Will COVID Finally End Local School Districts?

THE hot topic in my small cul-de-sac over Wednesday night happy hour is whether schools will ever come back. Here in Las Vegas, the Clark County School District will be going online-only to start the school year in August. There are real conflicted feelings among parents in my neighborhood, and I assume it’s the same across the country. Some are outraged that schools won’t be back, because they feel that e-learning isn’t real learning; their kids aren’t doing great with “classes over Zoom.” Some are outraged that schools might be back before there is a vaccine, because that puts teachers (and their own kids) at risk. Some are concerned that the poorer families without high-speed internet and computers at home will be screwed. There are as many opinions as there are parents, from what I can tell.

Plus, the American Federation of Teachers just okayed a strike if schools reopen without adequate health protections in place.

And it isn’t just the K-12 schools. There’s an article on Chronicles of Higher Education (registration required) titled, “Plexiglass Won’t Save Us” with the subhead “Colleges have frittered the summer away on audacious and absurd reopening plans. It’s time to embrace remote learning instead.” After lambasting the various “return to campus” plans of various colleges, the author writes:

In place of all the time, effort, and money colleges are spending on trying to resume on-campus instruction this fall — efforts that may be in vain due to factors outside colleges’ control — they should instead be focused on improving last semester’s remote experience. They should invest in better online-learning platforms, expand instructional-design support for professors to overhaul their courses, and offer widespread training in online teaching.

As the summer draws to a close, I imagine the topic of conversation in many families and many neighborhoods will be about schools. Obviously, real estate will be affected, because real estate is affected by and affects everything.

There is an angle here, however, that I wanted to spend some time thinking about, because it fits in so nicely with my call to have the industry engage in some very difficult conversations about zoning and local school districts.

It seems to me that we’re at an interesting turning point in society due to COVID, but like everything else, it’s a turning point that has been arriving for quite some time. Online learning systems have been around for well over a decade now; a good friend of mine was one of the founders of Blackboard, one of the first online LMS (learning management systems), back before the first Dotcom bubble. As we all know by now, videoconferencing software has been around for years and years… but not widely adopted. It’s not like Khan Academy and Udemy didn’t exist. Of course they did. But they weren’t widely utilized.

What occurs to me is that maybe technology and necessity will actually create the change that politics could not get done. It is likely that we will never see local school districts go away through political agreement; NIMBYism is just far too strong. But maybe the wide adoption of online learning might do what politics cannot.

Let’s think through this together.

Online Education: Not Quite There Yet….

To save you the trouble of having to read the Chronicles of Higher Education article above, which requires registration, let me excerpt a longer passage:

This spring we saw something that few people could have ever predicted — colleges across the country abruptly shifting, almost overnight, to digital education. But the pivot in response to the coronavirus pandemic was largely haphazard and make-do, with faculty members and institutions duct taping together learning-management systems and Zoom in order to finish out the semester.

Not surprisingly, students and faculty members didn’t love the experience. In a survey of over 3,000 students in the U.S. and Canada by Top Hat, an education-technology company, nearly 80 percent of respondents said their online courses lacked the engagement of in-person classes. Half said online was worse than face-to-face instruction; 16 percent said it was a lot worse.

So you might expect, since there is still so much uncertainty about the pandemic, that colleges this summer would be putting most of their efforts toward creating better digital courses for the fall. But that hasn’t been the case. Instead, the prevailing strategy at most institutions is to do almost anything possible to get back to in-person classes. That’s why we’ve seen a preponderance of “return to campus” or “reopening campus” task forces.

Their plans teeter between the audacious and the absurd. Tiny Colby College aims to administer 85,000 Covid-19 tests in the fall semester at a cost of $10 million. The Community College of Baltimore County proposes to prop open all interior doors to minimize the touching of door handles. Purdue University is fundraising for plexiglass and lab masks. The clear message is that it’s easier for colleges to purchase plexiglass than redesign pedagogy.

The race to get back to campus in some form, even for a few weeks, is largely about one thing: money. If this fall is entirely online, polls have shown, families don’t think they should have to pay the on-campus price. The traditional business model for higher education is built on the in-person experience. Without it, vast pieces of institutional budgets will collapse and quite possibly the very future of all but the most prominent institutions.

You can hardly blame parents and students for balking at tuition prices when the experience in the spring was so disappointing. In place of all the time, effort, and money colleges are spending on trying to resume on-campus instruction this fall — efforts that may be in vain due to factors outside colleges’ control — they should instead be focused on improving last semester’s remote experience. They should invest in better online-learning platforms, expand instructional-design support for professors to overhaul their courses, and offer widespread training in online teaching.

