With all the surprises sprung on the world over the last few years, it can be both exciting and frightening to imagine what 2023 might hold. Will this be a year defined by amazing breakthroughs for humanity—like cracking the formula for nuclear fusion and clearing a path to abundant clean energy? Or will it be a year loaded with new challenges—such as a global recession or escalating tensions between powerful nations?
Amidst the tectonic shifts that may be on the global horizon, there’s a comparatively smaller phenomenon brewing in US K-12 education. While barely a blimp on the global scale, it could impact learning trajectories for millions of American students and have a significant impact on the conventional model of schooling. What warrants this attention? Microschools.
What are microschools?
The concept of microschooling gained traction throughout the 2010s, then saw a huge uptick in both interest and new examples during the pandemic. EdChoice estimates that as many as 2.2 million children could be in microschools full time. But what are they? Defining the term can be tricky because they come in so many variations and run with somewhat synonymous terms like learning pods, learning hubs, and some versions of hybrid homeschooling.
Barnett Barry, a research professor at the University of South Carolina, offers a good description of microschools in an article he wrote for The Conversation. “As their name suggests, microschools, which serve K-12 students, are very small schools that typically serve 10 to 15 students, but sometimes as many as 150. They can have very different purposes but tend to share common characteristics, such as more personalized and project-based learning. They also tend to have closer adult-child relationships in which teachers serve as facilitators of student-led learning, not just deliverers of content.”
Some of the better-known examples of microschools include national name brands like the Acton Academy schools, Wildflower Schools, Prenda microschools and the Khan Lab School. But most microschools today, especially those that have sprung up since the pandemic, tend to be local learning communities, often serving students of mixed ages, created by entrepreneurial parents or educators. In the last year, organizations such as the National Microschooling Center and KaiPod Catalyst have launched to support the people and communities creating microschools.
What characteristics make them potentially disruptive?
Microschools have definitely made a mark in the K–12 landscape. But whether they will follow a disruptive trajectory and grow to become mainstream alternatives to conventional schools is an open question.
When people think of disruptive innovations, they tend to focus on new technologies: personal computers, online video streaming, rideshare apps, etc. But the real transformative impact of a disruptive innovation comes not just from technology, but from the new organizational models that technologies enable.
Consider the example of steel minimills as recounted in The Innovator’s Solution. Prior to the 1960s, most of the world’s steel came from massive integrated mills that did everything from reacting raw ore in blast furnaces to rolling finished products at the other end. Minimills, in contrast, melt scrap steel in small electric arc furnaces. Because they could produce molten steel cost-effectively in a small chamber, minimills didn’t need the massive-scale rolling and finishing operations that are required to handle the output of efficient blast furnaces—which is why they are called minimills. In short, minimills used a new technology (electric arc furnaces) to enable a new organizational model. That model used different resources and processes to produce steel products with a different cost structure.
In a similar fashion, many new microschools are experimenting with innovations to the organizational model of schooling.
To be clear, small schools that serve students of various ages aren’t a new idea. They harken back to the one-room schoolhouses of the late 1800s. But the one-room schoolhouse had a few inherent challenges. First, how does one teacher effectively instruct children at different levels of learning and development all in the same room, at the same time? Second, how can one teacher effectively teach a wide array of specialized academic disciplines at higher levels? These two challenges are at the heart of why one-room schoolhouses were replaced by age-graded elementary schools and subject-specialist secondary schools.
In contrast, many microschools today include mixed age classes but take advantage of new learning technologies to make the small school model more feasible. Online instructional materials have come a long way from the McGuffey Readers of the late 1800s. Their media-rich content presentations engage more than just the “bookish” children in a class; and they beat static textbooks hands down at providing students with basic feedback and adapting learning pathways based on their needs. Additionally, the Internet offers students endless pathways of research, exploration, and creativity—far beyond the confines of the best classroom library or set of art supplies. Microschools can also take advantage of online course providers like VLACS, FLVS or Outschool to access specialist teachers without needing to hire those teachers as full-time staff.
These technology resources then enable some fundamental shifts in core processes of the organizational model: the roles of students and teachers. Students can explore and master content through paths and at paces more suited to their needs. They can also take more ownership for their learning as their success no longer hinges on compliance with teachers’ whole-class instructions. Meanwhile, microschool educators can shift their focus from controlling classrooms and covering content to mentoring students and guiding them on personalized learning journeys tightly aligned to their mastery of content and their interests.
These innovations are not only valuable for changing the nature of the learning experience, and as a result, some of the core value propositions of the schooling model. They can also change the fundamental cost structure of schooling. The fact that microschools don’t need teachers for each grade level and subject area allows them to work at a small scale, while still serving a diverse array of students. Their ability to operate at a small scale, in turn, reduces the start-up barriers for microschools. They don’t need to build, buy, or rent large school facilities, but can instead operate using spaces available at libraries, community centers, churches, retail spaces, parks, or homes. Low startup and facilities costs are especially important for the microschools that operate without public funding: allowing them to create a new tier in the private school market for families that can’t afford conventional private schools.
But will microschools prove disruptive?
Although early minimills changed the resources, processes, and cost structure of steel production, their disruption of the industry didn’t happen overnight. Early minimills couldn’t produce the imperfection-free steel required for automobiles and soup cans. Instead, they began by serving the least-demanding tier of the market: rough rebar for reinforcing concrete. It took decades for minimills to improve their processes and produce higher-quality steel at lower costs.
Similarly, although microschools represent a potentially disruptive organizational model for schooling, most current iterations fall short when it comes to meeting the needs and expectations of most K–12 students and families. Some require more parent involvement than what most working parents can offer. Many don’t yet offer great support for families that rely on schools for transportation and food services. They often aren’t well-suited to serve students with particular special education or social and emotional needs. And their small scale doesn’t allow them to offer large-scale programs like sports, band, and theater, or the complete suite of electives and extracurriculars available at larger conventional schools.
Additionally, most microschools operate without public funding. Even with their lower cost structure, it’s hard to compete for families on a cost basis with free public education. Thus, their disruptive potential will also depend on state policy changes that provide them with public funding or shifts in district policies and practices to make them a district-supported offering.
Just as minimills had to refine their processes over time to produce higher-quality steel products, microschools will need to climb up their own improvement trajectories to become compelling mainstream alternatives for most families.
But this isn’t just a “time will tell” story. My upcoming posts will explore two additional trends to watch in 2023 that could hold promise for the future of microschools: learning ecosystems and potential shifts in district and state policy, both of which will likely determine whether microschools make a significant dent in the K-12 landscape.
Photo source: Prenda.