Ep. 299: Big Ideas — with Michael Horn

February 16, 2022

Michael Horn joins the show who is a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and the author of an article at Education Next titled, Some Pods Will Outlast The Pandemic. 

Jason Bedrick: Hello, and welcome back to Ed Choice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, director of policy at Ed Choice. And this is another addition of our Big Idea series. Today I’m excited to be joined by Michael B Horn, who was a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and an author on books on the future of education. He’s also the author of a recent article at Education Next titled, Some Pods Will Outlast The Pandemic, which is the subject of today’s conversation. Michael, welcome to the podcast.

Michael B Horn: Hey Jason, thanks so much for having me.

Jason Bedrick: Well, it’s a pleasure to have you. Now before we start, maybe you could just go for our listeners, what are learning pods? Because we’ve talked about it on the podcast, but everybody seems to have a slightly different definition. Sometimes they use them synonymously with micro schools, sometimes they distinguish them. So how are you defining learning pods?

Michael B Horn: I’m glad you asked the question. I confess that I’ve watched this debate play out between pods versus micro schools with some level of mystification or amusement on my part. Because I think for the public, we’re all just lumping them together, right? Outside of the education conversation. It’s basically a smaller school community, right, of anywhere from say four students up to maybe a hundred who are in a school, with a much smaller community though. Often using technology, certainly not always. Often feels a little bit like a homeschool environment, not always. But really, greatly reduces the size of these schools so that you can create a more personal experience and provide some choice that students and families wouldn’t otherwise have.

Jason Bedrick: You note that pods predated the pandemic, but during the pandemic parents were seeking them out in droves. What was it about the pods that was so attractive to parents during the pandemic?

Michael B Horn: I think it was a very simple set of factors. People wanted their kids to still have in-person experiences with other students, right? And they felt like, if we can come together in small communities where we know the other parents, where we have trust, that we have similar behaviors in terms of health and who we’re seeing and so forth, we give our children a much greater chance of having a “normal,” quote-unquote experience, if you will. Where they’re still having the socialization that theoretically comes with a traditional schooling experience. I say theoretically because some times I think it’s glamorized in people’s minds from what it actually is. But knowing that children are, and all of us are social beings, and how does that allow us to have those opportunities and be in a safe community as we do so? I think the second thing that people were interested in, from the parent perspective, were predictable, not just childcare, but predictable schedules and routines for their kids. Where, not every other week would the plan all of a sudden change, and you’d be remote, and then you’d be in-person, and then you’d be hybrid. That constantly-shifting nature of a lot of districts and schools really takes a toll on kids who want routine and dependability, and parents who are trying to balance their lives. And so I think some measure of consistency and control around the schooling experience was especially important for some families.

Jason Bedrick: So it gave consistency and control. It gave in-person instruction and socialization, but without having so many kids. So you’re minimizing the potential exposure to the virus. That sounds great. But you said that at a certain point, a lot of families felt like it was becoming unsustainable, including your own. You were doing a pod for a while, and now you’re sending your kids back to a more traditional school environment. so what was unsustainable about that?

Michael B Horn: Yeah, I think for a lot of the parent-run pods, what we saw was that the parents, essentially serving as principal, head of admissions if you will for the pod, and a variety of the logistics, and operations, and custodial services that come with it, that just became a lot of work over time. Right? In my case, we hired an outside teacher, but the pod was hosted in our house, in the outside. Anytime there was a philosophical disagreement, do you go indoors? Do you not go indoors? Who’s bearing the brunt of creating curriculum for kids who are very different ages? Where are you finding these sorts of resources? Who do you trust and not? It just got to be a lot. And so I think for a lot of parents, they couldn’t continue to make those arrangements at that level of intensity with other parents. Or in terms of the day-to-day management responsibilities it just, running a school … There’s a reason why we have schooling professionals, I think, at the end of the day. And we have professionalized that experience, that service if you will, in society. It becomes a lot and unsustainable. And so part of my observation, that that’s why a lot of these parent-run or parent-facilitated pods struggled to be sustainable. But perhaps more of the pods that had some sort of institutional structure, or backing, or management behind them seemed to have greater legs, and maybe legs that are going to outlast the pandemic by some measure.

