We’re heading toward back-to-school week in my neck of the woods, and in honor of that, this week ParentData is school-focused. Today we have an interview with education expert Michael Horn about his new book, From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)Creating School for Every Child. Thursday I’ll talk through some data on homework. And Friday the Q&A will be all your questions about school. As Dora the Explorer would say: “Grab your backpack, let’s go!”
Emily: Okay, so, Michael, thank you for coming to chat with me. I would love to start by having you just tell us who you are and give me the little elevator pitch for your book.
Michael: Yeah, you bet. So, I’m Michael Horn. I got into education by accident, if I’m being totally honest. I had a public-policy and writing background, tried to run away from both, and failed by taking [the late] Clay Christensen’s class when I was at business school. Clay Christensen is the father of this body of theories around innovation. And it just changed my life in terms of how I saw the world. And I started applying it to education, about how you allow every individual to build their passions and fulfill their human potential.
And so that’s been my mission for the last 15, 20 years of my life. This book came about because when COVID hit, a colleague of mine, Diane Tavenner — who runs a series of schools out in California and Washington — she and I just started getting a lot of questions from parents about “Why does school work this way?” as the curtain was really pulled back. And we started a podcast together called Class Disrupted, where we basically took parent questions up at the top of the show and then answered them.
But part of the conclusion was schooling wasn’t just broken during COVID — it hasn’t been working [for] the majority of families for a long time, not just the have-nots in our society but also, frankly, the haves. And so we started digging in and trying to give parents a different way of looking at this.
Emily: So, I love the book. I will just say up front — this book is quite radical. I mean, you and I have talked about this over email. You know, a lot of times when you read a book about “How can we improve schools, or what can we do differently?” it’s sort of little things, and your thing is more or less like, “This whole system is just a broken mess and we’re just going to do it differently.”
So I want to pull out a few of those [ideas]. And I want to start with something you start with in an early chapter, the idea of different things for different kids and the idea that school is delivering a lot of stuff. And I will say, I found this extremely resonant because, as you know, I spent a lot of time in COVID doing stuff on schools. And I think we all realized when schools closed that, for many people, school was providing not just learning but also things like food and child care and safety and access to medical treatment and all kinds of other stuff.
But the other thing I realized, from my own standpoint in this space of people who are quite fortunate, is that I had not fully understood what school was delivering to my kids. So I tell people — my son was in pre-K in March of 2020, and I was, as academic parents are, frequently saying things pre-pandemic like, “Well, if I were in charge, he would be learning to read so much faster. And I would have these worksheets.” And then it was the spring of 2020, and I was like, okay, I’m going to do this, I’m going to teach him to read. And the thing is, I did … but it was horrible. And I realized that, in fact, what my kid was getting out of school was something different than I had really put together.
So I’d love you to talk a little bit about that part of the book and the idea of, almost, breaking school into these different pieces that are serving different needs.
Michael: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, I think you just said it up front, which is that school does lots of different things for lots of different people. And frankly, some people really value parts of what it does and some people value other parts of what it does, right? And we don’t all value these things in the same way, but they’ve been lumped together in this one-size-fits-all offering that we all, historically anyway, have just sort of signed up for.
And I’d say one of the big pushes, from my perspective, that I hope parents take out of this book is to be more deliberate about, why are you hiring school? What is it complementing in your home life that you can’t give them? I mean, my wife and I have this conversation a lot. We switched our kids’ schools, I think three or four times so far, and they’re roughly the same age, I think, as your kids. And the conversation has been: What do we provide well, and what do we see that they need that we actually can’t provide well? And that could be everything from child care to the socialization experience to exposure to different ways of thinking … it can be to executive-function skills so that people like my wife and I, who stay up late at night trying to get things done, learn to manage our time better.
But having those deliberate conversations and realizing not all schools will do all of those things well. And what’s the really important pieces that match your priorities for your children and your household is an incredibly important conversation to be having. And I think schools need to be having that conversation more deliberately as well with their community about, hey, these services are really important for a part of our community, and we can actually customize and match other needs if these services are less relevant for you and your child.
Emily: So let’s talk about that piece of it. Because while I sort of like this conceptually, and I see why for people with a lot of choice and a lot of options, it might be possible to think about crafting micro schools and learning pods. But when we think about this on a more nuts-and-bolts policy level, do you think this is even remotely feasible? Let me put it out there.
