In my discussion of alternative education startups thus far, I’ve admittedly been optimistic. Maybe too optimistic. And I know I’m biased because I love the way alternative education startups approach learning. However, in my research I’ve come across too many counterarguments to alternative education and I don’t think I should ignore them.
I’ve heard from many venture investors that having a thesis is great, but there’s the danger of having tunnel vision. I’m trying my best to avoid that by laying out what I see as the top challenges to the growth of alternative education. I’ll also describe what potential solutions there could be to these challenges.
Top Challenges for Alternative Education
- Concerns about academic quality
- The heavy time investment required of parents
- The heavy financial investment require of parents, and thus lack of accessibility for lower income families
- Harder to scale compared to traditional EdTech software companies
- Low awareness of alternative education options
For this post (Part 1) I’ll dive into the first two challenges, and in Part 2 (coming shortly) I’ll look into the last 3.
Concerns About Academic Quality
Parents and students are still vetting alternative education and its academics. The skepticism makes sense — many families likely understand how alternative education is different, but they still want to know whether the learning outcomes for students are higher quality as well.
Only 56% of parents think learning pods / microschools perform the same or better academically when compared to traditional schools (although they see microschools doing better in non-academic enrichment, social and emotional learning, and economics and logistics). Academics is clearly the biggest area for skepticism amongst families.
Maybe it’ll take years of data points for the truth on alternative education outcomes to reveal itself. But the time it takes to prove something out and erase skepticism also depends on how you measure academic quality compared to traditional institutions.
If you’re measuring quality based on something like the number of students that get accepted into prestigious colleges, then that definitely takes many years and graduating classes. If you measure based on standardized test scores, then the process of getting data and results could be quicker. However, many alternative education programs don’t use standardized testing as a measurement tool. Acton Academy, one of the largest microschool networks, actually did have their students do standardized tests, and according to founder Laura Sandefer students were progressing at an extraordinary pace, advancing 2–3 traditional grade levels every 9 months. That’s impressive, although it’s still just one measure of academic quality.
I think there are also less objective ways to measure academic outcomes. I was interested by what Acton Academy was doing and I listened to a podcast that featured Sandefer. Here’s a quick soundbite that I enjoyed:
Interviewer: What do you say to people who say that this model hasn’t been proven out yet?
Laura Sandefer (co-founder of Acton Academy): I would say come and talk to these young people — you would be amazed at what they’re doing and how they communicate. One thing I love about our model is that we have kids doing apprenticeships from 6th grade on. We have young kids working at bakeries, vet clinics, ad agencies, ranches and law firms. The academic stuff is a piece of cake for them — they can take tests and do really well. But what excites me and what people always tell me about is “Wow, they are impressive to talk to.”
This is obviously a more difficult and subjective way to measure whether alternative education works. But I think what’s important about this method is that it considers what students are actually doing and accomplish through their learning. Many alternative education startups will proudly display the different projects that their students are working on —building robots, creating a video game, starting a business. And to be able to communicate well at a young age is also extremely impressive to me. It makes me think back to when I was 10 yrs old and my biggest priorities were Pokemon cards and gym dodgeball.
From my perspective, these sorts of accomplishments and ability to demonstrate skills like verbal communication speak volumes about what students are able to achieve in alternative education.
But again that’s me being a bit biased. In reality there are different ways that families will measure academic success and what some parents might see as a brilliant video game project could be seen by other parents as a waste of time. Perhaps there needs to be a more scientific way to measure academic outcomes, and that’s something I’ll continue to look into (resources like Owl Ventures’ Outcomes Report were great ways for me to learn about how to measure learner outcomes). Nonetheless, the challenge then for alternative education is to either find ways to signal academic quality through traditional measurements (for example if you have the test scores to prove it like Acton) or create original content or testimonials to help parents understand more qualitative ways to measure academic quality.
Heavy Time Investment
In my last post I mentioned how parents are showing a greater willingness to spend time on their children’s education. While that’s great, parents are still making extraordinary sacrifices.
A large challenge with alternative education is that it probably asks the most of parents out of all education options.
As I learned from an HBS The Disruptive Voice podcast episode with KaiPod Learning founder Amar Kumar, for virtual alternative education options it comes down to a few hurdles that parents have to jump through. The first is that not all parents have the ability or the desire to check in and be a learning coach for their students every single day. Many alternative education programs emphasize self directed learning, but naturally that still leads many parents to be involved with their children’s education at home. (Although online school Galileo emphasizes how parents should “let go”). The second is that parents often need a place for their children to stay safe during the day, especially for families that cannot afford for a parent to stay home. Virtual education can’t serve that need.
For alternative education options like learning pods (where multiple families form a small homeschooling group guided by a teacher) that are in-person, there are also clear time investments that parents have to make. According to Tyton Partners, in Spring 2021, 83% of surveyed parents managed a portion of the microschool or pod themselves instead of turning to a commercial provider. This could signal that maybe commercial providers just aren’t widely available yet, or parents just want more control. But regardless, the current DIY nature of pod learning pressures parents to change their work schedules or invest massive amounts of time towards the pod.
This is because starting and operating your own pod or microschool is an arduous task.
“ Parents who operated a learning pod faced the challenge of having to coordinate all aspects of its daily management, such as finding other families to participate, hiring instructors, ensuring the curricular program was implemented, managing payroll and cleaning the pod space daily. Even though providers can assist in these areas, few currently offer comprehensive services so much of the burden remains on parents.” (Source: Tyton Partners)
On top of all of these setup tasks, parents have to handle insurance and legal work. Some parents also just might not have the connections and resources to find a teacher, or even the connections in their local communities to find other families to join. Even if there is an increasing demand for alternative education and pods, the sheer amount of effort it takes for families to do it on their own may deter many potential adopters.
The potential startup solution to this (which already exists with companies like Schoolhouse and KaiPod Learning) is to take care of all the administrative hassle to create a pod/microschool, find an amazing teacher to lead the group, and provide some software to help with daily management of the pod. This solution could significantly lower the barrier to alternative education for many families who don’t have the time to set up and run pods on their own. It’s about empowering the parents and lowering the burden for them.
Empowering the humans in education and giving them the tools to start and run independent operations is an important theme that I’ve seen in EdTech.
- Clark helps tutors do invoicing, payments, and scheduling, and makes it cheaper and more convenient to run their own tutoring businesses.
- Outschool empower teachers to teach on their own schedule and earn money flexibly while Outschool handles all the logistics.
- Teachable’s software helps creators build their own online courses, and handles payments, website creation, and marketing for them.
- Wonderschool’s software lowers the barrier for experienced educators to launch their own childcare operations by helping them become licensed, create their own website, and manage enrollments, accounting, marketing, and communications.
I know none of the above are perfect parallels to learning pods, but all of these solutions use software to lower the barriers to starting your own independent business / school. They’re able to automate tasks that are complicated or just time consuming, and allow the educator to really focus on what they do best. I think there’s a real opportunity in learning pods / microschools to do the same and lower the heavy time investment required for parents or any organization to start and run their own pod.
Thanks for reading and thank you to all the wonderful people who’ve been kind enough to chat with me about my thesis and share their perspectives! Part 2 coming soon. Always feel free to DM on Twitter @alex_yang15 if you want to exchange ideas or if I can be helpful in any way!