a class that’s called fourth grade or called that. So it’s not actually based on you demonstrating that you knew anything there. But yeah, so if your state says the only way you can demonstrate that you successfully completed the fourth grade or ninth grade algebra or whatever is because you’ve sat in a classroom for a certain amount of time, you’re not going to be able to do hybrid homeschooling, right? You’ve got to find some way to say if students can demonstrate that they learn the necessary material, but not in however long or short that it took them, that’s kind of the only way for it to jive with the credit system.

Jason Bedrick: We’ll get into private school choice programs in a bit. I want to take a quick detour and talk about innovation because you spend quite a bit of time in the book on that. In fact, you have a whole chapter on it. So you quote Professor Jeanne, and I’m going to butcher this last name, Liedtka of the University of Virginia in a Harvard Business Review article who said that, “To be successful an innovation process must deliver three things: superior solutions, lower risks and costs of change, and employee buy-in.” You comment on this saying that hybrid homeschooling clears all three of these bars. What do you mean by that?

Mike McShane: Yeah, so I mean I think the first one is probably the easiest. Well, the first two are kind of easy to understand. So right, a superior solution, I think it’s kind of obvious by parents choosing it, right? Like they could send their kids somewhere else, but they’ve identified this as a better way to educate their kids. So I think for them sort of the proof’s in the pudding there that they’ve created schools that better meet their needs than what they previous had.

Now, I think the second one is really interesting, this idea of lower risk and cost. Because these schools only operate part-time they tend to cost less than a full-time private option. So as a result of that, there’s less risk, right? So if you are spending $20,000 to send your kid to a school or you’re spending $4,000, you’re risking one fifth of it to do that.

So not to mention that you’re also in more control. So families are playing a larger role in this and so if what’s going on in school is subpar, they have much more time and opportunity to work with it. So all in all, not saying that those things are subpar, but they just have more control over the situation, it’s a less risky thing. So that gives people this opportunity to say, you know what? I’ll give it a try. It doesn’t cost a lot, I’m still in a fair bit of control here so I don’t think it’s going to be something that’s going to negatively impact my kid, and it may be something that’s really positive. So it could be superior. It could be that.

Then the last is that employee buy-in. I have a whole chapter devoted to educators where I had the opportunity to talk to lots of teachers and others and other sort of administrators that are involved in this and there are lots and lots of teachers who really love this school model. Now, I don’t think it’s for everybody because it requires you to develop a kind of relationship with parents that’s more in depth than sort of takes place traditional schools, but any school that wants to do something new, whether that’s a hybrid homeschool or not, has to have the buy-in of the people who work there. This is true, actually, really across any business, right? You have to have the people to do it. If you’re having to drag everyone kicking and screaming through some new process, it’s just not going to work. So from the conversations I had with folks, a lot of them really have bought into it.

So I think all three of those things, the schools that I talked to do kind of clear those bars.

Jason Bedrick: Spoiler alert: You find in this chapter that hybrid homeschooling is an effective method of both allowing for innovation and also allowing innovations to spread. You conclude with two lessons, one is that you should start with people and their problems, and two is that you should focus on solving a small number of major problems rather than a broad range of secondary needs.

These almost seem like truisms. Of course, innovation, you’re going to be starting with people and their problems, and of course, you should start with the important things, not secondary things. But it seems that in ed reform so often actually we’re not doing those two things. So maybe you could just speak to why you think these two lessons, first, how you came to these two lessons and why you think they’re important for people in the ed reform movement to internalize?

Mike McShane: Yeah. You know, I’ve done a lot of research and writing in the past on innovation. In the sixth chapter, which is all about sort of what hybrid homeschooling can tell us about innovation, I talk the great Everett Rogers book, Diffusion of Innovations, and crossing the chasm and all of this other all this other stuff about how that works, so these are some of the insights they had. But even not having read that, just talking to the folks that are running these schools, like it’s very clear what they’re trying to do.