It is clear that the online learning experience is not quite up to par with the in-person experience. How could it be? Much like online happy hours and online birthday parties, it’s better than nothing… but it’s nothing like the real thing.

The Chronicles author seems to suggest that the problem is in pedagogy: teachers don’t know how to teach effectively over the internet, because they’ve never been trained to teach over the internet. Restructuring courses, training the teachers, and possibly enhancing the technology platform might make online learning a much better experience.

Discipline, Socializing, and Online Education

I think there are some other factors that apply to K-12 education that do not apply (necessarily) to college: discipline and socialization.

Some kids are self-motivated and self-disciplined to sit at a computer, take classes, pay attention, and learn something. Others… are not. This is especially true if you’re talking about the younger kids, say elementary school, who have to be taught to sit still to begin with.

Parents who have spent the spring semester doing ad-hoc emergency homeschooling know how difficult that could be.

Socialization is another big factor for K-12 that probably doesn’t apply to college. Few of us expect grown-ass men and women to need to get together in person in order to learn how to behave in a social environment. We expect that they have already been socialized. Kids, not so much.

There are real questions as to whether online education can do either of these things.

Having said that….

The Future of Work is Online

I think there is a valid point to be made that education follows the workplace. This 2012 article from The Atlantic points out that American public school system was created to train factory workers for the 20th century:

More than 150 years ago, Massachusetts became the first state to provide all of its citizens access to a free public education. Over the next 66 years, every other state made the same guarantee. The result was a publicly-funded system where, in every American classroom, groups of about 28 students of roughly the same age are taught by one teacher, usually in an 800 square-foot room. This model has been the dominant archetype ever since.

It’s a factory-model classroom. Inspired in part by the approach Horace Mann saw in Prussia in 1843, it seemed to adequately prepare American youth for the 20th century industrialized economy.

Even as we advanced into the 20th century, and services overtook manufacturing in the economy, the structure of the American schools does appear to be connected to the needs of industries to create white collar workers: sit at a desk, in neat little rows, and work.

This is hardly the place and I am hardly the person to get into details about education. But I do think there is something to the idea that our schools were designed to discipline and socialize young people into productive adults who could sit in a cubicle in an office next to hundreds of colleagues, and do intellectual work. Certainly, the model of the classroom doesn’t really prepare a student for a career as an auto mechanic or a construction worker or any job that doesn’t involve sitting behind a desk in an office.

If you’re truly interested in the topic, Sunny sent me this manifesto by Seth Godin (yes, that Seth Godin) that I’m reading through. Perhaps you will find it interesting as well.

But post-COVID, it seems clear that the future of work is online. In our own industry, Zillow just announced that going forward, the vast majority of its workers will be able to work from home indefinitely. But this is happening across the American workplace. More and more companies are getting more and more comfortable with remote workers.

Discipline and socialization take on a whole new meaning if the future of work will be online. If the office with its cubicles and in-person team meetings is replaced by home workstations and Zoom meetings, then our young people will need to be trained to work in that environment. The kind of discipline and socialization the future of work requires is not the kind that in-person classrooms will teach, is it?

And those jobs that require a person to be physically present — think medicine or factory work or the skilled trades — require a dramatically different approach to discipline and socialization. Neat little rows of desks aren’t going to help there either. (Maybe what we need is a renewed focus on trade education for those kids who don’t want to work in an office or on a laptop.)

Online Education and School Districts

Because of the change in how we work, let’s posit for the time being that education will inevitably and eventually move entirely online. There will be numerous challenges, and that system will reward people who are self-disciplined and know how to socialize over Slack more than they do over lunches, but any system is going to advantage some and disadvantage others. So let’s assume everything moves online.

There are two immediate questions that come to mind.

First, would we need many teachers?

Second, why would online education be limited by geography?

Teachers: Quantity vs. Quality

As to the first… I can’t remember where I read it or who said it, but there was a technology leader (I want to say Bill Gates, but my Google-fu doesn’t give me any links) who said that teachers should be paid a million dollars a year… but that we’ll only need about 10,000 of them in the United States because of online learning.

We all know that teachers make a difference. Every single one of us has had at least one teacher in our lives who inspired us, who made us excited about some topic (like 19th century European history) that would otherwise bore us to tears, who made enormous positive impacts on our lives. Great teachers are invaluable, and yes, they should make the kind of money that we reserve for athletes and entertainers: their impact is far more profound than some guy who can throw a ball real fast.

On the other hand, every single one of us has also had some teachers who were horrible. They sucked the joy out of any topic, and made us profoundly uninterested in learning anything at all. We couldn’t wait for the bell to ring in those classes.

The thing about anything online is its scalability. That’s the same whether we’re talking about travel, about looking for houses, or about education. One site can reach an unlimited number of people. One guy with a cellphone can reach billions of people on YouTube, without needing hundreds of local TV stations, or printing presses or the like.

So if the greatest math teacher in history, who can really fire up 7th graders to learn to love math, is teaching online… I’m not sure why that teacher couldn’t teach math to every 7th grader in America. Maybe timezone differences? Fine, so four amazing, fantastic math teachers then, one in each timezone. Each one making $10 million a year.

The same goes for any other subject.

The point being that if discipline and socialization are no longer on the BC (Before COVID) model, then there is no reason why just a few of the very best educators could not teach thousands upon thousands of students.

If education goes entirely online, I’m not sure what the argument is for your kids to be taught math by one of the horrible teachers who will suck all the joy of learning out of your kids, because that horrible teacher happens to work for your school district… while the greatest math teacher in the world is teaching 30 kids on Zoom in the next town over. It’s not a technology issue; we already have massive online computer games that can have millions of people logged in at the same time, using up processing power that dwarfs what a classroom might need.

Which brings us to school districts….

Limiting Online Learning by Geography Makes No Sense

You already know my feelings on local levy funding and local school districts. I believe they are relics of an openly racist segregationist past, and continue to drive systemic inequality and systemic racism in this country. Go read my earlier post if you want the details.

Thing is, there is literally nothing more difficult politically than to convince parents — particularly those who are in wealthy suburban neighborhoods with top-notch schools — to give that up for the benefit of society as a whole. I think it would be easier to convince people to give up Social Security or Medicare than local school districts. Most people care far more about their children than they do themselves, and education and opportunity for their children is simply not a thing they are going to sacrifice.

But another reason is that Social Security and Medicare did not and does not impact the value of their homes. Someone who paid $800K for a 3BR/2BA house, because the local school district is the very best in the state, is not going to look favorably on getting rid of local school districts.

You could have raging socialists, people who fully support replacing capitalism and getting rid of corporations altogether… but even they are likely to balk at the idea of getting rid of local school districts where their kids go to school, just like they balk at the idea of low-income Section-8 housing in their tree-lined neighborhoods.

Short of a total revolution, then, a political solution to local school districts seems unlikely. But widespread online learning changes the calculus.

Even for the rich parents in wealthy suburbs, proliferation of online learning changes the equation as they have as much to gain as they do to lose. Even if the teachers in your wealthy suburban school district are largely great, not every single one is going to be the very best at teaching a particular subject. The true expert, the real Teacher of the Year, might be in a different school district… or even in a different state, or for that matter, in a different country altogether. Why limit your child’s learning to those people your school district has hired?

The best way to think about this is in foreign languages. There are already a number of services that connect students with teachers who are not only native speakers of their language, but actually live overseas. If you want your child to learn Spanish, why settle for a teacher who lives in your neighborhood, when you can have someone who lives in Mexico or Spain teach her?

Furthermore, a local school district is limited in the number of language classes it can offer to the teachers who can speak and teach that language. But with online learning, why can’t a child learn Swahili from a native speaker if he wants to? Why couldn’t parents have their kids learn Pashto during “language class” period in 7th grade, if that’s what they wanted? Why must they select Spanish, French, or German because those are the three options at their child’s school?

If education goes online, because the workplace has gone online, then there is no logical reason to limit learning by geography — especially one as arbitrary as school district lines.

Private Schools First

Given the political power of teachers’ unions, of local politicians, and the like, I think we see this change happen first with elite private schools. If education goes online, then the value of something like an elite prep school — think Phillips Exeter, Andover, and the like — becomes problematic, just like the value of colleges becomes problematic in an online world.

Sure, rich parents will pay a premium for the “overall experience” of living in a dorm on beautiful campuses with elm trees and the like… but even they have to balk at paying $60K a year to have their kids live in that dorm, then take all their classes online. The rich are rich; they’re not stupid.