Michael: I love the question. It’s unclear at the moment, to be totally honest. And I think it’s one of the reasons we see so many families opting out of traditional district schools right now into micro schools and pods and charter schools and private schools, because they’re saying: I want that customization. And part of my argument, I think, is that if districts really want to hold on and be that common place where people come for their education, they’re going to have to figure out how to customize. And I think that there are lessons that they can learn about how to leverage micro schools and the advantages that they bring within a larger schoolhouse, for example. How to use online tutoring and online teachers to give access to certain options that certain children may want to have, but it doesn’t make sense to have a full-time teacher, say, in the school building, offering that particular class. Or plugging into community resources to offer the mental health supports that certain children we know really need right now. But it’s really hard — and others have written persuasively about: not sure if you want a teacher who hasn’t been trained for that set of services delivering mental health supports to your child. But you might really welcome someone from the community who has been trained in those things to plug into school and be able to offer those services.
It’s not saying that it’s the school’s core competency or that they need to do every element of this, but more that they become a hub for these different services so that children can customize what they need for them and when they need them. And there are some school districts around the country that have been doing some of this. So I think there’s some bright lights out there.
Emily: So when we think about these bright lights, these examples — and you talk about some of them in the book — what do you think of as the characteristics there? So what might make this kind of more radical change possible from a school district level?
Michael: So, from a school district level, those that have been successful have really tried to break it down and chunk it apart, right? Not try to be all things to all people. And that’s the biggest mindset shift. And they’ve set up autonomous teams — separate teams of educators who have the freedom to ask: What’s the purpose of schooling; what is the scope that we need to provide for this particular set of students that really are wanting these services, and particularly for the parents? And then setting up these mini schools within a school. So it’s really a set of schools within a school, and then they start to ask, how do we get these resources?
And so districts like Kettle Moraine in Wisconsin, for example, have seven different micro schools operating within a high school, or a series of different houses within a charter school. It sounds almost Harry Potter-like when you say it that way. But the idea is, hey, we still want to be part of this larger community, but we know that not every parent is going to want the exact same set of services for their child. And we want to give them some autonomy to figure out philosophy and fit, within our broader context.
Emily: I think the other piece, just to play devil’s advocate and push back a little here, is that what you’re suggesting, it requires these resources. And I think the picture-making is like, districts could do this and here is how they could think about it. But it also requires a set of involvement of parents that is frankly more likely to be accessible to people who are more privileged. But even within this space — and this is echoing some of the concerns about charter schools — there are a set of parents, even within a particular socio-demographic group, who are more engaged with their children’s education. And they’ll be more able to take advantage of this.
And so are we leaving behind a bunch of kids whose parents aren’t able to engage for a bunch of different reasons and saying, you know, you’re just left with the kind of regular school and everyone else gets the micro Harry Potter-house version of schooling?
Michael: I love the question. Part of the core argument in the book is that for families that don’t have the means or ability to lean into their children’s education, school actually has to be doing far more than maybe we’ve traditionally thought about it. It needs to be integrating into all sorts of domains of people’s lives that maybe we historically have said, that’s something that occurs at home, we don’t need schools to do it. Well, certain children don’t have those privileges and advantages. Schools need to be able to figure out ways to do it. And the quick pushback is, well, no, schools need to stick to their knitting, right? The reading, writing, arithmetic. But the reality is you’re not going to accomplish those academic skills for kids unless you’re providing that mental health etc. foundation that a child otherwise isn’t getting.
And so I think that’s part of the answer. The second part of the answer is, frankly, what we’re seeing on the ground right now in the data, which is that it’s not just well-off families who are opting out of traditional schools. It’s a lot of people from underrepresented minority backgrounds from lower on the socioeconomic status who are opting out of big, large urban districts. And I was talking to one parent recently, and I said, “Are you all really able to provide the solid foundation your kids need?” And she looked at me and said, “Sixteen percent of kids in Detroit can read on grade level. You’re telling me I can’t do better than that? I beg to differ.” Right. And I was like, okay, fair point. And so I think that’s the other piece that I’ve been humbled by during all this, is to not assume that just because someone’s in a certain demographic that they’re going to have certain limitations. But to really try to listen to them and see what they’re capable of doing, and then figuring out how society can offer services to meet them where they are.
Emily: That is an excellent point. I mean, the reading is such a — I know this is not the topic of this — but I find these reading levels to be a particularly striking fact of something where actually a lot of traditional schools have, I think, almost failed on how we teach kids to read. That actually, like we’re not doing enough phonics, we’re not doing enough of the basic pieces of reading that would allow all kids to read at least at some reasonable level. And so I can see a parent saying, look, I can teach my kid to read, because at least there’s a good shot that you can do it.
Michael: Well, and there’s templates out there right now. There’s a lot more research that’s made it way more publicly available about the phonemic awareness and phonics-based approach to decoding words. And then one of the biggest things that low-income families struggle to provide often is a range of experiences just to provide background knowledge. Because we know after you learn to decode and read, you start to read to learn, and reading comprehension really becomes a function of your background knowledge.
And so that’s a key place where schools have not been doing enough to make sure that the families coming in, the kids coming in, are getting the exposure and coherent instruction in a range of subjects. We know social studies, science, arts, music have been disproportionately cut over the last few decades. That’s been a mistake in terms of building readers across society. And I think a lot of families are asking more clearly now for that mistake to be remedied.
Emily: Okay, so I want to talk about a couple of your crazy ideas.
Michael: Yes, let’s do it.
Emily: Okay, we can start a little easy. So like learning pods — tell me more about your feelings on learning pods.
Michael: Well, having been in one in the pandemic that didn’t go well, I could give you lots of feelings.
Emily: Only be in them with people that you like.
Michael: But the reality is, if we’re trying to go to this more customized version of schooling, a lot of districts have treated pods as the enemy — as this thing that they wish would go away during the pandemic, that families are opting into, it’s creating inequities within the community.
And my basic argument is, yes, and there are places like Cleveland, for example, that leaned into pods with after-school organizations, like the YMCA, to create pods to serve all children. To make sure that children that didn’t come from means got access to the personalization and community approach that a pod can bring. And so, view it as part of a district strategy, in effect, to create these customizations and simplify the problem. Don’t try to push parents into something that isn’t right for their children. You’re going to provoke a response. But instead use them as a tool to really serve all the kids in a community.
Emily: So the other one, which I’m personally a fan of, is the year-round school. So you make a strong pitch, which was quite resonant with me and probably many of the people who read this newsletter, that summer camps are the bane of everyone’s existence. And that the logistics associated with having this kind of agrarian school schedule is a bit challenging. And it’s challenging even for people with means; it’s challenging for everyone. So year-round school — what do you think?
Michael: This is the most radical one in some ways, I think, because we’re so set in the idea that school occurs from mid-August to sometime in late May or mid-June, depending on where you live in the country. First, the reality is it wasn’t always this way. If you went back 150 years ago, kids went to school year-round for the most part, in urban areas in particular. Second, the stress, as you just pointed out, of trying to balance all the different summer camps and balance the spreadsheets and the child care, and who’s doing pickup when and trying to match your kids’ interests, and the camp is filling up … it just creates this unbelievable stress on parents that’s really breaking them, and it’s hurting the kids as a result too.
And the basic argument is not that kids should be in school every single day. We should still have vacations. But let’s move to a more balanced school calendar that has some more flexibility in it, where I can go, say, for 9, 12 weeks in a row, get a couple weeks off, and then do the same thing. And maybe there’s a little longer break during summer, so we can still have that memorable trip, work outside of the home, things of that nature. But we don’t need to do this sprint through 180 days and then just, we all breathe this deep sigh of relief, except it’s not really, with all the stress.
And so something that is, again, meeting parents where they are and meeting society where it’s evolved to — we’re not all escaping to the lake house or the mountain house in the summer like these breaks were built for — I think would be more equitable but also a lot more sustainable in our lives.
Emily: And of course, like with many of the things you talk about, I think there are versions of this where we could think about something that doesn’t go all the way but goes part of the way and says: we’re going to have more summer scaffolding, we’re going to think of the summer as the school districts providing a project-based learning experience for kids or a bunch of different things that you could opt into, that you wouldn’t necessarily have to opt into. And so I can see versions of that, right? Like, if you want to spend the time with the spreadsheets and the camp, that’s great. But if you don’t, the default is your kid can go to school.
Michael: One hundred percent. And I’ve been taken by some of the micro schools that offer schooling year-round — the mix of programming, to your point, changes depending on the time of year. And kids and parents have some more flexibility of which parts of the year are we going to go to and which parts are we going to opt into? The extracurriculars, the summer school, the travel, whatever it might be … and just give more choice. There’s a huge range of what this could look like. My main argument is, let’s just question the first principle and figure out what works for your community.
Emily: So that’s a good segue into what I think is the biggest challenge with all of this, which is just the loss aversion, status quo you talk about. We are used to school being a way, and you’re right that the pandemic caused a lot of people to be like, but wait, why? But yet, as we re-emerge, mostly my sense is people have this idea of what school does and how school works. And they’re comfortable with that. And I’m not sure what the way in is to just doing it different.
Michael: I agree. A major part of the book is writing about loss aversion and how to frame that within school. And so at one level, the book is a radical departure from how school has been done. And at the other level, my main conclusion when you get to the end of the book is incrementalism in line with your parents as a school innovates. It’s not to push any dramatic changes but to frame things that are small steps forward for different pockets of your schooling community, to allow them to make progress and better set their lives against it.
