In an attempt to sate America’s unquenchable thirst for televised football, ESPN began broadcasting an annual High School Kickoff series – a late-August slate of games featuring prominent teams from around the country. But after the August 29 game between perennial powerhouse IMG Academy and Bishop Sycamore High School, this year’s GEICO-sponsored High School Kickoff got more attention than ESPN bargained for. When IMG scored 23 unanswered points in the first quarter and it became apparent that Bishop Sycamore players were sharing helmets, the ESPN announcers asked a pointed question: How does a team no one’s ever heard of schedule a game against the most talented prep team in the country? And given that the High School Kickoff is supposed to feature players heading to Division I programs, the announcers were surprised they couldn’t find any Bishop Sycamore players in college recruiting databases.
The final score was 58-0 and the resulting national media coverage proved too much for poor Bishop Sycamore. While Bishop Sycamore was listed by the Ohio Department of Education as a private school, and while its Department of Education filing described it as “a innovative academically accredited school,” and “one of the best academic institutions in he country,” most students were 18 or older – apparently attracted to Bishop Sycamore by the prospect of a Netflix documentary – the address provided was the library at Franklin University in Columbus, and online courses were no longer being offered due to failure to pay the course provider. More damning for football fanatics, former players revealed Bishop Sycamore’s plays came directly from the Madden NFL video game.
With the 4th most challenging football schedule in the nation, it turned out Bishop Sycamore’s real game was scheduling games against top teams to profit from generous travel stipends – unnecessarily generous as Bishop Sycamore left behind a trail of unpaid hotel bills and more bounced checks than balls. The head coach had an active arrest warrant and once ordered the team to attack a homeless man for attempting to break into his car. ESPN attempted to run away from this dumpster fire, blaming a company called Paragon Marketing Group for setting up the game. But what puzzles me is that anyone was surprised. If anyone involved had bothered to check, they would have found no other school or institution named after Bishop Sycamore. Why? Because there never was a Bishop Sycamore. Bishop Sycamore sounds like a fake name, and it is. (Why not choose the name of a real dead bishop? There are plenty to choose from.)
As opponents began canceling games, Bishop Sycamore fired its head coach. His replacement came clean with the media, conceding “We do not offer curriculum. We are not a school. That’s not what Bishop Sycamore is, and I think that’s what the biggest misconception about us was, and that was our fault. Because that was a mistake on paperwork.” But this tempest on a gridiron does raise a good question. Put aside the criminality and violence, disregard the poor name selection and play-calling: was Bishop Sycamore a school?
Our definition of school is more malleable than it used to be. From time immemorial, schools were defined by physical presence for an extended period of time for the primary purpose of learning. As online learning emerged two decades ago, this principle began to bend. Do online schools need a physical location? When accreditors visit, what should they expect? Many members of early online university site visiting teams were flabbergasted to see offices and call centers that looked like they might have been selling insurance.
Since then, tens of thousands of online education providers have come to market with everything from core curricula to enrichment, from remedial coursework to career discovery. These offerings are entirely online and sometimes blended. They’re asynchronous and sometimes blended (synchronous). They involve interaction with master teachers, world-class experts, and sometimes charlatans. They may also require interaction with AI, like the inquiry-driven discussion leader Packback. But what most have in common is they aim to provide a facet of what we used to get (or at least expected to get) in physical classrooms.
With last year’s forced shift to remote learning, lots of traditional K-12 schools were revealed to have no clothes. In Los Angeles, teachers union leader Cecily Myart-Cruz, a social justice crusader who prefers politics to education, ensured teachers were required to do no more than post videos online and make students fill out worksheets. That’s what passed for school last year for over a half-million young Angelenos. It became clear to many parents that schools could no longer be counted on as a one-stop shop for education.
The explosion of extra-scholastic learning is most evident in the rise of online tutoring. In-person tutoring was once a mark of privilege. But technology has democratized 1:1 instruction, dramatically increasing the number of available and interested tutors and reducing cost. Last year, many school districts and foundations attempted to limit learning loss (which Cecily Myart-Cruz believes is a “fake crisis”) by offering free online tutoring to low-income students. Online tutoring platforms tout leveling the playing field in marketing materials. So while technology’s potential to provide individualized education has been top-of-mind for years, last year marked some kind of arrival. Tens of millions of students have now experienced individualized education and an unbundling of unitary “school” into multiple learning providers.
For some context on unbundling school, let’s look at what just happened in China.
School in China is dominated by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). The party stands astride the world’s most populous country and second largest economy like a colossus with no challenge to its authority in sight. Education is of obvious interest given the need – in the words of President Xi – to “nurture generation after generation who support Chinese Communist Party rule.” After the 1989 student protests and resulting massacre in Tiananmen Square, the CCP rolled out a patriotic education curriculum that is fiercely nationalist and links country and party as inseparable (if you like China, you’ll love the CCP). Party committees pervade schools and there’s a national monitoring system to ensure teachers remain in step. Naturally, Chinese students are forbidden from attending international schools.
