Pods could become tipping point in education

Amid COVID, suburbs are embracing new form of choice

PODS ARE POPPING UP everywhere, in all kinds of neighborhood but mostly in affluent places. These pods are a form of parental activism, parental choice during an extended crisis period when the public schools are possibly unsafe and often unable to satisfactorily serve their children.

The pods typically consist of a group of parents collaborating to safely provide instruction themselves or hire a teacher to provide teaching, supervision, and recreation for their children. Some pods are merely supplemental to what’s happening in school, occurring after school hours on weekends or in the summer months. Others replace school altogether and operate during typical school hours. Some are complementary, happening simultaneously with school but offering students support and guidance for their online work as well as additional tutoring and enrichment.

This is a new form of choice. Since the introduction of charter schools in Minnesota in 1991, the focus of choice advocates has been on charter schools, whole school choice. These schools, though not exclusively urban, typically sprang up in response to demands by city parents who were dissatisfied with their school options. Over the past several decades, the charter school movement grew, then plateaued, and has been the subject of much controversy and division within the field of education. However, charters and choice never really took hold in the more affluent, white suburbs where levels of satisfaction with public schools were high, parents had already exercised choice to live in those communities and they had sufficient wealth to opt out to private schools. Charters just weren’t typically an attractive alternative for any significant number of parents.

But charters are, after all, only one form of choice. Now, another form seems to be rising. Pandemic pods which started as a Band-Aid solution to what were assumed to be the temporary risks and losses of the coronavirus crisis are now spreading like wildfire in places of privilege, places where demand for the school choice movement has, thus far, been limited.

The longer normal schooling is interrupted, the more likely it is that these new forms of micro-schooling and social bubbling will take hold and permanently alter the educational landscape. The consequences will be profound, particularly the impact on equity where opportunity gaps, differences in children’s access to enrichment and learning, will only get greater.

The activation of affluent parents in favor of choice could push the field toward the kind of voucherized education world once envisioned by Nobel Prize-winning economist Milton Friedman. While Friedman’s call for vouchers in education was roundly defeated and pushed to a back-burner decades ago, the concepts, as seen, for example, in education savings accounts and educational tax credits, are still around, very much alive, and often attract unlikely bedfellows. The idea of parent cooperatives has broad appeal, as does another popular phenomenon, different than pods but related to this crisis and privileged parents: the availability of attractive, modularized, online course offerings from various private and non-profit providers.

School systems have had difficulty in shifting to online education virtually overnight. Starting last March, there have been problems and gaps. Education, as an industry, has, paradoxically, been slow to embrace technology and online delivery of services, lagging well behind the fields of medicine and business. Consequently, school systems, especially the larger and poorer districts, but even top suburban districts, were often ill-equipped to make a sudden shift. They did the best they could to put up an emergency response for the last quarter of the 2019-20 academic year, but for many parents it was frustrating and insufficient to meet their children’s learning needs. Parents are acutely feeling the need for better services now that the coming school year is likely to include heavy doses of online education.

Those parents who have the resources and savvy have been going online and finding attractive alternatives: high-powered instructional systems that were often as good as or better than the instruction their children have been receiving during and sometimes even before the crisis. If these same parents, with the extension of remote schooling into the new school year, get attached to these online, a la carte modules, then they will surely come to demand the freedom of choice, the freedom from school attendance regulations, and, ultimately, access to public resources to enable them to keep using these outside services.

These trends could become a tipping point for educational choice and, in its extreme form, the privatization of public education. The enlistment of influential suburban advocates could significantly change the political dynamics in the choice movement. Public policy-makers, in responding to these new demands, are going to have to balance the concept of education between its value as a public good (for the benefit of society) versus as a private good (for the benefit of the individual).

Central to this debate will be the most challenging policy question: how to embrace the advantages of these innovative new tools and structures while preventing the already deepening equity divide in this country from getting even deeper?

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As difficult as it may be to tackle this problem, we should be clear that the failure to solve the growing equity gaps in American society will ultimately spell disaster for our people, the economy, and democracy. Solutions are possible but will require leadership and the development of public will. Parents can and should always be expected to want and do what’s best for their children, but society, as a whole, may need to be persuaded that what’s best for some children is that all children have access to high quality education opportunities.

Paul Reville is the Francis Keppel professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, where he leads the Education Redesign Lab. He served as Massachusetts secretary of education from 2008 to 2013.