A widening cultural chasm has ensnared schools, and it is clear that institutions of learning are at risk.

“Going back to normal” hasn’t been exactly working for most schools, post-pandemic. Millions of families experienced the juxtaposition of being online from home for nearly two years, fraught with difficulties as that was, and are still actively comparing it to being back with humans and strict schedules.

The manufacturing-line construct and hectic to-and-fro is running into much more resistance. The resistance is a murky mix of students who arrive with so few social skills as to be practically unteachable, while also highly addicted to technology, teachers who are quitting in droves and being irreplaceable, and parents not understanding that there will now be no flexibility for them. On the face of it all, it may seem like it could just be an adjustment period. However, we have been in this now for more than a year and counting.

The fact is, things are still off-kilter.

Student attrition nationally is at an all-time high. Micro-schools are popping up. Tutoring companies are going like gang-busters. Homeschooling is so large and growing, and it is no longer something that people hear jibes about being anti-social, because most families have someone doing it. Everyone knows a child, or several children, who is homeschooled, well socialized, learning, and probably gaining on their peers. It’s now culturally cool to be doing it. Reports of millions more K-12-aged humans being “off-grid,” not enrolled in any school or reporting they are homeschooled, are emerging. The Federal Department of Education baseline of 56 million students is 13.5 million less than the U.S. Census Bureau’s claims of a population of 69.5 million K-12 age children. The Census Bureau is mostly corroborated by Statistica, which says the total is 63.3 million who are K-12 age. Forthcoming firm numbers for 2022 from the Federal DOE are lower than 56 million, so the plan is to be even more off from the Census Bureau for total population in the K-12 set. Things are wonky with the topline totals, in other words, possibly for political reasons to obscure the mass defections by only looking at enrollments.

There are a total of 42.7 million children in traditional public schools, per Learning Counsel Research (October 2022). Yet, the research shows this is a questionable number on several levels. For example, there is still potential that some of the savvy students in public high schools are taking private or public-online-paid courses that may even be college level, independent of their enrolled affiliation with the above three different forms of K-12 public schools (traditional, online public, charters/community centers), which together equal 73 percent of America’s students. Primary students may also be using commercial learning apps of many kinds that teach things, through paid or free access, supplementing their learning with time and/or money spent outside the enrolled affiliation. That has, of course, been going on since the app markets first appeared, followed by thousands of free and entertaining but still educational websites, and finally large open courses and courseware companies. If one were to overlay, then, the consumer learning apps, courseware, site and course use on what constitutes public education, then public education is even more diluted as the reliable source of education for American families.

The proof of this is the fact that Learning Counsel’s research indicates consumers of learning are outspending, nearly two-to-one, all K-12 schools combined. Note that homeschoolers plus the “off-grid” untracked students equal an annual spend on digital learning of $21.4 Billion. The rest of the consumer-side spend is students currently enrolled in some public or private school. The “dilution” of source for learning materials and teaching is a schism that threatens the very idea of institutions themselves.

The 18 million unaffiliated homeschool and “off grid” students no one can find, potentially largely new immigrants unaccounted for, that the Census Bureau knows about (or are in the states that do not require enrollment or even notification), is such a large number that it boggles the mind. There is a possibility that part of this 18 million is cited by some states as “homeschooling” when in fact those students are in a state sanctioned online school provider and so are technically in a gray area between homeschooling and public school. but because they are not part of daily attendance taking, they show up in this number.

Another likelihood is that this tremendous number – by far the largest ever cited in both percentage-of-the-whole and total – is also partial public and partial private or off-grid and using an outside service of some sort like the new tutoring and courseware offerings. The “mixing” of learning sources, or “blur” as Learning Counsel News Media has stated before, predates the pandemic and is part of the new normal. Rules depend on state and local laws to determine how extreme this can be, counting things like local ballet or karate class as the physical education credit, such as in the state of Georgia.

Meanwhile, that adjustment period we call “back to normal” is stretching into massive programs to try to regain lost achievement and even those are slow to lift.

Some Clues to Consider

For leaders to get a clearer picture of what is happening, they must look at the symptoms like student attrition, the great resignation and teacher shortage, as well as what is happening within and outside their institutions.

Inside schools, the old models of teaching and learning were more “letting” than “leading,” as tech came in. Older administrators, unfamiliar with the vast world of digital technologies, considered it their best course of action to let teachers choose their own tech stack with little oversight or commonality. Per Learning Counsel’s 2021 Digital Transition Surveys, 89 percent of schools either let teachers do all the choosing, provide pacing guides only (mostly as separate word documents or PDFs that have to be hunted down), or pacing guides plus some recommended playlists of what to use. There was no actual sequenced and time-plotted viable curriculum map of digitally based lessons. This is so markedly unlike the days of textbooks when instructional design was embedded in the resources and augmented with the practice of teaching that it caught up the majority of teachers in the finding of digital things, building sequences, filing, distribution and then management of the back-and-forth of digital messaging traffic, app dashboard watching, and grading that overwhelmed them.

They remain overwhelmed in most schools and districts. 51 percent of teachers cite they spend from 15-30 or more hours a week on just those tasks. If leaders look at exactly what teachers are doing and using, they will find these giant clues.

