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Reinventing on the fly: How learning pods may hint at a new structure for public education

For years, developments at the margins of public education hinted at a new world, struggling to be born.

Microschools, hybrid homeschools, and a la carte online courses offered an array of new learning experiences to families with the resources to access them. New institutions like Workspace Education and a growing proliferation of homeschooling collaboratives formed hubs that allowed parents to bundle these options together in collaboration with other families. 

Education savings accounts held the promise of letting families use public funding to pay for these new options. And new organizations were providing “navigators”—trained guides who could help families make sense of these options and the tradeoffs.

Two years ago we attempted to sketch out how these elements could cohere into a new kind of learning system that would open new possibilities for the students most ill-served by the current public education system: students with disabilities, students years ahead or behind their assigned grade level, students who, for any number of reasons, just didn’t fit into traditional schools. 

At the time, our ideas might have seemed far-fetched—or at the least, far easier to propose on paper than to execute in reality. 

But now, in response to the disruptions of the COVID-19 pandemic, a growing number of parents are building elements of that new system on the fly. Affluent parents, who worry physical school buildings aren’t safe or that district-provided online learning is inadequate, have set off a firestorm with their efforts to pool resources and hire teachers-cum-caregivers who will cater to small “pods” of children. 

Families forming pods are responding to real needs that arise when learning moves from the classroom to the cloud: 

  • School-age children will need in-person supervision in settings small enough to limit exposure and prevent an outbreak from shutting down an entire school, so their parents can go to work.
  • All students—even older or highly motivated students—benefit from in-person facilitators to support online learning.
  • The social interactions students receive at school can’t easily be re-created remotely.
  • Remote learning last spring—and likely, some remote learning efforts this fall—will not deliver all the instruction students would normally receive from school. Learning gaps will emerge.

Recognizing that these needs are valid—but that the pods launched by affluent parents are inequitable—some school districts, cities, and nonprofits focused on educational equity are creating in-person learning opportunities aimed at marginalized groups of students, or the masses whose parents can’t create new options just by writing a check.

District- and community-led efforts to create learning hubs that make diverse educational resources available to all families have the potential to bring this system, and the advantages it affords already-advantaged children, out of the shadows. 

Many of the learning pod efforts grabbing headlines across the country appear to have a much simpler aspiration. They’re providing child care and in-person support to students whose parents, due to job obligations or other barriers, might not be in a position to help with online learning. 

But with some additional creativity and investment, pods or hubs could serve not just as ad-hoc child care, but as the backbone for a new structure in public education. 

They could connect children with adults who can help them identify their individual learning goals, programs in or out of school that would help them meet those goals, barriers that stand in the way, and interventions that might help overcome those barriers. They could ensure students will have safe, internet-connected learning spaces even if physical school buildings are closed, or if they’re connecting with teachers who may not be in the same room—or even the same city. 

These connections will likely come in handy even once physical schools reopen, as students need tutors to help with learning loss, and mental health counselors to help them cope with trauma and dislocation. 

The learning hub launched by The Oakland REACH this summer highlights one model for how this can work. Lakisha Young, the executive director of the organization focused on improving educational opportunities for Black and brown families, described the effort this way: “When COVID hit, our families were literally torn between paying bills and getting their kids educated. We wanted to create a one-stop shop that was not just about surviving the pandemic, but our families thriving.”

Over the summer, the organization provided literacy and math instruction for students in grades K–8, as well as a resource center that helped families overcome barriers to learning. It plans to continue those efforts as schools reopen this fall. Some families will leave the hub behind and return to school. Others might use the hub’s services instead of returning to school. Still others will use the hub’s services to complement their schools’ offerings.

Privileged parents who form pods have no problem exercising agency—expecting the public education system to meet their children’s needs, advocating for their children to make sure those needs are met, and devising their own solutions to supplement or replace the system’s offerings when necessary. 

Organizations like The Oakland REACH help all parents wield this power.

They may also help pull the “shadow education system” out of the shadows. The most affluent families spend $8,000 more on tutors, music lessons, summer camps, high-quality day care, and other out-of-school services than the lowest-income families. This gap has quadrupled in size since the 1970s. These families’ social networks allow them to trade tips and information that help them navigate these options and integrate them with their children’s formal schooling.

The early adopters of microschools, the networks of wealthy parents and shadow education providers, and now, the parents tapping their bank accounts to form pandemic learning pods, are cobbling together educational arrangements that are more flexible, more humane, and more closely tailored to the needs of individual children than the school system we have today. The real promise of pods created by school districts and community organizations lies in making those benefits available to all children.

Achieving that promise will surely create new challenges we first raised two years ago. How can this new system avoid fragmentation, and ensure every student can still have a coherent educational experience? How can a growing array of learning providers remain publicly accountable? Who will staff these new educational arrangements—and what implications will that have for the teaching profession? 

Getting a chance to explore those questions will require new investments to support the communities building this new system on the fly—as well as a concerted effort to learn from them in real time.

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