The Covid-19-related school closures led to echo-chamber predictions of educational pundits: “Teaching will never be the same,” “Why schools will never be the same,” or “Homeschooling during the coronavirus pandemic could change education forever.”
Whether the pandemic proves to be a watershed moment for educational change depends in no small part on the experiences and attitudes of parents. Spring and summer 2020 saw plenty of anecdotal reporting about those experiences and attitudes, but systematic analyses were in short supply.
So, in August 2020, we surveyed 1,743 parents in traditional public, charter, and private schools across the United States. We asked about what schooling at home looked like for their families, what educational resources schools offered, parents’ assessment of the experience, and their plans for the 2020-2021 school year.
We found the vast majority of schools provided educational resources ranging from hardcopy packets and worksheets to live instruction provided online. Schools sometimes provided laptops to use at home and even internet service for those who needed it. For their part, students and parents—mostly mothers—spent an average of 3.5 and 2.5 hours a day, respectively, working through assignments and materials provided by schools. Teachers maintained frequent contact with families through various communications technologies, which included email, texting, video meetings, web portals, and phone calls. Despite the grim real-time descriptions of schooling at home that dominated the press in spring 2020, parents we surveyed were generally positive about the experience.
Media reporting at the time portrayed a chaotic transition from in-person to remote learning, with parents struggling to attend to the needs of their children and maintain employment. The results of our survey did not entirely align with that portrayal. It’s possible that in August, when we surveyed parents, the pain and frustration of the spring may not have been as acute, because remote learning was two months or more in the past. Contemporary reporting also likely suffered from sensationalism that has come to characterize the news. It may be that far more schools made a smoother transition to remote learning than media reporting conveyed.
Our results do suggest large-scale change to schooling in the United States is technically possible. Prior to the Covid-19 closures, the quantity and quality of online instruction and even technology use in classrooms had been uneven and mostly ad hoc. There had been questions about whether widespread virtual education was possible. Our research suggests it is. The circumstances were not optimal, with schools rushing to create remote learning programs in a matter of days and weeks. The quality of the programming certainly would have been greater with more preparation. But our findings show despite little time to prepare, inadequate resources, and no training, schools created programs with which parents were at least somewhat satisfied overall and elements of which they rated as helpful and effective. Indeed, given the circumstances, it is surprising schools did so well. If they could do so under these conditions, what more is possible under more optimal circumstances?
Yet, possible and probable are not the same thing. To put it plainly, our data indicated there is not going to be an “educational renaissance” some soothsayers predicted. We asked parents to identify their plans for fall 2020. The greatest number of parents said they planned to remain in the brick and mortar school their child attended prior to the Covid closures.
The percentage of parents choosing homeschooling was quite small compared to other options, nothing close to the 40 percent to 60 percent predicted in some sources. If parents were going to leave their traditional schools, they instead chose virtual schools. On the surface, this seems like homeschooling under a different name, but those familiar with homeschooling know otherwise. Virtual schooling is typically offered and led by someone outside the home, with parents playing a secondary, although still involved role. Conversely, homeschooling is directed by a parent. To the extent online programming or other resources outside the home are used, it is at the discretion of and overseen by the parent.
Moreover, when we asked parents why they chose virtual school, their primary motivation was health concerns, not for a better education, as homeschool parents often say. If parents are going to school at home, our results indicate they clearly want someone else to lead it, hence the larger number of parents in our survey choosing virtual rather than homeschool. But, to reiterate, the greatest number of respondents planned to remain in their brick and mortar schools, and of those, most were in public schools. Of course, if teachers unions continue to oppose reopening schools by suing, conducting sick-ins, and threatening strikes, the patience of some parents might be sufficiently taxed to force them into other options. But even those changes, we think, are unlikely to persist.
The reason wholesale change to homeschooling and even virtual schooling in the long term seems exceedingly unlikely is simple: Parents cannot or will not do it. Nine years prior to the Covid closures, Michael Horn and Heather Staker (2011) observed,
Home and full-time virtual schooling requires significant parental involvement….The majority of students in America need school—or a supervised place to learn. Various societal stakeholders “hire” schools to do many things for their children, just one of which is learning. A custodial job—keeping children safe—is equally important for many.
They concluded, “home schooling and full-time virtual schooling will not substitute for mainstream schooling.”
Of course, Horn and Staker could not have anticipated a pandemic would force learning at home to substitute for mainstream schooling, but assuming the pandemic is temporary—and we believe it will be—our data suggest they are as correct today as they were then.
Can homeschooling and virtual learning substitute for mainstream schooling? Spring 2020 suggests yes. The revealed preferences of parents indicate the changes are unlikely to outlast the pandemic.
Dick M. Carpenter II is professor of educational leadership at the University of Colorado in Colorado Springs. Joshua Dunn is professor of political science and director of the Center for the Study of Government and the Individual at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs.