Making the Grade: A Potentially Transformative K-12 Back-to-School Season

by: Christian Lehr, Tanya Rosbash, and Adam Newman | Blog |Sep 16th, 2020

With the return to school upon us, the K-12 community still has more questions than answers. Rather than subside, many challenges related to teaching and learning have intensified and rather than align, many key stakeholders – and priorities – have clashed. Underneath all the noise and frustration is a universal truth: all children need and deserve access to a great education experience.

After taking August “off” from publishing, this month we share our perspective on a selected set of K-12 back-to-school dynamics. Realistically, the issues and opportunities facing the K-12 community – and the paths forward – could take many months of commentary to address. We will be chipping away at them through this and other forums across the Fall and look forward to engaging with you directly.

On the precipice of change: a potentially transformative K-12 back-to-school season

 

Despite considerable efforts by various stakeholders, many K-12 districts have started the school year the way skeptics feared they would: under-prepared for the challenges that the pandemic continues to present. Local surges in coronavirus cases, as well as pushback from parents and teachers, have locked many districts into remote learning environments without sufficient training and support to execute well. In the current environment, the “local” nature of our national K-12 school model may present more challenges than benefits.

K-12 public schools enable the development and maturation of ~50 million U.S. citizens and play a seminal role in each of our communities. As the issues surrounding COVID-19 continue to reverberate, what will be the lasting changes for this generation of students? We highlight three major themes below, each of which was has the potential to leave a long-lasting impact on the K-12 ecosystem.

ENROLLMENT SHIFTS

When surveying parents of K-12 students in July, we found more than a third had plans to change their child’s enrollment status, and many already had. The most recent data is even more pronounced: nearly 40% of K-12 parents across the U.S. have disenrolled their children from the school they were originally going to attend this year. As public districts are witnessing thousands of families opt out, private schools and various forms homeschooling are emerging as popular alternatives – for those who have the resources to afford them. At Tyton Partners, we have been considering the scope and permanence of these shifts, and the extent to which this Fall’s enrollment dynamics could signal a broader trend of parents investing more directly in their children’s K-12 education.

Private school revival: Enrollment in private schools has steadily declined over the past two decades driven by escalating costs, diminishing cohort size, and the lingering effects of the 2008 recession. Now, these schools must also weather a COVID-19 storm that presents new logistical hurdles and questions of sustainability. But many private schools are leveraging their flexibility and freedom to adapt policies and plans to attract new families. As a result, enrollment numbers are on the rise in various geographies and across school types, but questions still linger around their persistence: Will private schools be able to deliver on their promises? In the current economic environment, to what extent can families afford private education? Patterns will likely vary based on region, and concerns over how these shifts will affect the public sector are likely to intensify.  Nevertheless, private schools that find a way balance high-quality, in-person instruction with reasonable tuition rates have a unique opportunity to offer a compelling alternative for families.

Parent agency in the ascendancy: As parents seek alternatives to traditional K-12 public schools, many are speculating that discretionary U.S. family spend on K-12 education may start to increase; this dynamic could lead to new, sizable pools of spend for existing and emerging suppliers across different categories, including homeschool curriculum and supplemental resources and services. Some parents are opting for an alternative “school” experience entirely by sponsoring “learning pods” – small groups of children who share space and a private tutor – or pursuing microschools – a modern variation of the one-room schoolhouse often run by private companies. These models are capturing attention in the headlines and gaining traction, while simultaneously generating backlash over equity issues and workforce concerns. For example, while pods claim to offer parents more input into their child’s education, financing the do-it-yourself model and ensuring high-quality academic experiences may be difficult to sustain. If families’ decisions to opt out of public schools extend beyond the current year, we would expect significant implications on institutional funding and associated spend.

STUDENT ACHIEVEMENT (GAP)

K-12 students across the spectrum are dealing with the repercussions of school closures. Many are returning to school with significant deficits, and educators – whether teaching in-person or remotely – are striving to balance students’ need for forward-looking academic development with gap-fill intervention efforts. And while the gap in educational outcomes by race and income-level was profound before COVID-19, the crisis has only heightened the divide. The moment requires collective urgency, and the K-12 community is striving to harness its energy to address these gaps.