Jason Bedrick: Right? So that’s the main theme of your piece, is that there are some pods that seem to be outlasting the pandemic. Could you talk about this institutional backing, and what these pods look like, and how they differ from a lot of the pods that were sort of flashing the pan versus these ones that may actually be around for many years to come?

Michael B Horn: Yeah, absolutely. And we’re seeing a few different flavors still, even of this. But one of them has been these partnerships with nonprofit community organizations in urban districts in many cases, or around urban districts, to create pods that would serve often underrepresented minorities or low-income students, and give them a support structure. What they found during that for a lot of districts, families, and the pods themselves was gee, this was actually a better way for these individuals to connect with caring adults and get support services around them, then perhaps going to a much larger, traditional public school, with all the operational challenges and so forth that that has often had in getting those students access to a lot of the nonacademic services that maybe they need to be able to function academically and to have the support they need in those instances. So things supported by the YMCA in your community, boys and girls clubs, those sorts of arrangements we’ve seen some lift on. We’ve seen some districts, as a second group, start to lean in and run some of these pods themselves. Basically saying, why can’t we create a series of smaller of communities that frankly make maybe some of these schools more manageable around different philosophies, or things of that nature, that give some choice to parents and allow them to opt into these different arrangements and then the third variety that has been interesting is, we’re seeing a bunch of startups that want to facilitate these pods, take advantage of different policies like full-time virtual schools. Great, there’s funding there from the public, but it’s kind of hard for a lot of people to have a fully-online experience. Can they facilitate some of these in-person experiences for families, or can they be the ones that gather certain students together around someone’s kitchen table, or church, or wherever to be able to have that small schooling experience with that digital curriculum?

Jason Bedrick: You mentioned in the piece, and you alluded to it a few minutes ago, that, “Some of the most robust pod experiments have taken place in school districts, disproportionately serving low-income and minority students.” Which this is fascinating because early on you remember, there was the whole hullabaloo over equity and oh, it’s only the white families who are wealthy, they’re going to have access to the pods and as it played out, that wasn’t the case. Maybe you could talk a little bit more about that, especially what’s going on in Cleveland and Boston, which you highlighted in your piece.

Michael B Horn: Look, this has been fascinating. Because as you said, there were so many headlines last fall, effectively, parent-shaming around all these issues. How could you possibly opt out of your district and get to this rarefied experience? And I think a lot of families were saying, this is what we need to feel safe, and feel like we have a measure of support and as it turned out, a lot of districts and communities in Cleveland, Boston, elsewhere said, well, why can’t we provide it to these other families as well? Who, many of whom were opting out of the system. Look, all these families that didn’t realize they had options we saw in the pandemic they realized actually, in fact, we do. Black families historically had been underrepresented in homeschooling environments. Through the pandemic, they became the fastest growing segment of home schoolers. So a lot of families that maybe we haven’t historically said want these sorts of choices, now actually realize that they have a lot more choice than they thought. And that creates a lot of opportunities to set up these sorts of arrangements. So what was really interesting in places like Cleveland, The Cleveland Foundation and some other organizations leaned in to provide funding for these nonprofits to stand up learning pods in collaboration with the district itself. Eric Gordon, the superintendent or CEO as he’s called, of the Cleveland district was super clear. Hey, there’s two ways to approach pods. We can just be really angry that suburban families have them, or maybe we ought to be providing the choice as well. And by the way, in so doing, we can advance some bigger issues that we have around creating more personalized experiences for students, more competency or mastery-based experiences for students, and really leverage this to create better opportunities. In Boston, there were a bunch of nonprofit after-school organizations that before the pandemic were having conversations around, how do we do something more of a moonshot variety, right? A breakthrough innovation with our schools. Because the schools as they exist, it’s sort of a mess right now. It’s not, they’re not really serving students or families particularly well and so they banded together and created these pods. And what some of the research showed was that the parents felt like they had a way deeper connection with the adults in these pods, had way more transparency on a daily basis about how their students were doing, and no question about it, right? The small size, the fact that there was some degree of choice, being able to opt into communities that you felt comfortable with, that were like you, whether that’s at a surface level characteristic because of color of skin, or philosophy or whatever else, there was an ability to see yourself in these leaders and connect at a level that you otherwise wouldn’t have and I think the small size we saw was a clear contributor to that. Because these individuals facilitating the pods really got to know their students at a much deeper level than they otherwise would have.

