Alternative Education — Why Now Is The Right Time

Alex Yang
10 min readDec 30, 2021

I mentioned in my last post that microschools have actually been around since the 80’s and there was a microschool movement in the 2010’s. For the next part of my thesis, I want to explore that and understand what alternative education was like 6–10 years ago. I recently had an EdTech investor tell me that part of building a thesis is documenting the problem / attempted solutions over time, and I’ve taken that advice to heart. After, I’ll examine what’s changed in the alternative education environment due to the pandemic and why now is the right time for alternative education.

**I received wise feedback that my previously used term “alternative schools” was limiting. For example, something like Primer isn’t really so much a school by traditional standards as it is a learning community. So I’ll just settle for the term “alternative education”.

Alternative Education in the 2010s

6–8 years ago there was a ton of press surrounding “education’s next biggest trend” and the “return of the one room schoolhouse.” There were microschools popping up all over the country that looked very similar to the alternative education companies of today and shared similar principles like project based learning, teachers as guides, and student directed learning.

There were also charter schools opening micro-schools as a mini-branch of their flagship school, allowing a few teachers and students to test out new models of learning. But as mentioned by Tom Vander Ark in 2015 (note that blended classroom here means an online + in-person microschool),

There are hundreds of thousands of blended classrooms, but the leap to a whole school model is daunting. Something in between that would allow a team of teachers to quickly adopt an innovative blended model would create new student options, provide districts with valuable pilot projects and give more teachers the opportunity to experience a personalized competency-based environment

Microschools were used as potential pilot projects for traditional school districts, although it’s unclear as to how many of these actually live on or if any scaled up. Moreover, not many school districts were willing to take on a whole school model just yet, perhaps because they hadn’t had the time to prove the concept out entirely. Players outside of traditional school districts, like Acton Academy (one of the largest microschooling networks), were also beginning to scale.

How Many Alt Education Students Were There in The 2010s?

In 2012 there were an estimated 1.8 million homeschooled students in the United States, which was an increase from 850,000 in 1999. In addition, the estimated percentage of the school-age population that was homeschooled increased from 1.7 percent in 1999 to 3.4 percent in 2012.

However, the above figures of 3.4 percent and 1.8 million homeschoolers remained stagnant up until 2020 and the pandemic. These numbers create the possible story that alternative education didn’t blow up in the 2010s because there simply wasn’t enough demand and momentum behind the trend.

AltSchool

Finally, every article back in 2014–2016 about microschools mentions AltSchool, which raised over $170M in venture funding. I thought it would be smart to look closely into AltSchool and what was interesting about them.

Reading in detail about AltSchool and what their actual schools were like was an interesting experience. I knew beforehand that the startup had failed to live up to its high expectations and closed down all their microschools, but I was also surprised by their innovative ideas and the parallels to the alternative learning models of today.

AltSchool was a microschool network and a software company. They ran a small network of microschools with about 30–100 students each, and their educational software helped teachers make assignments and better track student progress through data that would come in from each student’s device. AltSchool was building an entire “OS” of software tools to use for their own schools, and to sell to traditional school districts. There’s a ton of press surrounding the founder Max Ventilla, and I believe the ethos for his startup was very similar to the alternative education entrepreneurs of today: he was dissatisfied with traditional schooling and wanted to create something that taught children a sense of agency and was augmented by technology. AltSchool’s curriculum and the role of its teachers are slightly different from the alt education startups of today¹, but the core principles behind the startup are similar.

So What’s Changed?

Overall what I learned about AltSchool and alternative education from 10 years ago was that the model was not that different from the alternative education companies of today. But at the time, homeschooling growth was stagnant and there was no catalyst driving increased interest in alternative education. That’s why I think a global pandemic shifts how investors should look at alternative education, and I want to explore how the pandemic puts the new generation of alternative education in a stronger position than pre pandemic companies.

From reading the publications of well-regarded EdTech VCs, I had a general idea of what tailwinds supported alt education. I made an initial list of those tailwinds hypotheses and did some research to see whether they were true. Here was my short list:

  1. There are going to be more homeschoolers and alternative learners
  2. Many families that did alternative education during Covid will continue to do so long term
  3. Parents are going to be more involved in their children’s education

In order to try and confirm or reject these hypotheses, I found research reports by Tyton Partners that provide a lot of useful data points on alternative education. Here’s what I found.

  1. There are going to be more homeschoolers and alternative learners
  • Around 13% of parents in the US enrolled their kids in supplemental learning pods as of Spring 2021.
  • There were an estimated 3.4–3.7 million homeschooled students in Spring 2021. According to the US Census Bureau, between Spring 2020 and Fall 2020, the percentage of households that were homeschooling more than doubled (5.4% to 11.1%).
  • In Fall 2020, 51% of parents are aware of learning pods and 52% are aware of microschools

These statistics demonstrate the tremendous growth in alternative education participation. As I mentioned earlier, homeschooling doubled between 1999 and 2012. But due to the pandemic, homeschooling doubled again in just 4 months between Spring 2020 and Fall 2020.

The data also signals how there’s been a jump in awareness of these alternative schooling options. With “an estimated 17.5 percent of children switching schools at least once (75 percent higher than historical averages)” during the pandemic, parents are researching school options more than ever before and likely come across some form of alternative education in their research.

I think this marks an important shift in how Americans view alternative education. When reading the Vander Ark article from 2015, I found that some of the microschools created by school districts were actually designed to be credit recovery solutions for students who had fallen behind. Alternative education in general has traditionally been seen as remedial, for credit recovery, or for unique sets of families. Now, that narrative has shifted due to the pandemic and many families trying alternative education for core or supplemental learning experiences. As co founder of Sora Schools Wesley Samples mentions, “People are seeing virtual schools not just as remedial or credit recovery but a core academic experience. The expectations have changed.”

