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Teacher in a Strange Land: Pod Save Us: How Learning Pods are Going to Destroy Public Education. Or Not.

The first thing I thought of when people started murmuring about getting groups of kids whose families were connected together for a little home-based mini-school, was the much-heralded advent of charter schools in my state, back in 1995.

Just about everybody who was around and in the thick of education reform back then thought charters held promise. Throwing off the regulatory shackles! Schools with a unique vision and purpose! No more factory-model instruction!

A group of parents, led by one of those perennial PTA-president moms, approached a group of maybe a dozen teachers in the district where I taught, hoping to start a K-8 charter. Several of the teachers had already been discussing a new, arts-infused ‘dream school.’ The parents had a centrally located vacant building in mind, and had run some numbers that showed, somehow, teachers would be paid commensurately with the district’s salary scale, including benefits—and would be freed to run their classes the way they saw fit.

It’s worth noting that this was before NCLB, the Common Core and mandated testing in grades 3-8. I’m finding it hard to remember, in fact, just what we found so onerous and constraining about practices in the buildings we were working in, but that group of teachers (male and female, including several movers and shakers) agreed to meet with the parent organizers.

The parents were super-enthusiastic. They, too, had ideas to roll out, and were thrilled at the prospect of having a greater say in their children’s education, without having to pay private school tuition. The new charter law let them pick and choose teachers and set the tone for who would be welcome there. The leader of the group declared ‘We’re going to have the cream of the crop in our school!’

And that was it. All of the teachers immediately realized why the parents had done so much research and organizing: it was all for their kids. Kids whose parents did not have similar resources and savvy would be left behind, a phrase that hadn’t even entered the education lexicon yet.

I have long been a defender of the idea that parents should do whatever makes them comfortable, when it comes to their children’s education. If you want right-wing religious training, or single-gender education, or a place where your child will not stick out–thinking here of the Obamas not placing their girls, symbolically, into a public school—hey, go for it. One size does not fit all, although a lot of public schools try to accommodate pretty much everyone.

I think trying to tell parents, during a pandemic–especially when there’s a dearth of authentic leadership around making healthy choices for kids–that they have to play by a particular school’s rules is utter folly. Nothing will, or should, stop parents from trying to figure out how to get the best deal for their children during a crisis. That’s what parents are for.

There will be lots of chaos, changes and new understandings about the nature and importance of public school as we muddle through the beginning of the school year. What I’m hoping is that it won’t be another New Orleans after Katrina—where powerful (mostly white) people dismantled a struggling system for their own purposes. Because they had more money and more power, and they could.

Is that what pod-parents are intending? A way to use a virulent virus to duck out of feeling responsible for all children, or at least those in the immediate vicinity? Or is pod-learning a temporary solution that might lead to a new appreciation of the utterly democratic and cost-effective nature of public education?

Conflicting ideas:

~ Pod-learning has no concrete definition. A tutor (please don’t call them zutors) who works with a half-dozen children, twice a week, to accomplish their assigned schoolwork, is a far cry from dropping your child off at someone’s home every day so you can go to work and they can go to school. Do pod-teachers create their own curriculum or merely adapt what’s available, free, from the local public school? Who hires pod-teachers and what recourse do they have when conflicts occur? And on and on.

~ None of this is new. There have been private tutors, one-room schoolhouses and home-schools since colonial times. More recently, we’ve had distance learning and a revolving carousel of online, customer-friendly, charter schools. There are plenty of ways to get your child at least nominally educated—and also into college. Best to keep the focus on genuine learning, which might involve some deeper involvement and hard questions about what your schooling plan does for your child, besides keep them occupied for six hours a day.

~ If you’re counting on your schooling bubble to keep your kids—and hence, all the people in your household—free from infection while enjoying the freedom of not wearing masks or social distancing, there’s a great graphic for you to study at the end of this blog.

~ Surprise! One of the two great benefits of public education is free/inexpensive childcare. (The other is an educated citizenry but almost nobody talks about that.) What that means is those who can afford to chip in on a pod program can also afford childcare. By hiring a bona fide teacher who is fearful of returning to a public school, you’re deepening the division between haves and have-nots. If, as some talking heads are suggesting, you hire a college student at loose ends—you’re doubling down on the false idea that anyone can teach. Didn’t you already figure that out, back in April?

~ Here’s a certainty: if people form pods to educate their kids, bypassing public schools, it will weaken the commitment to annual high-stakes testing, the Common Core (and its identical cousins with different names), and tightly controlled teacher licensure. That’s not all bad, but deregulation has its downside. Think of it as public education being re-created as a gig economy. Teaching as Uber. Caveat emptor.

~ Teacher professionalism and expertise will be devalued. What will suffer then are the (admittedly idealistic) concepts of deep learning, custom-tailored curriculum, relationship-driven instruction–things that can only be supported by an established system run by professional educators.

~ Pods will have all the problems that public schools have: unsuitable teachers that some parents and children dislike, personality and values conflicts, lack of necessary resources, unforeseen changes in numbers and support for the pod model. Doesn’t matter how large or small your pod is. Doesn’t matter if you’re teaching in a geodesic dome in your backyard—there will be problems.

~ And, of course—the questions around equity. You can argue, correctly, that schools are already inequitable. But what makes a school equitable is not its location or demographics. Equity is built by a reliable stream of resources, committed and talented teachers and genuine leadership. You can’t have an equitable school or provide an equitable education without good people. Temporary, just-in-time pod education disrupts what is good in public education: community-building.

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Nancy Flanagan

Nancy Flanagan is a retired teacher, with 31 years as a K-12 Music specialist in the Hartland, Michigan schools. She was named Michigan Teacher of the Year in 199...