Assessment “freeze” melts: The rapid transition to remote learning in Spring 2020 resulted in many summative assessments waived, leaving school leaders without summative data for what could be a remarkable two-year period. Despite short-term dips in procurement and usage of standardized tests, decision-makers will lean on formative and interim measurement to diagnose learning loss and calibrate instruction in the current academic year. As such, Tyton Partners expects these assessment markets to experience a rebound in the near- and mid-term, with the trend towards benchmark/ interim, and formative assessments accelerating. The long-term implication could be full-scale shift to newer, innovative formative and interim models that deliver what districts and states have generally depended on from their summative efforts.

Intervention goes mainstream: As analyses of learning loss begin to put numbers to student academic shortfalls by grade-level and discipline, the consensus is that most students will start this school year behind where they would after a typical summer break. Solutions that target skills gaps and provide adaptive, personalized content will address critical needs in classrooms and homes, generating an adoption tailwind for suppliers with strong solutions. The shift from core to supplemental materials and the blending of curriculum and assessment – key dynamics in place prior to the pandemic – should continue to accelerate as a result of present conditions. Districts will not be the only customers, either: parents are increasingly turning directly (see “Parent Agency” above) to virtual private tutors and supplemental learning technologies to combat their children’s learning loss and address concerns regarding remote and hybrid learning models. On their back-to-school shopping lists: fewer traditional supplies and more spend on electronic devices and subscriptions, up 4% from last year.

Structural changes to academic programming: Identifying strategies to increase the amount of time students are in class learning is paramount for districts – and many parents – facing COVID-related school closures and reduced instructional time with educators in both remote and hybrid models. We expect stakeholders to mobilize around likely temporary solutions in the short-term, whether through extended school days, increasing the number of days in the school year, or partnering with wraparound services providers to maximize out-of-school enrichment. While these ideas may improve contact time for students, they face possible pushback from teachers unions, with some already planning strikes over issues relating to safety and responsibilities. In the end, all stakeholders will need to make some concessions to support students’ needs, but the impact of changes may unfortunately be limited short-term band-aid ones.

DRIVE TOWARD CONSISTENCY

School districts across the U.S. have been asked to go above and beyond, and many have responded swiftly to the crisis. One top priority has been providing a consistent learning experience that ensures each student has a fair shot at success. To achieve this, leaders have been looking to replicate and scale best practices while avoiding headline-grabbing messes. Whether adopting new curriculum, technology, or teletherapy services, or working with teachers to prepare for delivering instruction across multiple models, districts are striving to plug gaps – if not holes – while staring down a depleted budget. From policy to procurement to practice, a number of factors will be required for central leadership to achieve greater consistency.

Technology to support transparency: As districts aspire greater consistency, they are likely to rely more on technology that streamlines general data collection and promotes transparency around operations, school climate and academic performance. For example, scenario planning for budgets and operations could become a fixture of network management moving forward, and technology that supports these administrative areas could become even more of a priority.

Centralized decision-making (for now): Historically, many districts’ K-12 purchasing decisions have been determined by committees after a lengthy evaluation process. Now, pandemic disruptions and shrinking budgets have caused district leaders to streamline – and triage – purchasing decisions. While standard protocol is likely to return, suppliers could benefit in the short-term by tailoring their sales and marketing strategy to the needs of central leaders.

(DOUBLE) BOTTOM LINE

Rather than a return to “normal”, academic year 2020-21 is looking more like a watershed year for the K-12 ecosystem. With great disruption comes great opportunity to re-evaluate the systems and processes in place to ensure that they are working hard and well for students, parents, and teachers. The lasting effects of the pandemic remain difficult to pinpoint in the current moment, but significant, systemic changes will emerge. We will be actively tracking these themes, and others, including gathering new, relevant data across the coming weeks and months.

Key reads from this past week

Teachers and unions continue to push back against reopening amid safety concerns, with some mobilizing to strike if conditions don’t improve

Many states are deferring to local authorities on reopening timelines; NYC public schools has delayed the start of the year entirely as they struggle to prepare standard protocols

COVID-19 cases among school age children rise 34% in Florida since August reopening

Technology issues and program outages plague first the first day of school for students across the country, with Blackboard, Microsoft Teams and Google Drive all reporting issues

K-12 districts experience cyber-attacks and a ransomware threat forces Hartford public schools to postpone first day

Challenges related to school reopening puts a spotlight on social-emotional learning

With remote instruction normalized, some districts have eliminated snow days in favor of distance learning

 

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