So, yeah, that starting with people idea, I think you’re right that the education reform movement has not always done a great job with that. I mean, think of any number of the kind of top-down reforms of like school accountability or teacher evaluation, there wasn’t people necessarily clamoring for those things. Those were generally elite projects that then had to like convince people that that was a problem. Or like the common core, right? Think of all the work that went into trying to convince people that they needed the common core. Whereas in this case, it’s like from the bottom up, you have a lot of families who are saying school isn’t working for us, the schedule isn’t working for us, this environment isn’t working for us. So then the entrepreneurs, the kind of school leaders, are saying, okay, well, how can we fix those problems?

There’s a great story in the book of the Fleming County, Kentucky, public schools that have this Fleming County Performance Academy, which is a hybrid homeschooling model, how they went to like their local homeschoolers and like brought them all into the school library and said how can we work together? What problems do you have that you can solve? We don’t have to be adversaries, we can work together. Amazingly, it worked, right? Because they said, oh look, here are the three or four problems that we have and the school district said, okay, let’s find a way to fix them. Again, I just don’t think it starts like that always.

That second bit of a small number of big problems that people have, again, I think too often schools can get more interested in minutia or sort of abstract or esoteric things. Like school being out of step with family life and families not being able to spend quality time with one another or kids being burned out and miserable, that is a big problem. So don’t worry about the other stuff, fix that. Laser focus on how can we change our schedule to fix that problem?

Sure, there are umpteen other problems that are going to come down the line, and that’s fine, but what these things try to do is just directly solve that. But amazingly, when you get a group of people that share that thinking we’re going to fix this problem, I think it bleeds over into all of these other things, right? Because now you’ve got this cohesive community together, now everyone’s kind of rowing the boat in the same direction, so once you solve the big problem, you can all start working on the smaller problems.

So, I think, again, these are these kinds of lessons that hybrid homeschooling teaches us. Even if your school isn’t a hybrid homeschool, thinking about those two kind of problem solving strategies can make even traditional schools more effective.

Jason Bedrick: I mean, I’d be remiss, since we are both employees of EdChoice, if we didn’t circle back and focus on that sixth policy item that you had, which is the role of private school choice programs. So how can education choice help families access hybrid homeschools?

Mike McShane: I mean, especially when we look at things like education savings accounts programs, the whole point of these hybrid homeschools is that they’re more flexible, right? So students are at school in a traditional school environment for part of the time, but they’re at home. Who knows, when the students are at home, they might need to make use of a tutor or to get some other sort of therapies or others, and so having a funding mechanism that allows for flexibility, so some of that money is spent on tuition, some of it’s spent on supplementary services that they’re getting while they’re schooling at home, to me is like the ideal funding mechanism for things like this.

But even without that, I mean, one of the kind of enduring problems of school choice policy is lower voucher amounts. So, school vouchers haven’t been anywhere close to like what traditional public schools get or tuition tax-credit scholarships are sometimes, whatever, a half or a third or whatever those work out to be able of what traditional public schools are spending. Well, if tuition is half of that because they split it between home, I interview, I sort of ask point blank several of the school leaders, they’re like, “Oh yeah, that’s more than enough money.” Right? Like, that’s fine, like that can actually cover that.

So at least in the short term, all those types of things are happening. I hope we move to more of an education savings account-focused school choice policy and that the amounts of money that go in there are larger, but particularly in the short term where some of these vouchers or tax credits are capped, these are schools where you can gain a lot of bang for your buck.

They’re schools that attract more middle-income folks and lower-income folks. Because schools that cost $15,000 or $20,000 a year, that’s not where low and middle income folks are going. These are folks that just need a little bit of help, you know? So again, some tax credit programs or tax deduction programs that can make that little bit of difference to go from no to yes can be huge in promoting these types of school options.

Jason Bedrick: Mike, thanks so much for joining us today. Again, the book is titled Hybrid Homeschooling by Michael Q. McShane, the director of national research at EdChoice. Thanks again for joining.

Mike McShane: Hey, thanks for having me.

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