Jason Bedrick: So Michael, as we noted at the beginning, you’ve written a number of books on the future of education. So I’d like you to prognosticate here on what you think the future of pods looks like. And also, how can policy-makers help families get access to these pods?

Michael B Horn: Obviously there’s a danger in prognosticating too firmly. Because whatever I say will, I’m sure, be wrong. But what I’ll say at a high level is, we believe that there’s one-and-a-half million students enrolled in pods or micro schools as of this fall. That’s according to Titan Partners. I think most people would’ve bet that that number would’ve been a lot less than that coming in the fall. And what I think it shows is that there’ll be some durability. Do I think it’s going to spike to 10 million? No, that would be more than pretty significant sectors of choice in the education movement today. But I do think it’s reasonable to think it’s three, four million in the years ahead, as we see more capital partners, providers, and even traditional providers stepping in to create these options. I think it’s going to be one more of a menu of choices that families have in their communities to opt into. And I think that’s pretty exciting, because it’ll create more quality options, I think, for students and families. In terms of what policy makers can do, I think this is part of the story. Particularly in states that have education savings accounts, you create a lot of opportunities to support families equitably, right? So that many more families can pay into a variety of these arrangements to get their kids access to these pod-like opportunities, tutor-like experiences, for the main part of their education and so I think education savings accounts, we’ve just seen one more use case now, of how we can use them. And places like Arizona that have robust ESAs in place have a flourishing of these pod and micro-school type arrangements from a variety of ways of doing it. Whether it’s in partnership with charters and districts, or whether it’s partnership with virtual providers, or whether it’s part of an effort to target a particular demographic of student and so forth. We’re just seeing flourishing of options. It’s directly attributable to these education savings accounts. And in my mind, policy makers sort of have two choices right now. One they can say, we’re going to try to shut down options. That’s sort of been the New Jersey model of this, right? We’re going to try to shut down options, and get people to commit to the traditional public schools again. So we’re going to ban virtual or remote learning, we’re going to try to ban districts from offering micro schools or pods, things like that. And I just think from lots of different countries and lots of different contexts, the lesson is, people are still going to opt out and find those options. It’s like water, it leaks around and it finds its ways around the regulations. Why not go into a much more robust leaning into this to create options that are really going to support and serve students with what they need to be successful and that’s why I think the other version of this is the education savings account pathway, where you’re giving those dollars to the family to make the choice that is right for them. That, from a centralized role, we can’t possibly imagine what that’s going to be for each circumstance. A lot of choice policies have gained momentum, as you know better than I do out of the last couple years. I think a bunch of states will lean into this. We’re going to see more pods, it’s going to be more equitable, and we’re going to see some arrangements that I think are really exciting out of this. I’m sure we’ll see some that we’re not as thrilled about, but I think we’re going to see on-balance a lot more where we’re super excited about the level of support students are able to get through these pods.

Jason Bedrick: Well, I hope you’re right. And actually, I think you are. Thank you so much for coming on the podcast. Our guest today has been Michael B. Horn. Michael B. Horn, who is a distinguished fellow at the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, and the author of an article at Education Next titled, Some Pods Will Outlast The Pandemic. Michael, thanks again for joining us.

Michael B Horn: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Jason Bedrick: Thanks so much for joining us. This has been another addition of Ed Choice Chats, the Big Idea series. 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, and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media at Ed Choice, and don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thanks so much, we’ll catch you next time.