In the last two weeks, I have had numerous conversations about how forcing millions of people to homeschool their kids may permanently shift the popularity of homeschooling. Although I think that will be true at the edges, I remain skeptical about the impact on the bulk of the population.
Why? For better or worse, my sense is that if we were to be honest about what schools actually provide to society, learning of the curriculum would be the plurality, but quite possibly not even the majority of the value. Schools these days seem to provide at least the following six values to society :
- Teaching of the curriculum: maths, science, languages, history, etc.
- Teaching of intra-personal skills: patience, ability to pursue goals, discipline, ability to manage boredom, etc.
- Teaching of inter-personal (social) skills: interacting with many different adults, and more importantly, one's peers
Friendship formation (and later on, dating)
- Watching the kids (= childcare)
- Feeding the kids
In theory, homeschooling options could provide all of the above. In practice, I think this is hard for all of the above, but especially for 3 through 6. The reason is that all of those are intrinsically group activities, which get exponentially better and/or cheaper with scale (up to a point).
In theory, homeschooling doesn't have to mean just a parent teaching their own kids. Rather, we could of course see a whole ecosystem of home schools emerging, where one or more parents run a school for a dozen to a few dozen kids. This would make it easier to deliver on 3 through 6 above, but then we run into a whole host of new issues:
- Reaching consensus: anyone who has ever tried to get a group of parents to agree on anything will appreciate the daunting nature of the task of getting everyone on the same page about anything from curriculum to what will be served for lunch. This gets substantially easier in narrow communities with an existing set of beliefs (e.g. specific religions), which is why this works and will continue to work better there.
Inverted U-Curve in Teaching Quality (1/2 above): unless you as a parent happen to have a particular knack for teaching, the most likely reason for why you would be better at 1 and 2 above is not that you're a better teacher, but that you care more. For all the griping about school teachers, most people who go into the profession do so because they care (at least a bit), and for all the griping about their insufficient/out-dated education, they have been taught some useful things, and have learnt some through experience. So an amateur teaching their own kids will do OK, or a professional teaching a group of other people's kids will do OK. What are the odds that an amateur teaching a group of other people's kids is the worst of both worlds?
- Inverted U-Curve in Network Quality (3/4 above): when it comes to inter-personal skills and friendships, the economies of scale do not stop once you hit 20 kids. If you care about friends, or sports, or dating, the quality of your experience generally gets better as you go from 20 to 100 students. Now, there is a point at which diseconomies and anonymity kick in, but I'd guess that's somewhere in the range of 200 to 400 students, way above the group size that's realistic in homeschooling.
- Inverted U-Curve in Operational Quality/Cost (5/6 above): my sense is that the cost and difficulty of providing the infrastructure of running a school follows an inverted U-Curve. If you're teaching your own kids, you need a room in the house, and the ability to cook a lunch for a few people. If you're running a big school, you have a building and dedicated kitchen staff. But where do you base a school for 25 people, and how do you get lunch for everyone?
- Funding models: finally, unless we get school vouchers or something similar, the only parents able to spend out-of-pocket for such a school will be the wealthiest one, who on average have less of a burning need for this, since their kids probably go to a better school already.
Given the above, I'd expect the main mode of school delivery to return to normal once we have dealt with the virus itself. Having said that, what I suspect will change is the acceptability of using remote/homeschool-like tools at the margins. I don't know exactly what these uses will be, but I'd guess stuff like dialing into class over Zoom when sick, moving more of the communication online, perhaps increased focus on learning from peers, etc.
Thanks to my mom, who was a teacher for more than 30 years, for reading drafts of this.
 In addition to the six values listed above, schools also provide credentialing. However, at least in the US and in the UK, this has already been unbundled from the schools themselves and is now delivered mostly via independent bodies such as the SAT (College Board) or the various exam bodies in the UK (AQA, OCR, Edexcel, etc).