2. Many families that did alternative education during Covid will continue to do so long term

  • 86% of parents with children in supplemental learning pods say it is likely they will continue next academic year. 74% of parents who enrolled their child in a learning pod or microschool as a core school expect to continue into the 2021–22 academic year.

The above statistic indicates that perhaps alternative learning will not just be a temporary solution that families opted for during the pandemic.

This is particularly important because in order for alternative learning to grow there needs to be strong retention of students, which requires strong consumers satisfaction with the alternative learning experience. Obviously I’m a personal supporter of these learning experiences but if many consumers aren’t or want to switch back to traditional school, then that doesn’t bode very well. It’s also important to distinguish how much of the growth in homeschooling is due to just the pandemic, and how much of it is due to true dissatisfaction with traditional education overall. Admittedly, this is something that’s going to take more time to prove out and I’m curious to see where satisfaction / retention stands for parents after the fully in-person 2021–22 academic year. But as of now, the willingness of parents to continue enrolling their kids in alternative education is a positive sign.

Beyond just statistics, I think understanding the qualitative reasons behind why families switched into alternative education can show whether there can be long term retention. Here’s an example for Fall 2020:

credit: Tyton Partners

Reasons like “Learning format” or “More thoughtful plan for teaching during the pandemic” are perhaps indicators that alternative education is a temporary solution, and families will revert back to traditional schools once they’re in-person. Reasons like “Costs less than the previous one” and “Better quality of academic instruction” could signal families’ dissatisfaction with traditional schooling and wanting to stick with alt education long term.

Some reasons for switching suggest greater consumer stickiness than others, although to me the above graph is still very inconclusive and again I think it’ll take some time to really understand what’s going on.

credit: US Census Bureau (2012)

If we compare this to a different survey done by the US Census Bureau in 2012, the top reasons that parents decided to homeschool were concerns about the environment of schools, a desire to provide moral instruction, and a dissatisfaction with academic instruction at other schools. These reasons all inherently seem like stickier reasons for switching into homeschooling.

The hypothesis of alternative education retention after the pandemic is probably the hardest one to test and analyze, and it’s an area I’ll continue to explore.

3. Parents are going to be more involved in their children’s education

  • Parents spent ~$20B more on education related activities (on an annualized basis), driven primarily by supplemental learning pods
  • Nearly 80 percent of parents expect to be more active in shaping their child’s education in the future
  • Parent investment in homeschooling grew from $7B to $12B
  • More than 70 percent of parents say they will have greater expectations for the quality of education their child receives, driven by an increased emphasis on social-emotional health and individualized instructional support.

They say that for EdTech the client is not the user. What I think is the next best thing is if the client is now much closer to the user and has a better understanding of the user’s experiences. For pre-covid education, parents had practically no idea what their kids did in school (I doubt my parents know a single lick of what I learned in high school). But with students taking Zoom classes and parents working from home during the pandemic, parents got a front row seat to see what their students were actually doing in school. And a lot of them were not happy with it (which is perhaps why parents now have greater expectations for the quality of education their child receives).

Further, parents are not only showing a greater willingness than ever before to spend money on alternative education, but also to spend time to shape their children’s education. This is important as many alternative learning forms like microschooling require a lot more investment and time on the parent’s end than just dropping their kid off at school. But if parents continue to show their willingness to get involved, then this bodes well for the adoption of alternative education.

The above three trends that came out of the pandemic can serve as fuel for the growth in alternative education enrollment. They’ve opened up many parents’ eyes to the quality of education in traditional schools, spread awareness on the various alternative schooling options, and parents are now willing to spend more time shaping their children’s education. There will not be an overnight change in people’s perceptions of alternative education and long term retention is still a question mark, but the pandemic has accelerated awareness of alternative education.

Alternative education in the 2010s did not have the benefit of a global pandemic that left many students and parents dissatisfied with traditional education. It did not have the benefits of increasing awareness or millions of families of seeking a new education option. Nor did they experience a doubling of the number of homeschoolers in just one summer. These are all advantages for the alternative learning companies of today, and why I believe the time is now.

If you made it this far — thank you. And thank you so much to everyone who took the time to give feedback on my last post and gave suggestions for my thesis. In my next post I will look at counterpoints / challenges to alternative education (there are a lot of them). Seems like a good idea in case I’m getting too carried away with my thesis. If you have any feedback, pls email me at alexyyang15@gmail.com or DM me on Twitter @alex_yang15!

¹Here are other things I reflected upon after reading about AltSchool:

  • We’ve iterated upon what “personalized learning” means. The main sell of AltSchool at the time was using technology to figure out what kids had learned well and what they needed to work on. And yes that is still an important idea for EdTech but it’s more a given nowadays. I see more startups that are getting specific about what personalized learning means — Project-Based Learning, Mastery-Based Learning, and dedicated career coaches or mentors are all examples.
  • The role of the AltSchool teacher was unique. Teachers at AltSchool were data analyzers (data would come in from student devices to see what concepts students are doing well or poorly in), task curators (they would manually create “activities” for kids to do throughout the day), and they were also basically beta testers for AltSchool’s software. One of the most interesting things I learned about AltSchool was the teacher-engineer relationship, where teachers worked with the engineering team to improve on current software products and come up with new ones.
  • The danger of selling software and simultaneously running a school… Is that one is immensely more profitable than the other so you’re forced to choose, as Max Ventilla was, to pick between one of the other. AltSchool began to shut down some of its schools in 2017, and parents came out saying that the school was really just a “lab” where student “guinea pigs” were used to develop AltSchool’s software. No one wanted to be a guinea pig and still pay $27K for tuition.

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Alex Yang

How I Decided | Grad Student at SMU | NYU Stern alum