In March, public school shutdowns in response to COVID-19 affected more than 50 million children. Caught flat-footed, most districts failed at crisis online learning. Only 1 in 3 districts even expected teachers to provide instruction or monitor student academic progress, according to the Center on Reinventing Public Education. Five months later, most still haven’t figured it out.
The Foundation for Research on Equal Opportunity reports that 71 of the 120 largest school districts remain closed. As of July 31, more than one-third hadn’t even announced their plans for reopening. Another quarter said they would be offering hybrid or completely remote learning.
As parents turn to pods and microschools, small groups of local children instructed by teachers the families hire, the story is of a massive leadership failure. Government school systems proved completely unable or unwilling to adapt. It has fallen on families to maintain children’s education continuity.
Some pods pool financial resources to hire a teacher or private tutor to provide instruction. In others, parents team-teach. For example, a parent with a background in science or math may teach those topics, while a bilingual parent may teach a foreign language. They may also mix in online tutorials, such as those available from Khan Academy.
Pods fall into one of two categories: the “self-directed pod” or the “learning support pod.” Self-directed pods go all-in: These families fully unenroll their children from public or private school, and in most cases, they must then register as homeschoolers. The pod then takes complete control over the curriculum and instruction and is the primary schooling students receive.
Learning support pods, which likely represent the majority of pods at present, form when parents keep their children enrolled and then supplement what their public or private school is doing virtually with instruction in their pod. For example, students might participate in their school’s online instruction in the morning and then gather with their pod cohort for additional instruction, tutoring, or extracurriculars.
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Jenny Clark, who lives in the Phoenix-Scottsdale area, is in her third year of running a pod, which she named the “Cottage School.” Clark and the other Cottage School families homeschool their children and then meet for four hours, one day per week at Clark’s home. Parents team-teach the pod’s 16 children, rotating through English, science, and art lessons. As pod “administrator,” Clark hosts the pod, makes lunches, and watches the younger children, opening up her home to the pod. Many other pods hire instructors, often teachers and substitute teachers, as independent contractors.
As for academic content, some pods follow district curriculum; others do not. Parents can set up pods so that children are close in age, or they can be mixed-age groups. “Older kids act as mentors for younger ones,” explained Sarah Raybon, executive director of the Arizona School Tuition Organization Association. In pods with students of varying ages, parents differentiate the assignments, delving a little deeper into lessons for the older students and assigning research projects and other supplemental learning experiences during non-pod hours.
Although many pods operate out of people’s homes, others are hosted in libraries, restaurants, offices, and outdoor parks. Cost and “equity” issues arose as quickly as the pod concept itself, receiving considerable media attention. The New York Times, for instance, focused on some families in New York spending $25,000 for their children’s pod. However, pod enrollment typically costs anywhere from $10 to $50 per hour. In some cases, parents contribute their talents in lieu of money.
Certainly, pods are not affordable for every family. But policy reforms can change that. For instance, education savings accounts—already operating in Arizona, Florida, Mississippi, Tennessee, and North Carolina—can easily be implemented elsewhere so that children from all socioeconomic backgrounds can afford pod-learning.
With an education savings account, the state deposits 90% of the state per-pupil amount that would have been spent on a child in his public school directly into a parent-controlled, restricted-use account. In Arizona, this comes to around $6,000, on average, annually; in Florida, the average amount is $10,500 per child, per year.
Parents can use the funds to pay for any education-related services, product, or provider, including online learning, private tutoring, special education services and therapies, private school tuition, and textbooks, among other options. It’s an education financing policy mechanism that is perfectly matched with the pod delivery model.
Kayla Svedin, an Arizona mother, is using her children’s savings funds to pay for pod membership, which includes hiring a teacher and buying materials such as monthly science kits for experiments. Svedin says she's had many conversations with the teacher about lesson structure. “My contribution to the pod is the curriculum,” she said. “I turn it over to the teacher and let her figure out how she wants to set up her schedule. … We want to make sure she feels like she’s in control of what she wants to do with the materials we’re giving her.”
Experiences like Svedin’s demonstrate how parents can participate in decision-making about what their children learn in this new world of pandemic pods. They also show the urgency with which states need to reform policy to allow education dollars to follow children to options like pods.
Forming a pod may sound daunting to some. But Jenny Clark boils it down to three simple steps: create, connect, and contribute. First, she explains, create a list of subjects your child needs to be taught so that you can identify a pod that will be the right academic match for your child. Then, connect with other families (through Facebook or other networks) and explain what you need, the number of days per week you want instruction, and the number of hours per day you want to meet. Finally, talk about what you can contribute, financially or otherwise.
The market is already responding. Groups such as Pod Academies and SchoolHouse are matching pods with teachers, and even providing academic transcripts to pod students. Regional pod groups, such as Dolphin Pod in Northern Virginia, match students and teachers with pods. The main Facebook pod page grew to more than 30,000 members in a matter of weeks and is now approaching 40,000 members.
So the explosion of interest? Many parents have been greatly disappointed by the online instruction offered by their children’s schools. They see pods as a way to provide more rigorous academic content. Pods also provide something many families need: a form of childcare outside the home, which online learning can’t provide. Pods also offer children the social interaction they desperately need.
EdChoice’s public opinion tracker found that the percentage of parents with favorable views of homeschooling soared 18 points from June to July. Applications to Arizona’s education savings account program have tripled over last year’s numbers.
The pod phenomenon demonstrates that parents are moving to a new paradigm for instruction in the age of COVID, from last spring’s emergency homeschooling to curating education in small learning communities with hand-picked teachers. Education reformers should now work to free up existing education dollars to support students in these new arrangements.
Americans spend more than $700 billion a year on K-12 education; it’s time to let families direct that money to learning options that are the right fit for their child.
This piece originally appeared in the Washington Examiner