“Why is a book hanging there?” That’s a question my 11-year-old son sprang on our family recently while we were waiting in line for a ride at an amusement park. The line was designed to look like an old movie set, and he had spotted a payphone. The phone itself—an artifact predating his lifetime—was an idea he was familiar with. But the book hanging under the phone was a mystery. My wife explained, to his surprise, that phone companies used to publish books that listed the phone numbers of all the households and businesses in a region. I was shocked when his question made me notice how much the year-over-year evolution of the cell phone had completely changed the experience of using a phone. Brick-like cell phones with spotty service had evolved into sleek machines that put the collective sum of human knowledge in our pockets—and, in the process, had made phonebooks completely obsolete.
This example of the cell phone’s evolution could serve as a potential comparison to microschools. In my last post, I pointed out that microschools show some of the telltale signs of disruptive innovation. But whether they ultimately prove disruptive to conventional schooling hinges on a few factors beyond the analysis presented in that post.
One issue is whether they can become accessible and affordable for more families; a challenge that likely hinges on whether districts or states begin to fund them. Stay tuned for my thoughts on that topic.
But simply subsidizing tuition for more families to attend microschools won’t make them mainstream. Even if barriers of access and affordability were removed, I suspect microschools would still just serve a small niche within the broader K–12 landscape. Most families still value many of the characteristics of conventional schools.
Can microschools evolve over time, like cell phones, to become compelling mainstream alternatives to conventional schooling? I think the answer is “yes,” but the pathway to get there may be surprising. It’s likely a pathway that runs not only through improvements to the microschooling model itself, but also through microschools’ intersection with another emerging trend: learning ecosystems.
The improvement imperative
Families that currently opt for micoschools do so for a wide array of reasons. For some, microschools offer a lifeline for escaping struggles in conventional schools due to challenges like bullying or ADHD. Other families prize the distinctive values of their particular microschools, such as those that provide progressive pedagogy, racially-affirming community, classical education, or family-centered learning.
Nonetheless, most families today don’t choose microschools. For all their benefits and promise, microschools fall short when it comes to meeting some of the needs and expectations of most K–12 students and families. For example, 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 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.
Microschools won’t appeal to most families until they can offer more of the things many families expect from their current schools. To scale, they need to evolve and improve.
Matching value propositions without matching processes
Some of the improvements that could take microschools mainstream can come from enhancements to a microschool’s existing organizational model. These might be improvements to their curriculum and other materials, their staff hiring and training practices, or their operational effectiveness. Improvements in these areas will be essential for microschools to address the wide-ranging academic needs of the diverse US student population.
But other improvements will be hard for microschools to make on their own without compromising the advantages of the microschool model. For example, how do you give students more opportunities to learn from content experts without hiring a large staff of content experts? How do you offer electives and extracurriculars that typically involve large numbers of students without becoming a large school?
If microschools try to expand and enhance their offerings by copying conventional schools, they will become conventional schools. So how can they appeal to the majority of families without copying the conventional playbook?
Improvements through partnerships and coordination
For microschools to maintain their disruptive model—their low cost structure and flexibility—while expanding their value propositions to be comparable to conventional schools, their improvement trajectory will depend on partnerships. In fact, this is what many microschools are already doing. For example, many hybrid homeschooling arrangements (close cousins of microschools) enhance the homeschool experience by arranging for students to take some courses from community colleges or other community organizations. Similarly, programs like My Tech High connect families to a variety of learning experiences, including private instructors and classes from their local schools and districts.
Imagine what ecosystems of microschools and partner organizations might look like in five to ten years. For example, a given microschool might have a list of vetted and approved local private music teachers that it works with. It might be a member of a sports league that caters to microschool students and homeschool families. It might work with a program like Parker Dewey to arrange internships for students. And it might have a partner like Hop, Skip, Drive to move students between sites. Furthermore, as students go through these experiences, the microschool will have figured out how to credential learning through competency-based credit, possibly through a partnership with the Mastery Transcript Consortium.
In that future, parents who enroll their children in a microschool won’t have to also take on the work of supplementing the microschool experience with private lessons, club sports, internships, and play dates. The microschool will have seamlessly coordinated all the experiences students and families want. In this future, microschools become the “home bases” described in Education Reimagined’s conception of learning ecosystems.
2023: the year of learning ecosystems
Cell phones didn’t just replace pay phones and phone books. They radically expanded how people communicate and find information. They also became a platform for an ecosystem of other services, such as messaging, navigation, photo sharing, shopping, and keeping up with current events through a host of new forms of media. In K–12 education, microschools and learning ecosystems are on a similar evolutionary trajectory.
I suggested in my last post that 2023 could be the year of the microschool. In truth, the year of the microschool is likely already behind us. The last few years of the pandemic have already accelerated their adoption and, hence, their place in the mainstream dialogue. But for microschools to break through, 2023 will, in fact, need to be the year of the learning ecosystem.