The value, then, for an elite private school has to be that they have the best teachers in the world teaching their classes. The physics teacher won’t just be Mr. Jones who lives in the next town over, but Dr. Kothwala who lives in India. The English teacher won’t be Mrs. Smith from down the street, but Dr. David Bromwich, formerly the Sterling Professor at Yale University, who is now being paid $3 million a year to teach English to a network of thousands of kids at elite private schools worldwide. To justify a $60K a year tuition, these private schools have to offer something that public schools cannot, and in the internet era, in the online world, the only thing that makes sense is quality. Real expertise, both in subject matter and in pedagogy, from world-class teachers who are fully trained in online teaching, with all of the very best tools and platforms to make online as engaging and as interesting as possible.

Discipline won’t be a problem, because their students come from families who place an enormous emphasis on education… which means discipline at home. Socialization could be an issue, but these rich families have plenty of other outlets for socialization: the country clubs, the yacht club, charities, churches, and so on.

Sports? Well, it isn’t as if these elite families don’t already spend thousands a year on private club sports for their kids, along with private coaching and the like.

This pattern would follow the pattern for all innovations, whether we’re talking education or anti-lock brakes or smartphones: the rich get those first, because they’re willing to pay. Eventually, those innovations get less and less expensive, and filter down to the masses.

The politics change at that point. It isn’t as if middle class parents don’t want their kids being taught by world-class experts; if local school districts are getting in the way of that, they’ll support measures to make sure their kids have the same chances that the kids at Phillips Andover have.

Implications for Housing

The implications are numerous, and I’m sure you can come up with a bunch of them yourself. But right off the bat, I do think the Rise of the Exurbs becomes much, much easier if education goes online. I think homes get larger, not smaller, in order to accommodate not just home offices, but home classrooms. Multifamily complexes have to think about offering common online learning spaces for their residents. New construction has to start with water, electricity, and fat fiber optic internet pipes. So many other implications!

High speed internet becomes like highways and roads (and before that, the railroads); something that the country must invest in to make sure that every small rural town has access to online learning.

And local school districts go away. Which eliminates one giant barrier to equal opportunity for everyone regardless of race or wealth.

At the same time, home values in wealthy suburbs will take a hit. Probably a far smaller hit than one might imagine, since there is a lot of value in living in clean, safe, tree-lined neighborhoods beyond the local schools. But it will be a hit…

Thinking about this near future some more… I’m not sure this is a bad thing! I think I can get behind the online learning future, just like I can get behind the online workplace future.

What do you think?


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Rob Hahn

Managing Partner of 7DS Associates, and the grand poobah of this here blog. Once called "a revolutionary in a really nice suit", people often wonder what I do for a living because I have the temerity to not talk about my clients and my work for clients. Suffice to say that I do strategy work for some of the largest organizations and companies in real estate, as well as some of the smallest startups and agent teams, but usually only on projects that interest me with big implications for reforming this wonderful, crazy, lovable yet frustrating real estate industry of ours.

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3 thoughts on “Will COVID Finally End Local School Districts?”

  1. While I see the point of online learning giving more access to top educators for the widest possible amount of students I don’t see how you left out the push back of all the inferior teachers and their unions.

    Your model would basically eliminate well over half of the current teachers at minimum and if you expand globally perhaps 70-80%.

    How are you going to get the lobbies to go along with eliminating all of these people and where to you expect them to go if they love teaching and feel they want to continue even if they suck?

    You also are ingnoring the vast swath of children who, for whatever reason cannot learn online. They just need in person instruction or they get left behind.

    And what of the parents who may now work at home, or worse now must leave their home and their child alone there to learn without supervision?

    And there’s the problem of socialization you say will work out on its own but is already one of the greatest challenges faced by today’s youth. I can’t see anything good coming from further insulation of youth from other kids experiences and cultures that happens only at school.

    I’d hate to see the homeschooled internet learners in these white suburban areas after going through K-12 without being exposed to any kid outside of their own neighborhoods.

    Any progress we’ve begun to make in children sharing a diverse learned experience together will completely disappear.

  2. Internet access would be an issue. I would like to see more communities/cities provide free internet to their residents. Those who can afford better services will still pay; no one loses. If the small city of Fredericton, NB Canada can do it, others can too. (see: https://www.fredericton.ca/en/smart-fredericton)

    PS. Your writing keeps me glued until the end. This might be the most entertaining blog I have read in a long time.

    • Thank you! 🙂

      And yes, I have long thought that we could use an Information Highway development program that parallels the interstate highway program under Eisenhower. We’d make back what we’d spend on such a thing in additional economic growth and additional tax revenues.

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