Customization Without The Hassle: What’s Next for Schools, Colleges, and Other Social Services

From the Newsletter

For the past two years, I put education journalism on the back burner. I did a few pieces, but I was swamped with responsibilities at home. I had to fill the vacuum when my kids’ schools and colleges closed, mend wounds when the pandemic closed their worlds for too long, and help my autistic kid transition to life after high school. It’s been a lot. 

What I’ve been doing is completely unsustainable, I admitted to myself this week. So, I’m caring for myself with exercise and green smoothies. I thought I would write an upbeat article about schools that highlighted best practices or innovation — something new and cool — to get away from the two years of dread. 

For days, I looked in my usual places for a topic that was uplifting! exciting! something post-pandemic! And I turned up with nada. There was buzz about higher tuition costs (maybe $100,000 soon!), new curriculum to deal with learning loss, and the latest survey on the dissatisfaction among teachers, administrators, therapists. While I didn’t find a happy story to write this week, I did see the hint of a trend that I think we’re going to see across education, higher education, and social services. As schools and public colleges are forced to do more with less, active parents will fill the gap and customize education packages for their children.


Active parents have always play a huge role in helping their kids in K-12 schools and colleges. I wrote several pieces for The Atlantic about how parents support their kids, and how this good and natural phenomenon creates inequalities. Educated, middle class parents can do more for their kids than lower income parents. Parents in wealthy communities have even more resources. Inequality has always been baked into the system. 

Parents continue their involvement even when their children grow up and go to college. Back in 2017, I talked to one parent about why she called her daughter’s college about an internship opportunity. She told me:

“For $65,000 [in full attendance costs], you can bet your sweet ass that I’m calling that school … If your children aren’t getting what they’ve been promised, colleges are going to get that phone call from parents,” Stacy said. “It’s my money. It’s a lot of money. We did try to have her handle it on her own, but when it didn’t work out, I called them.”

At the time, my eyes were wide as she explained that she talked with her daughter ten times a day to help her with everything from busting school bureaucracy to picking out shoes at DSW. My oldest wasn’t yet in college, so that level of involvement sounded like a nightmare. Turned out, we had to support him more than expected. 

During the pandemic, parenting responsibilities multiplied ten-fold. Parents were asked to do everything from teaching long division to providing speech therapy. College kids moved home, and parents now had to be act as friends and tutors. 

My college kid turned 21 during the height of the pandemic. We offered to do shots with him in the kitchen, but we were poor substitutes for a bonding night with his frat brothers at a college bar. (He declined.)

So, parents got involved in their children’s lives in whole new ways over the past two years. They delivered primary services during the worst of the pandemic, and continue to do so in many areas, because schools do not have the staff or federal money to meet the huge demands in the schools.


If parents continue to be direct service providers for education, what does that mean? Yes, of course, inequality will grow, because some parents have more resources than others. But maybe there’s an upside, too. 

This morning, I had coffee with another parent. Over lattes and nutty breakfast bars, we shared notes about college programs for our special needs boys, the state employment agency, and our boys’ latest social gaffes. 

In our world, parents have to be involved, because the state stepped away from their responsibilities a long time ago. Once you make it to the end of the paperwork hell, parents utilize state funding to customize programs that work best for their kids. Some of this, and some of that, depending on a kid’s needs. Sure, it’s a pain to find the right programs and services, but once everything is in place, you can tailor a program to meet your child’s exact needs and talents. 

I wonder if that’s the future for K-12 and higher education, too. The state will provide funding for a students’ education with discretion for the parents about where they spend that money. If your kid wants to learn German, your child can take those German lessons at any local public school that teaches that subject. Students who have exceptional talents for math, can take accelerated classes for just that subject at the community college or magnet school. 

It’s like the smoothies that I’m making this week. In the blender, you stuff some frozen strawberries from one bag and a handful of spinach from another bag. Grind it all up and then you get some green sludge. For Ian, I’m getting him help with social skills from one source and computer science classes from another. I’m going to grind it up and hope that his green sludge will be enough to create a functioning adult. 

Customizing schools like this would require decoupling local tax dollars from local schools, and lowering the barriers between high schools and community colleges — traditionally huge barriers to change. However, the system has been totally upended by the pandemic, and things show no sign of a return to normal, so a massive shift might actually happen. 

For students, who have parents who can do the legwork, increased customization of education might be a huge win, especially if they have unique interests and needs. However, I know firsthand that parents cannot do it all. There are not enough smoothies to help me detox from this period of intense parenting. I’ll take the customization without the hassle, please.

10 thoughts on “Customization Without The Hassle: What’s Next for Schools, Colleges, and Other Social Services

  1. I know I didn’t want customization, in the sense of optimizing for my particular child. It was already enough pressure to pick a school and kind of crazy-making to pick activities. What I did want is curation, for someone to vet and figure out good things and make them available. For my kids, I got that, I think, largely, at their K–8. I hoped for it in my elder’s private HS, but don’t think I got it (though she might disagree). At my younger’s public HS, there was enough, but not too much choice, and it was good enough.

    More unusual children are always going to have different needs, but I hope we don’t see a trend to self-managed education for all children. It would be terrible for those children without parents to plan it for them, but it would also have been terrible for me. But, I guess with the resources I have, I’d try to find a curator.

