Education Malls: The Future of Education?

(Guest Post by Jason Bedrick)

We interrupt this year’s coverage of the ignominious “Higgy” Award to highlight a development Brother Ladner and I have been talking about for years: education malls. As I wrote back in 2017:

I’ve long thought that the big-box stores and, particularly, shopping malls might one day be replaced by “education malls.”

Imagine this: parents send their children via self-driving cars to the local education mall where there is a central administration that keeps track of a child’s location and well-being, along with her forms/transcripts, but otherwise her family chooses from among dozens of different providers located throughout the mall. At the food court, several different vendors offer their fares just as they do at the malls today, though most of the parking lot has been converted into athletic facilities. 

For math, she chooses a Saxon Math workshop. For literature, it’s Great Books. She’s learning Mandarin Chinese via an online course at the language lab. For PE, she’s practicing kung fu. For art, she attends a rotating painting and pottery course this semester. She’s being tutored in the harp. Each course is offered by a different vendor and her parents pay for these various services with their ESA.

Might sound crazy, but with widespread use of ESAs (and declining shopping malls due to Amazon, Jet, Overstock, etc.), I think this just might be the future of education.

The self-driving cars are still a long way away (speaking of which, it looks very likely that I will soon owe Robert Pondiscio a beer), but schools are already starting to move into vacant shopping malls, as ABC reports:

BURLINGTON, Vt. — Students who once shopped at a downtown mall in Burlington, Vermont, are now attending high school in the former Macy’s department store, with gleaming white tile floors and escalators whisking them to and from classes.

The Downtown Burlington High School opened March 4, about six months after school administrators closed the existing school, just under 2 miles away, because toxic industrial chemicals known as PCBs were found in the building and soil during renovations. That left students stuck at home learning remotely for much of the school year during the coronavirus pandemic.

As school officials looked for space where students could attend school in-person, they eventually eyed the empty department store, which closed in 2018. They talked with architects and learned it was a possibility, said Superintendent Tom Flanagan. […]

The building underwent a $3.5 million retrofit supported by the state that added partial walls for classrooms while keeping some Macy’s remnants, like the sparkly white tile floors, bright red carpeting, and Calvin Klein and Michael Kors signs and a large-scale Levi’s jeans photo on a classroom wall. The library is housed in the former Macy’s china department, with books displayed on under-lit shelves, while the gym is in a former store’s warehouse and is still unfinished.

It’s not quite the “education mall” of my dreams, but with more and more states adopting K-12 education savings accounts, perhaps they’re not so far away.

8 Responses to Education Malls: The Future of Education?

  1. pdexiii says:

    When I retire, and I still have something left in the tank, I’d be one of those vendors. 6-8 students a week vs. 150 I could handle leisurely and effectively in my senior years.

  2. Mike G says:

    I like the mall idea.

    Do any ESA states have philanthropies experimenting with supplements?

    I.e., a family maybe gets 5k public, philanthropy gives another 4k. See how it affects supply side, learning outcomes, take-up rate.

    Do it in a couple cities, leave others alone as controls.

  3. Greg Forster says:

    A weakness in your vision is that most parents 1) value coherence is education, and 2) want that provided to them as a service rather than creating it themselves. Private and charter schools go to significant lengths to market their curricula as representing a coherent vision.

    Self-driving cars will put a lot of people out of work, many of them unionized. That’s true of many new inventions, but self-driving cars are in the unusually disadvantageous position of having to get affirmative changes in the law passed before they can be introduced. I’m sure the potential efficiency gains, even when diffused across the whole population, will eventually become so large that advocates will be able to overcome special-interest resistance. Whether you and I will live to see it is another question.

    • Jason Bedrick says:

      I agree that most parents will want an entire package, but I’ve seen enough families going the “a la carte” route in Arizona to conclude that there’s a sizable enough market that it could work.

  4. […] Education Malls: The Future of Education? […]

  5. […] future of education will look more like a boutique-filled shopping mall and less like a big-box school, predicts Jason Bedrick on Jay Greene’s […]

  6. Tunya Audain says:

    The earlier post by Jason Bedrick slipped past me, but thanks to Joanne Jacobs’ blog, I was told about this wonderful education hub in Burlington, Vermont. And reading the story in both places I am really excited that this may indeed become a model that we will see in our lifetimes. With recollections of Ivan Illich’s “learning webs” idea of the 70s. This is my comment to Joanne’s site:

    It is such a good idea and they will be able to model it for at least 3 ½ years. The mall is now leased by the school district. It is just for high school students now, but I can see more hubs like this for K-12 also.

    Now with the movement for more states implementing choice programs — with the ed dollar following the student — we can see that such malls could also contain independent services, tutoring, reading testing and remediation programs, and hosts of private offerings as art, music, martial arts, etc. in one location. The mall’s central administration would be charged with security and registration of children and parents would appreciate the convenience. Home-based educators would also be able to avail themselves of centrally clustered services.

    These choice programs, especially the Education Savings Account (ESA), would, in my opinion be a great boost to parental involvement, as parents would have to become informed about the pros-and-cons about various offerings. With monopolies and limited choices in present public education systems parents have become “deskilled” in making decisions on behalf of their children and pursuing their best interests.

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