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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School Choice & Charters Opinion

What the Heck Are Microschools?

Interest in the model is growing across the nation
By Rick Hess — May 31, 2023 7 min read
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In The Great School Rethink, I talk a bit about microschooling and have learned that the topic tends to generate puzzled queries along the lines of “microwhat now”? Well, it’s worth learning more. This spring, EdChoice reported that huge numbers of parents express interest in the microschools. Meanwhile, Don Soifer, the head of the National Microschooling Center, estimates that today there are more than 120,000 microschools educating over 1.5 million students. All of this made it seem like a good time to check in with Soifer, who served previously on the District of Columbia charter school board and as a member of the Nevada State Public Charter School Authority. Here’s what he had to say.

—Rick

Rick: Let’s start with the basics. What is a microschool, anyway?

Don: Microschools are innovative, small learning environments. They are being created in permissionless ways outside of education systems, and their rate of growth has become a powerful storyline in American education. They convene in commercial or nonprofit space, private homes, places of worship. Microschools can be organized as learning centers supporting home schoolers, private schools—accredited and unaccredited—or other ways. Many people feel microschooling derives its transformative potential from the ability to be created around the needs of the particular learners they serve.

Rick: How many microschools are there today?

Don: Our best estimates are at least 125,000 serving upwards of 1.5 million learners, but with so much of this movement working beneath the radar, it’s just an estimate.

Rick: What kinds of microschools are there?

Don: The center sees the microschooling sector aligning within three distinct varieties: Independent microschooling is what many first think of when they hear “microschooling.” These are the small groups forming in art and dance studios, empty storefront space and other creative locations, or in private homes. These microschools are often the most unique and creative and flourish in the communities they serve. Partnership microschooling forges a collaboration between a host partner, like an employer, local government agency, or place of worship—that can bring resources or facility space, and a technical partner that brings the expertise to be responsible for teaching and learning. Provider networks align with established organizations, such as KaiPod, Acton, or Primer to name a few, that can really help support launches by bringing capital, back-office help—often with innovative education technology—and other institutional help new founders find valuable.

Rick: What got you interested in microschooling?

Don: I had about as successful a run as a charter authorizer as anybody, and in my push to innovate, I began to doubt whether charter authorizing will ever really be able to support microschooling to its powerful potential—for a variety of institutional reasons. During pandemic shutdowns, I felt it was all hands on deck for everybody working in education to give it their best, and my team designed and led urban microschools where kids thrived, many who never had before. We got a lot of positive coverage and suddenly had groups of incredible educators meeting in our offices to learn how to start microschools themselves. It’s been no looking back since.

Rick: Are microschools a new model of schooling, or are they more an adaptation to the pandemic?

Don: Microschools are not exactly a new model—many are updated versions of the one-room schoolhouses that dotted the American prairies of the latter half of the 19th century. They are still in their early adoption phase, frequently operating within regulatory, statutory, and funding frameworks that did not anticipate their innovations. Much like the emergence of the venture capital industry in the early 1980s, it is necessary to evolve these frameworks to embrace these new learning environments.

Rick: You run the National Microschooling Center. Can you say a bit about what the center does?

Don: The National Microschooling Center launched in August 2022, with headquarters in Las Vegas. It is the nation’s preeminent nonprofit empowering hub for pioneering small learning environments; relentlessly pursuing our mission of movement; building for a thriving, diversified microschooling sector that lives up to its transformative potential. We’re foundation-funded and don’t charge microschools for our work supporting their launch and growth. We now have members in 23 states. We offer a dedicated program of supports and trainings for new leaders, including offering popular learning tools along with our platform-specific training. Our in-person and online informational events with local partners help raise community understanding about microschooling. Our team also works hard to keep microschool leaders out of harm’s way, with guidance to help them understand regulatory frameworks and pro-bono assistance in those cases when they do encounter regulatory harassment. And where there are opportunities to work with policymakers to streamline and update frameworks to support the thriving of diversified microschooling sectors in their states, the center is always eager to help.

Rick: What does good microschooling look like?

Don: Most microschools we work with embrace an active partnership with families in their child’s educational trajectory. I think of it much more of an active-learner paradigm than a passive, factory model for instruction. This can lead to a level of child-centered learning which really does not have a place in most charter school systems. The Forest School outside of Atlanta, for instance, is led by the founders of the Institute for Self-Directed Learning. Hybrid microschooling is also gaining in popularity, where children may attend their microschool three days a week, which their families combine with other learning following their state’s home schooling frameworks.

Rick: The center recently issued a survey. Are there any particular findings that would surprise people outside of the world of microschools?

Don: One of the most compelling findings for me from the American Microschooling Sector Analysis we published in April was just how widely founders’ main motivations for leading microschools vary. These leaders are often described as entrepreneurial educators, and they are certainly social entrepreneurs. But fewer than one-third of current leaders cite income from business success as a main motivator, compared with the 53 percent who said it was providing opportunities for systemically underserved or marginalized communities or the 47 percent who pointed to enabling children to thrive.

Rick: I suspect many educators may be skeptical about microschooling. What can you say to them that might change their minds?

Don: We’ve repeatedly heard accomplished educators say that they had gotten tired of having to close their classroom door in order to teach the way they really felt obligated to, and as a result, they left traditional schools to launch their own microschools. So much of microschooling is about learners thriving in ways they never had before in their prior settings. The same is often true for educators.

Rick: What kind of students attend microschools?

Don: Microschooling is an incredibly diversified movement, whose families come from all different backgrounds and are often new to schools of choice. This diversification includes microschools’ missions and visions, as well as hybrid schedules. Microschooling families are working families, many from the more fragile ends of the income spectrum who are especially concerned with how their traditional schools are preparing their learners for their future.

Rick: What do we know about how well students in microschools are faring?

Don: This reminds me of when the RAND Corporation and others were first engaging to study blended and personalized learning models. These innovative classroom approaches presented challenges for researchers seeking to identify quantifiable impacts versus control groups. It was tricky and took time to get right: The presence of continuous improvement, constant innovation, and perpetual motion complicates a researcher’s job, to be sure. That said, we engaged RAND researchers in our North Las Vegas microschool, and they were able to validate our strong learning gains in reading and math utilizing the embedded assessments in some of the software we use in our classrooms. As the interest in evaluating microschools grows, it’s crucial that their impacts be measured in ways that align with their diversified missions. That’s not been the case in other schools of choice movements, but it’s important that we measure places of learning according to their stated goals.

Rick: When you talk to parents, policymakers, and other folks about the promise and potential concern of microschools, what do you emphasize?

Don: America’s current microschooling movement is very much about families reclaiming control of their learners’ educational trajectories from the institutions they’ve historically relied upon to meet their educational needs. In its early adoption stage today, it may look very different several years from now. It’s crucial that as policy and regulatory frameworks adapt to catch up with this movement, they don’t restrict its growth in ways that block microschools from realizing their compelling, transformative potential.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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