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The Changing Face of Competition for Schools

We live in an era of relentless change, and much of it stems from challenges to the status quo. Education has not been insulated from such challenges. International schools have seen challengers in the form of new not-for-profit and for-profit schools alike, especially in those cities with seemingly insatiable demand for international schools.

However, you may not be aware of the next-generation challengers to the traditional international school model. A recent report from SSATB highlights a number of new models to ponder from the perspective of competition. These are not putative or theoretical models of how we might do school — they exist and they’re gaining ground. They are expanding. They have proof of concept. This past year, I myself have met and spoken with or alongside most of the folks mentioned in the report, as part of my role, learning about what is happening in Education (capital E) around the world. Not only do we learn about it, we connect with the actors and we aim to influence these developments and this space overall. Let’s take a look at what the report highlights.

The report in question provides an examination of innovative models, identifying four principal types: (1) academically rigorous schools, (2) deeper learning schools, (3) personalised learning schools, and (4) online learning schools. The methodology behind the report calls for school models that have different price points (some free), are new or emerging in the past ten to fifteen years, are riding a rising tide with projected growth through at least the next five years, and have proof of concept in terms of enrolment — they already have enrolment, and it’s increasing. More importantly, their enrolment is coming from parents accustomed to paying school fees annually. Their students, largely, are not coming from “free” state/public schools.

Under the rubric of academically rigorous schools, the report features a group called BASIS Independent Schools, a network of 23 schools. The nomenclature obfuscates the fact that they’re actually a group of charter (“academy”) schools. In short, this means they’re free — they charge no school fees. For international schools, this model in and of itself may not be cause for concern, but their academic results do make one pause. The schools, according to their own literature, are modelled on rigorous international standards. Recently, the schools participated in the PISA test from the OECD, and guess what? They not only outperformed the typical (American) student by three years in reading and science as well as by four years in maths, they also outperformed such countries as Finland and South Korea, as well as the top-performer, Shanghai. One’s views and opinions of PISA notwithstanding, these kinds of results provide for a strong marketing message — and therefore a very compelling alternative to fee-paying schools, many of which do not demonstrate how their students perform ‘internationally.’ A reputation for academic excellence sells, especially when it’s free.

Deeper learning schools, the second category, are rather different in that they are focused exclusively on graduating students with 21st-century skills and competencies, and most of them have come into existence over the past ten to twenty years. They also are part of what is termed the Deeper Learning Network, an association of some 500 schools that, although they differ in mission and even structure, binds them in terms of a 21st-century skills ethos: cultivating and developing mastery of core content, critical thinking and problem-solving, collaboration, effective communication, self-directed learning, and academic mindsets. What’s more, they make massive use of project-based learning in order to accomplish it all. Arguably the most well-known of these schools is High Tech High, which is actually a network of some thirteen schools. Here, not only is content “done” differently, even the facilities and spaces respond to the notion of deeper learning. Again, schools in this category tend to be free (charter schools or academy models), but their results, in terms of 21st-century competencies, resonate with a growing group of parents who see traditional school models as failing their children. Also of note is that a number of the people involved in these schools used to work in fee-paying schools, and have brought a number of those practices (e.g. high degree of teacher autonomy in decision-making when it comes to curriculum) to the deeper learning schools.

‘Personalised learning’ has become such a mantra in educational circles today that we’re all trying to figure out marketing language that “proves” that we provide it in all our schools. Yet, the reality is that it’s incredibly challenging to do so. Kevin Carey, a prominent education writer, posits that, “it’s very difficult to deliver customised learning to many children simultaneously.” He goes on to look at an effective model, which would require class sizes significantly smaller than the typical international school. Don’t think 16, think 6. The point is that a school’s ability to deliver on the promise of personalised learning for each and every child varies…wildly, as it turns out. As typically happens, folks in Silicon Valley think they can create an entirely new system of ‘doing school’ that can guarantee a school’s ability to deliver. Whether Fusion Schools or AltSchool (both fee-paying), disruption is in full bloom. Limited to the coasts of the US at the moment, there is already talk about international expansion. I have met (and presented alongside) Carolyn Wilson, AltSchool’s Director of Education (think: head of school), and she has a compelling message about personalisation, as AltSchool does it. The children are key actors in this system, utilising technology in the form of ‘play lists’ that they work with each week. Children work together on outcome-based projects, but they don’t need to be the same age: they’re not ‘sorted’ that way, which Sir Ken Robinson famously observed. It’s more an approach of loose age groupings. As the children complete their play lists, everything that has been captured in a database (there are programmers and analysts working in the building itself, to assist teachers with understanding what the data say about a child’s progress) is analysed and shared with the teachers, who can change the learning projects as quickly as the next day, in order to correspond to exactly what the students need. AltSchools are small by design, and they look like a storefront, rather than a school. Everything revolved around user design and user experience, on many levels. I’d encourage you to read more about AltSchools specifically, and to begin to think about how you would view their competition in your location.

Online schools, the fourth category, are most often viewed as providing supplementary classes or remedial classes, and there are certainly online ‘schools’ that fit this view. However, the report focused on diploma-granting online schools, since they represent direct competition for fee-paying schools. Moreover, they are positioning themselves as such, explicitly. Perhaps the greatest factor that influences parents in this regard is flexibility. Basically, it is the notion of re-thinking what comes first: academics or talents? In the fee-paying school world, parents traditionally have chosen a school and then arranged development of talents around the schooling aspect. Online, diploma-granting schools propose precisely the opposite: place your student’s activities and talents in the centre, and arrange schooling around them. A popular online school for gifted and talented students is the Stanford Online High School (Stanford OHS), whose enrolment has been increasing at 25% a year for the past several years, and which boasts an international student population. Contrary to many online supplemental providers, Stanford OHS classes are synchronous (same-time, “live”). “Synchronicity is the defining feature of an intimate learning community,” the report suggests. Stanford OHS is capitalising on this notion, which is key to fee-paying schools. Yet, their metrics for success mirror those of typical fee-paying schools, suggesting little differentiation from that perspective. With myriad talented students in international schools, the rise of this kind of diploma-granting online school is something to keep an eye on.

How is your school thinking about new models of ‘doing school,’ and are you preparing strategically for this kind of competition?

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