    I think there can’t be customization without hassle (just thought this recently while trying to buy a magsafe wallet for my phone, in which I could customize the image; really, I wanted more variety to choose from, curation, not to design my own wallet).


    1. I am exhausted with customization for Ian. I have to take a break for my mental health. Honestly, I couldn’t stop crying last week, because I have so much on my plate for him. Luckily, he did get approved for SSI; I just had to do one or two last minute pointless tasks this week, and I think it’s done. Whew. Now, I have to get him registered with the next step in our bureaucracy Odyssey.

      He didn’t get into the private program that I spent 60 hours on the admissions process. He had no filter on the interview and said something that they were doing was “baby stuff.” That made some girl cry. So, rejected. Poop. It wasn’t the right program for him obviously. Wish I figured that out several months ago, because now I’m back to the drawing board.

      In the end, he’ll have options and customization, but the hassles are massive.


      1. I can’t see customization flying here. The trend seems to be relentlessly in the direction of one-size-fits-all (or, in my translation, one-size-fits-nobody)

        What I’m seeing is that Middle class parents pick (as much as they can) a school which accommodates *most* of their child’s needs – and then add value with extra-curricular stuff (maths tuition, writing tuition, soccer club, music lessons, swimming lessons, musical theatre, etc.). It makes for a heck of a lot of driving around! (I know one kid who has 9 (nine!) extra-curricular activities a week!)

        The Ministry of Education, here, is philosophically opposed to a ‘voucher’ system (where you can pick and choose your school and/or your classes). Largely because they’re terrified by ‘white flight’ (not just white – but basically middle class flight and aspirational-middle-class flight). Parents bypassing the local school and taking their kids somewhere ‘better’ (however they define better) – results in ghetto schools.
        ATM there is very strict zoning (with a few loopholes) – which just drives house-prices up in the ‘desirable’ school areas. [NB: this makes wealthy parents strong advocates of zoning, they keep their property values, and keep the ‘undesirable’ kids out of their local school]

        We are constantly having news stories about how ‘wonderful’ the education is in X low-decile school – but it doesn’t convince anyone. The moment parents have options, they opt to pull their kids out.

        And, you can see why. When the school has to spend so much time, energy and money on bringing a group of kids up to meet the minimum standard of reading/writing (if they even get there) – there’s little left for extension for bright kids, or expanding the curriculum to meet wider needs. Those decile one schools will have a kapa haka group (traditional Maori singing/dancing) – but won’t have a swim team prepping kids for regional meets, won’t have tennis classes, won’t have creative writing groups, won’t have a chess team, won’t put on school musicals – all of which will be available in the middle class school a few suburbs over. And the basic standards are lower. Your kid might be ‘keeping up with his class’ in maths – but that’s not so good if the whole class is below standard.

        Finally, I can’t see most parents having the time and energy to curate a whole individualized education programme. Where would you get the knowledge? (which is a good maths school/class/teacher for my overachiever, as opposed to one for my middle of the road maths kid, or my struggling-to-grasp-the-concept one).
        It sounds as though it would offer a lot of opportunity for a new career ‘educational optimizer’ – so you’d pay a hefty chunk of money for someone else to do this. And, I can see a whole lot of issues with corruption (just as there were with college sport – I can get your kid into X programme…..)

        I can also see some opportunity cost issues. How do you know that your kid is going to love or hate band, until your school gives them the chance to have a go? How does it work for kids who want to be part of it (love the experience) – but don’t have a whole lot of musical talent? It’s all very well to have a highly musical kids testing into a combined high-schools orchestra – but what’s going to be there for kids with ‘ordinary’ musical ability?

        And, if schools are competing for the parent dollar – they’re going to invest in the flashy, attractive stuff for the 5%, not the bedrock achievement stuff for the 95%.


      2. Glad SSI (and health insurance benefits that it gatekeeps) hoops have been jumped.

        Sorry to hear that the rest isn’t sorted. I am a very big believer that a club that doesn’t want me is a bad club for me (or my kids). Have seen that implemented a couple of times, and I’ve certainly been right (though I know it’s not always true).


      3. “He didn’t get into the private program that I spent 60 hours on the admissions process. He had no filter on the interview and said something that they were doing was “baby stuff.” That made some girl cry. So, rejected. Poop. It wasn’t the right program for him obviously.”

        Oh, man.


    2. bj said, “I know I didn’t want customization, in the sense of optimizing for my particular child. It was already enough pressure to pick a school and kind of crazy-making to pick activities.”

      Yeah, I’m not thrilled with having to do anything besides school. It was one of our big wins to move therapy from being an after school thing to a during school thing that didn’t involve me doing a bunch of extra driving.

      “I think there can’t be customization without hassle.”



      1. Had a friend who didn’t bring her younger kids to my kids’ K-8 because there were no learning services offered in the school (reading support, dyslexia intervention). Learning supports have been added now, ’cause I think private schools loose out over other schools if they don’t.


  2. I do worry that if people get used to individual customization, they stop supporting the community effort, like the extreme example of the public schools in East Ramapo.


  3. I’ve probably told this story before, but one of my beefs with our school counselor is that she told my 11th grader’s class that school-based extracurriculars weren’t good enough for their college applications. Apparently, one of my kid’s classmates (a teacher’s kid who LIVES at school) was freaked out by that, because there was no way he was going to be able to do outside stuff.


Comments are closed.