It could easily be said that it is tech that caused the overwhelm, but that would be a misstatement of facts. It’s the lack of leadership in the design of the model tech architecture for workflow, protocols and core materials presented as a fait accompli for teachers to use as they used to use books. Without a doubt, they should be able to tweak and supplement those items, but without foundational elements like a viable curriculum map, the craft of digital instructional design missed much of its potential glory. The use of flat and noninteractive documents or video rules the landscape, rather than the highly interactive and engaging courseware it could be. Teachers are not only mostly not digital instructional designers with a background in user-interface, but they are also not coders or graphic designers.

Learning Counsel’s 2022 surveys show that 42 percent of teachers cite their number one need is “the time to plan individual and small group activities around digital learning to reduce lecture and whole group time.” While a range of methodologies is necessary for students to access learning, the addition of digital resources often complicates planning for teachers. If learning is being designed with digital resources to fit traditional structures of time and space, it can cause a disconnect that does not allow students or teachers to leverage the power of the resources. The smart move would be to organize learning around a viable curriculum map to remove the lecture/ whole group burden so that their role focuses on engaging students.

Another clue is the runaway growth of private tutoring cited at $8.37 billion in 2021 in the U.S., accelerating at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 7.61 percent. Mathnasium Learning Centers, the nation’s leading math-only education franchise company, was recognized as an Entrepreneur Fastest-Growing Franchise for 2021.

A major blinking-red indicator of change and the need to get organized is the fact that Learning Counsel Research found that the nation’s schools would need one million teachers by the start of the fall 2022 school year. Most did not get anywhere near the number they needed and will not, well into the 2030s. The shortage means 24-28 percent of classrooms remain empty and getting substitutes is nearly impossible. Many solutions to this abound, including prepping one’s own high school graduates to step in with teaching certificates, the use of the National Guard, using online courseware packaged with live teaching, sharing with neighboring schools and districts, and even hiring parents and giving them temporary certification.

Meanwhile, outside some seismic changes are occurring. All during the pandemic and into 2022, remote workers were able to relocate to cities with cheaper housing or more attractive amenities. This shift is in the tens of millions of American families. The away-from-city-centers is redistributing K-12 learning out to suburban and rural America.

A report from the Economic Innovation Group, a bipartisan business organization, analyzed US Census data showing the number of children under 5 living in large cities has also fallen by 5.4 percent since 2019. Manhattan saw a 9.5 percent decline in the age group, while San Francisco has lost 7.6 percent of its population in that age group, according to the report.

Something else happened unexpectedly during the pandemic. Extended families began wanting to live together rather than in separate housing. A burgeoning extended family housing trend has rocked the construction world and is talked about frequently by states changing laws to allow secondary dwellings to be built in yards. The U.S. population living with extended family had already increased from 58 million in 2001 to 85 million in 2014 due to the aging Boomer population. In 2014, extended families represented 17 percent of all households and is continuing to grow due to the influx of immigrants whose cultures prefer family togetherness. This togetherness opened opportunities for more homeschooling and is putting pressure on old-fashioned expectations of rushing back-and-forth to meet bell schedules and full school days, where a lot of time is seen as “wasted” which could be family time.

Generation Alpha, the current K-12 population of students, is said to be more family-oriented than previous generations. Also, the protect-the-ranch-at-any-cost-themed Yellowstone is the most popular television series right now, set in the picturesque rural mountains of Montana. National devotion to it indicates there is something ferocious about feelings of home spaces and family and defending them from moves that have already degraded many of America’s great cities into endemic crime and homelessness.

Another clue is the research showing something is definitely up with generation alpha that almost no educators have really inspected. They are used to creating multiple digital identities, meaning there is something real to them about navigating a digital world as a fake someone else they created specifically for that space. What might be the implications of such a multiplicity of identities, unknown to previous generations?

Alpha is also tech raised and aware of the limitlessness of the Internet. This sense of limitlessness is thought to be the genesis of the multiplicity of digital identity and the strong inclination to be seen as unique in real life somehow. The sheer size of the world of information and the billions of other individuals out there, so close through the Internet, has fostered personal identity desperation and notoriety seeking behavior.

The kicker about generation alpha is that research shows they prefer the screen to human interface, declining physical sports and after-school club engagement in record numbers. They also prefer texting or video exchange over live conversation. Yet many educators believe that a human teacher must be the source of knowledge through live in-class interaction. They ally with parents ranting about too much screen time without noting the sizeable difference between passive and active screen time, and between learning versus gaming or socializing. Without adapting to alpha’s preference, schools miss an opportunity to use the fewer teachers they do have more wisely – for their human aspect rather than as a point of distribution which could be done more efficiently mechanically. Generation alpha appears to expect precision teaching, and for any togetherness to be purposeful.

All these clues, and probably dozens of others you can think of, point to a seismic change for schools they need to address. The recommendation for the majority will be to get organized and become a matrix model for school efficiency and greater achievement.

About the author


LeiLani Cauthen is the CEO and Publisher of The Learning Counsel. She is well versed in the digital content universe, software development, the adoption process, school coverage models, and helping define this century’s real change to teaching and learning. She is an author and media personality with twenty years of research, news media publishing and market leadership in the high tech, education and government industries.