Great America

Blowing Up the School House

How distance learning could truly redesign education.

Imagine a world where, based on your home address, the government assigns you a shopping mall where you must do all of your personal shopping. You may only buy what the specific stores inside the mall have to offer. If you do not like the selection, you might be able to petition the government to shop at another mall, providing they have the space for new shoppers. But even if your petition is successful, you will again be limited by what that new mall has to offer.

Wouldn’t it be wonderful to be able to shop at the specific stores you want for the specific items you want, regardless of location?

Schools today operate like these government-assigned shopping malls. Students are assigned to a school and have no choice but to learn what they’re presented. The taxpayer pays for the school and the students pay with their time, energy, and potential, which is infinitely more valuable. The quality of each class—the individual “stores” in the mall—varies widely. Some classes are great. Some are lacking. Even a charter school’s offerings, which often vastly outperform unionized public schools, can vary in quality from teacher to teacher.

The academic trajectory of a student is very fragile, subject to severe disruption with just one weak link in the K-12 chain. For example, a typical student in public school education will have 13 different teachers delivering math instruction by the time he or she graduates. The odds that all 13 of these public school teachers—provided, as they are, by the local school district—will offer a high quality academic experience are slim, even under the best of circumstances.

The concept of a self-contained school is as antiquated as the general store of the Old West. Modernity finally may have come calling for the public school system during the coronavirus panic of 2020, as district after district was compelled to embrace a distance-learning model to deal with the ensuing lockdown. While far from ideal, distance learning did allow for some semblance of education, even if an unsettling number of students chose to opt out

COVID Reflections

In any event, it appears distance learning is going to be required again for most students in the upcoming school year. So what, if any, valuable lessons can we learn from it?

If distance learning is to be all or even some part of our educational future, it should be streamlined to suit this new century. Instead of sending your student to a brick and mortar school, imagine an a la carte education where online learning is completely decoupled from traditional school sites and districts, allowing students and families to seek out directly specific credentialed teachers from a national or even global database that suit their needs as they understand them.

Parents would consider the qualifications, credentials, and curriculum of each prospective teacher to make informed decisions, assembling their own cadre of passionate teachers for their children. Instead of school districts, newly created Accreditation Networks would take the prominent organizational role for the parent, confirming the bona fides of affiliated teachers and establishing the K-12 subject requirements for granting a diploma.

Families could select accreditation networks based on their personal educational and philosophical mandates. Imagine the Conservative Education Alliance, Black Minds Matter, STEM K-12, the Blue Collar Skill Concern, Allied Arts International, the Progressive Orthodoxy Society, etc. These networks would verify their stable of credentialed teachers and publicly display their résumés, earned credentials, language levels used, teaching styles, etc.—allowing families to choose the curriculum and instructions that would help their children to flourish.

Want your kindergartener to experience a leftist social justice curriculum? Want an 7th grade history teacher who can provide dual immersion in Spanish? Want a high school civics teacher with experience in a conservative administration? The possibilities are endless as the parent and student are now informed consumers.

Parents and a la carte teachers could arrive at mutually beneficial learning schedules. Some families may prefer the structure of synchronous teaching (conducted live via video conferencing) while others may require the flexibility of asynchronous courses taken at whatever time is convenient.

When the student completes all of her required subjects, she will have earned her high school diploma. Colleges, universities, and prospective employers are free to decide whether an accreditation network’s diploma carries weight or is not worth the paper it is printed on, which means that each network would do well to create a solid curricular map and high level expected outcomes for families to consider.

Subject Mastery As Opposed to Grade-Level Benchmarks

With an a la carte approach, students would seek to complete subject mastery as opposed to completing grade level courses. One could even conceive that the concept of grade levels themselves might become obsolete. 

As an example, a typical 10-year-old student would be enrolled in a 5th grade class. But what if his reading skills are already at the 8th grade level? Under an a la carte approach, this advanced child would enroll in an 8th level reading program, searching online for the best fit while still being able to take his other subjects at the 5th level. In fact, one can imagine at least one a la carte teacher out there specializing in ten year-olds who are reading at an 8th level.

Teachers could establish their own micro networks amongst themselves to establish strong scaffolded curricula. A 5th-level reading teacher in San Diego plans integrated lessons with a 5th-level history teacher in Saskatoon and a 5th-level science teacher in Guadalajara. This 5th-level group coordinates with another established micro network of 6th-level teachers and so on. 

Teacher micro networks could even create impressive vertical teams based on specific subjects. A specialist 4th-level special ed math teacher in King City works with a 5th-level special ed math teacher in Key West who plans with a 6th-level special ed math teacher in Lisbon, which would allow their students to thrive every step of the way.

What About Special Needs and What’s Best for Teachers?

Students with special needs would not be left behind since the a la carte approach would provide an ample amount of online educators. There are already a great many teachers working with special-ed credentials but not assigned to such classrooms who would love to be able to continue working with this specific cohort.

In the traditional elementary school setting, one teacher provides all instruction for up to six subjects. In a la carte education, a parent could choose one incredible 4th-level teacher for all six subjects or six 4th-level teachers who each excel in a different subject. No longer would students be placed in combination classes due to balancing classroom numbers which is common at many school sites.

A la carte teachers would see their profession become much more flexible. Teachers could ally themselves with accreditation networks where they feel most comfortable with no need to hide in philosophical closets. They could live anywhere with online access since their teaching credentials are recognized by their networks worldwide and not tied to just one district. No longer would teachers (or students) need to be within commuting distance to a school site, reducing environmental impact.

No longer would teachers be at the mercy of the ever-changing winds blowing from their district administrators. Whole language, ebonics, simulations, realia, flipped classrooms, and all the other recent hip education trends can either be embraced and featured or ignored according to the conscience of the teacher and his network. If parents want a teacher who highlights a specific trend, they are free to find one but no longer do teachers need to uproot their own prefered curriculum to follow the trend du jour.

Young teachers, often full of enthusiasm and ideas, would no longer need to fear the “last hired, first fired” staffing of most school districts. Nor would teachers need to fear vindictive site administrators. Instead, their new “bosses” would be the free market and the reputations they develop online as excellent teachers.

This plan is not impervious to “stage one” thinking, as Thomas Sowell might put it. Anything this radical would create both anticipated and unforeseen issues to solve, including, but certainly not limited to:

  • How do parents pay for these freelance teachers? (I suggest using the charter school model)
  • Who does the parent seek out if there is an academic or behavioral issue with their child?
  • Would the teacher pay scale fixed or can they charge what the market will bear?
  • Will a switch from socialized education to a la carte education create vast academic inequities?
  • Would there be a cap on the number of students per teacher?
  • What happens to the teacher unions?
  • What happens to teacher benefits and retirement?
  • What would prevent Walmart from creating Schoolmart and dominating the a la carte education market?
  • Should a Sharia Über Alles Network or the NAMBLA Academic Network be allowed to educate children?

People more intelligent than I can tackle these details. Their solutions will be impressive.

The best learning environment for students is to be with each other. Not so much for the academics of the classroom but to learn from each other the social cues and interactions needed in a modern society. The less real socialization experienced by a child, the more difficult it will be for them to interact with others as an adult. One doesn’t need a study for this. This is just common sense.

But if distance learning is to be forced upon us due to our current lockdowns, this suggestion of a la carte education is something that can begin a conversation. With the internet, a reorientation from school-focused to student-focused education is now possible, opening up a whole world of possibilities. After all, are we interested in having schools prosper or having our students prosper?

We are well underway into a new century. Our educational system should reflect that.

And now, it can.