So it’s remarkable that the CCP allowed online tutoring to become a $100B+ industry serving hundreds of millions of students. (Before Covid, over 325 million Chinese students participated in tutoring, most of them online.) And while the biggest companies like Yuanfudao (valued at nearly $16B by Chinese Internet giant Tencent), Zuoyebang (backed by Tiger Global, SoftBank Vision Fund, Sequoia, and Qatar), and public company TAL Education Group (Morgan Stanley, Vanguard, Blackrock) served Chinese students with Chinese tutors, platforms like VIPKid tapped a network of 70,000 tutors from the U.S. and Canada to provide English-language tutoring to over 600,000 Chinese students. Suddenly the CCP found itself with millions of new, unmonitored (and probably unmonitorable) 1:1 schools.
This is the background for the most single most disruptive governmental act in the history of education, one that immediately changed the lives of hundreds of millions of students and reduced or eliminated income for 10 million Chinese tutors. Over the summer, China banned businesses providing online tutoring for academic subjects. The ostensible reason: ending the tutoring rat race and reducing the cost of raising children. True, the cost of education was becoming a target of Xi’s common prosperity campaign and there may have been some element of knocking new online tutoring billionaires down a peg or two (or a billion). But the timing of the ban – around the same time as remarkable new limits on online gaming for school-age children (one hour per day, 8 to 9 p.m., on Friday, Saturday, and Sunday) and new bans on media with “incorrect political positions” or “effeminate” styles – suggests the real reason was control of youth and reasserting the monopoly of the monolithic, monitored school.
While this might prove to be a good move for the CCP, it’s bad news for Chinese students. Exposure to different curricula, teaching styles, and learning environments helps students learn to learn in different ways – key for the lifelong learning required to remain productive workers. The same is true for different types of teachers. In China, different means teachers not primarily (or at all) focused on patriotic education, like VIPKid tutor Tim Gascoigne, an affable Canadian who runs the Online Teacher Dude channel on YouTube. But in the U.S., it could mean teachers who’ve done something other than work as a teacher.
Many great teachers have stood at the front of classrooms their entire professional lives. You probably had a few. But as educators attempt to connect with students and motivate them to set and pursue goals, it might not a bad idea to have more teachers who’ve set and pursued professional goals that involved something other than K-12 teaching. (For that matter, it’s not a bad idea to have more teachers who aren’t members of a teachers union, some of which – like UTLA – produce propaganda that give the CCP a run for its money.)
This logic was at the root of 1990s excitement around alternative certification. Unfortunately, unions successfully linked alternative certification with groups like Teach for America, which were pro-reform and therefore anti-union (potentially fair in that new alt-cert teachers were less likely to produce leaders like Cecily Myart-Cruz), which made support of alternative certification risky business for union-dependent Democrats. The union-driven failure of efforts to create easy-to-navigate on-ramps to teaching in public schools – accessible pathways for new grads who didn’t major in education or take a teacher preparation program and/or for motivated and talented professionals committed to changing careers and making a difference – makes online education’s unbundling of school even more important. (I'm not saying teachers unions have as much control over U.S. schools as the CCP has over Chinese schools. But try arguing with angry L.A. parents whose kids were out of school for 18 months.)
Exposing students to teachers and tutors from different walks of life increases the odds of life-changing teacher-student relationships. It’s not just about learning curriculum, but learning a educator’s story and career path. That alone can be instructive and inspiring. For many low-income and at-risk students, making a real connection with just one teacher can provide the motivation they need to attend class and develop good work habits. And one strong relationship tends to lead to more.
Arguably the biggest problem with American public education is that responsibility for teaching children has been restricted to a cloistered profession that – although relatively well paid in many states – hasn’t commanded the respect it does in other developed countries. As a result, K-12 teaching hasn't attracted talent commensurate with its social and economic importance – McKinsey found most teachers come from the bottom two-thirds of colleges classes, with nearly half in the bottom third – leading to a spiral of mediocrity. Every adult who cares about the future (i.e., pretty much everyone save members of the anti-vax, climate change denial death cult) should have some responsibility for teaching children. Technology now makes it possible for many more to get involved and make a difference.
Unfortunately, promoting new forms of K-12 education like online tutoring is not currently on anyone’s agenda or in the proposed Biden budget. That’s understandable when the immediate objective for most schools and parents is a flight from screens and return to traditional classrooms. But it’s a shame, because there are lots of families who’ve just had their first exposure to online tutoring and some continued public support could provide a leg up for millions of low-income students. If government funding were coupled with standards to ensure tutors are background checked, qualfied, and trained (i.e., last-mile training, not multi-year education degrees or teacher preparation programs), one positive legacy of Covid could be the great unbundling of school.
With the rise of online tutoring and a more elastic definition of school, let’s return to Bishop Sycamore (well not geographically, or we’d all just converge at the Franklin University library). Thanks to Bishop Sycamore’s unorthodox approach, players did learn a few things: how to ration football equipment; plays from Madden NFL; and dealing with defeat (something Cecily Myart-Cruz thinks is more valuable than multiplication tables). And they were definitely being exposed to a teacher from a different walk of life.
Despite all this “learning,” Bishop Sycamore won’t live on as a school, post-grad football academy, or team. But it will have an afterlife. As the real season began, Bishop Sycamore was the most popular team name for fantasy football: tens of thousands fake teams named after a fake school. And while quality assurance mechanisms linked to future public funding of online tutoring should minimally assure that no student has an online tutor with an active arrest warrant, the lesson of Bishop Sycamore is that different is not definitionally bad when it comes to K-12 education. So rest in peace, Bishop, and better luck next time with the paperwork.