And so I think that’s the big piece of the loss aversion — not that we have to force everyone to all of a sudden have elementary-school kids waiting for buses at 6:30 in the morning, but that instead we start to figure out, okay, is there a more flexible way we could do morning arrival for high school kids that maybe would allow them to sleep later, in line with adolescent needs for their circadian rhythms and when they sleep? Just little things at the margins that would start pushing us and not taking the status quo as the way it’s always been because it’s the way it’s always been.
Emily: I love that. I think for parents there’s a similar takeaway from the book in some ways. I mean, your book is written largely for educators, although I think that parents should read it. But one of the things I’ve been talking a lot about with people is trying to shape the life that you want and think about your big choices deliberately. But a part of that is thinking about incremental pieces. And so reading something that’s about, here are all these cool, big ideas and all the ways in which things could be totally different — but then you can dial in and say, okay, well, actually this makes me think about a small number of things which I really wish were different about the way I engage with school or the way my kid engages with school. And maybe that leads to either helping the school or helping your family think about some of these more incremental kinds of changes.
Michael: I think that’s right. I mean, a big part of The Family Firm, the second half of your book, was to think about the big picture — what are your priorities, what are your rules — and work your schedule into that. And I think that there’s a large number of parents who just set school and forget it, right? And the big thing here is actually your choices around school are part of that big picture, they’re part of your priorities, they’re part of your rules, and they’re part of how your family is navigating the world. And we all have different work schedules, we all have different needs for our kids; no child is exactly alike. And it’s not saying, you demand everything; you know, there’s going to be tradeoffs. But realize you have a little bit more agency than perhaps you thought you did about how school meets your family and what school is right for your circumstances.
Emily: So, the last thing I want to talk about is just the role of educational technology, because I think a lot of people have wondered, coming out of the pandemic, are we using too much tech? What is the right way to use it? And certainly Zoom school, I think we can agree, is not the right way to use it. But it does seem to me, as you talk about some of the personalization around learning, that there is an enormous role for some kinds of ed tech in the classroom, in some scaffolded way.
Michael: Yeah. And look, my background historically has been writing a lot about ed tech, and yet I’m also the family that sent my kids for a couple of years to a Waldorf school where there is no tech. So we’ve lived it both ways. But I think what we found, both with our children and I find in the research, is that some moderate use of technology to allow them to learn at their path and pace and follow interests is tremendously advantageous. It brings them opportunities that they would never otherwise know exist. And that parents should be part of that experience; we should be moderating it. And so too in schools. This isn’t a free-for-all of everyone should be on their smartphones doing whatever they want. But that we’re using technology to personalize learning in very discrete ways where it makes sense, as a way to self-direct learning, build agency in children, and build fluency with the facts and skills that we want them to learn.
You had Shalinee [Sharma] from Zearn on [ParentData]. [Zearn is] a great use of technology to create more rigor, to allow students to continue to move at the pace of their grade level but fill in the gaps that are holding them back and personalize in that way. And really amplify the teacher’s reach so that they’re not just delivering content to everyone who we know is in dramatically different places in the classroom, but allow the teacher to get data to say, gee, Michael’s really struggling with double-digit addition. That’s probably what’s holding him back from doing double-digit multiplication right now. We need to actually go in and help with that before he’s going to really start moving forward again.
No one wants their kid on an iPad for six hours straight in school. It should be a social experience. But for 30 minutes here, 30 minutes there, and in discrete blocks, it can tremendously open up opportunities.
Emily: It feels again like a place where there’s sort of no substitute for judgment. Targeted math instruction through something like Zearn, where you can really see how kids are moving and get this feedback — it’s hard to argue with the value there. As we move into things that are maybe less valuable … I think we can generate more concerns about how much YouTube one’s kids are watching in school.
Michael: No, I think that’s right. And again, it comes back to: What’s the right balance for that child; what’s the objective at the moment? It’s not always a learning objective; there are social objectives to school, and there’s all sorts of ways we want kids to grow. And technology can be part of that mosaic of answers, but it’s never going to be, nor should it be, the whole part of it.
Emily: No, and I think that’s a great point to end on, because it comes back to the beginning of: What are you trying to get out of the school? And maybe even as a parent, just framing that as your first question, like: What am I hoping that my child will be getting out of school? And to recognize that that answer may not be this score on the SAT or learning this particular math concept. This year, there may be a lot of other things that we’re hoping to get out of the school, and finding ways for your school to deliver for your family in that way is crucial.
Michael: Yeah, I think that’s exactly right. It’s well-said. And I won’t add to it because I don’t think I could say it better.
Emily: It was so nice to have this conversation. Thank you so much. The book is called From Reopen to Reinvent: (Re)Creating School for Every Child, and it is great. Thank you.
Michael: Thank you, Emily. Appreciate it.