What comes after the Industrial-Education Complex?

Or, The Great Unbundling

Background: I'm the cofounder/CEO of Synthesis, an enrichment club that teaches teamwork and complex problem-solving for kids 7 to 14 through online team games. My cofounder Josh Dahn developed the Synthesis concept while running Ad Astra, a small lab school he built for Elon Musk on the SpaceX campus.

The 20th century Industrial-Education Complex is the single biggest anchor on human ingenuity and freedom in the west. The highest value of this system is compliance. It prepares humans to act as cogs in the vast bureaucracies and factories of the mid-20th century. It was never meant to cultivate the beauty, genius, and freedom of your child[1].

At my previous company, ClassDojo, I discovered something odd: none of the hundreds of teachers, parents, principals, and district administrators I spoke with stand with the system. They were the system, yet did not support it. The biggest obstacle to progress is mere inertia.

But change is finally afoot. Covid-19 has crammed 10 years of progress into one by a) instantly making online learning mainstream, and b) exposing parents to the methods of standard schooling. When we ask Synthesis families what made them seek us out, the most common answer is "I saw for the first time what my child's normal classes are like."

What comes next?

Three major shifts are underway:

  1. Rise of internet education
  1. Rise of "school choice"
  1. Rise of micro-schools, learning pods, and homeschooling

The Rise of Internet Education

The internet eventually does the same thing to every industry: unbundles, then re-bundles. My favorite example is local newspapers. They bundled local news, world news, classifieds, theatre listings, etc. Post-internet, the local newspapers that survived do only what they uniquely do well: local news.

K-12 schools, like the newspapers of old, are a bundle of services:

Two observations here:

  1. Whatever CAN move to the internet, WILL move to the internet.
  1. More can move to the internet than you think.

My belief is that half of peer community, and effectively ALL of academics will move online.

In the short run, it may seem the inertia of the K-12 system can withstand any attack. But in the long run, change is inevitable. Online alternatives are improving exponentially, while local schools are stuck in the mid-20th century. Covid-19 has accelerated a Cambrian explosion of new products, services, and networks. Most of these will die off quickly. But a few will survive and be 10x better. These will proliferate, improving at internet speed, until parents realize that simply hoping the local school does a good job is irresponsible parenting[2].

The best academics will be online, but so will the best peers. The most successful online schools will help students find their learning tribe, those who will share their interests and push students to excel. At Synthesis, we are seeing kids build real friendships that span continents. Their parents are still surprised by this, but in a few years it will seem unremarkable.

It is hard to overstate how powerful this peer effect will be. For your kids, the big difference will be more interesting and diverse friendships. For society, the result will be a wave of innovation that will make the last 30 years look stagnant by comparison.

Why?

Because our most prestigious institutions are walled off to most of the population by barriers of age and geography. Everyone knows the value of Harvard and Stanford is in the network, not the teaching. Parents are keenly aware our children will tend to rise (or fall) to the level of their peers.

As new institutions form on the internet and gain in prestige, the traditional barriers disappear. The only barriers will be internet access, and time. I believe this will be transformational. Talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not. Internet education will change that. One of the end results will be a 1000x increase in the ranks of technological innovators, as people with ambition and ability find each other early in life, form relationships, and push each other to ever higher levels of achievement[3]. This is one of the aspects of Synthesis I am most excited about.

You'll know the internet has won when the options for internet education are higher status than the local school. After survival, status is the biggest driver of human behavior. This is particularly true in education — Felicity Huffman did not bribe her daughter's way into USC for the course material. The internet today is still primarily for "learning", but internet education will soon be the best path to wealth and status.

At the college level, Lambda School is already doing a phenomenal job moving students from low status jobs (Amazon warehouse worker) to high status (Amazon software engineer). We are not as far from the same dynamic in K-12 as you might think. Stanford Online High School may already be the highest status high school in the country, and many more prestigious institutions will form and rise in the next decade.

What about local schools?

Smart local schools will focus on what they can uniquely provide. Recess will come back to schools. Kids will have more outside play, more hands on projects, more art, more music. Both teachers and kids will get to do more of what they love to do.

In practice, this will be a messy transition, with plenty of political fighting. The timeline is uncertain, but I am optimistic we will see a wide range of options that vary significantly by locality. Covid-19 has awakened too many parents to the fact that the local school emperor has no clothes — there is now unprecedented energy to drive change.

Here I'm more focused on the U.S., because I know it best. But I expect these trends will go worldwide if they haven't already.

Rise of School Choice

School choice allows public education funds ($12,612 per student on average) to follow students to the schools or services that best fit their needs—whether that’s to a public school, private school, charter school, home school or any other learning environment parents choose for their kids[4]. Under school choice, bad schools die, good ones flourish, and the system overall becomes anti-fragile[5].

Unsurprisingly, parents overwhelmingly favor school choice. Political opposition tends to come from unions. Spoiler alert: the parents are going to win. School choice legislation has recently been introduced in 14 states[6]. Pity the political faction that dares to stand against the mothers.

Rise of Microschools, Pods, and Homeschooling

The pandemic spawned or accelerated many new startups focused on local school options. A few of the most exciting:

Markets for all three are still small, but the growth fueled by the pandemic has been astonishing.

Closing

In a few years, we will look back on Covid-19 as the catalyst that started an educational golden age. It may be a bit rocky for a while, as these sprawling complex systems don't go down without a fight. But in the end, the human drive for freedom, and the desire of parents to give their children the best shot in life, will prevail.

It is hard not to sound crazy describing the effect these changes could have on human life. But consider that human ingenuity — our ability to work together to creatively solve complex problems — is the only driver of progress. There is no other way to solve our problems, or build our dreams. Consider the impact of freeing even one child from the meaningless "waiting place" we call school. Now multiply that by one billion kids on the planet[7]. The scale of impact is unimaginable.

These changes are not inevitable. But there has never been a better time to build the future.

Whatever you can do, or dream you can, begin it. Boldness has genius, magic, and power in it. — Johann Wolfgang von Goethe

Let's get to it.


[1] Read John Taylor Gatto's Underground History of American Education

[2] If you already feel this way, you're in good company — Elon was inspired to start his own school after a similar realization, despite having his kids enrolled in one of the most exclusive and expensive "gifted" schools in LA.

[3] One example of this is the "Paypal mafia". Of the handful of early Paypal employees, six have founded billion-dollar companies. Probabilistically, this is astonishingly unlikely. We're seeing a powerful example of the peer effect driving higher achievement.

[4] Copied this definition from https://www.edchoice.org/school-choice/what-is-school-choice/. Spending per pupil from here: https://www.census.gov/newsroom/press-releases/2020/school-system-finances.html

[5] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Antifragile

[6] Info on legislation: https://twitter.com/DeAngelisCorey/status/1352743214336405504 I recommend following @DeAngelisCorey if you're interested in following the news on school choice.

[7] Obvious caveat that many kids need food, water, and safety before online education will matter to them.