America’s microschooling movement is among the most exciting storylines in our nation’s education system in decades.
While the microschool model is actually not new at all, as more families choose to become more active consumers on behalf of their children’s education, innovative, small learning environments have proliferated as permissionless alternatives to large, government-run school systems. What are these microschools, why are they becoming so popular, and how can policy frameworks best support their success?
Microschools are small multi-family learning environments that are designed and operated around the educational needs of the particular students they serve. Microschools vary greatly when it comes to their teaching and learning models, organizational structures, and missions. Practitioners are often wary about policymakers applying definitions which might limit their capacity to innovate as the sector evolves.
Depending on the policy and regulatory frameworks of their state and local governments, microschools can be organized as centers serving learners following rules for homeschoolers, private schools (accredited or non-accredited), and sometimes as public charter or even entities within traditional public schools. As these latter categories often carry rigid curricular, seat-time and staffing requirements, they are less flexible in the ways they can adapt to individualize their experience.
Hybrid microschooling models are becoming increasingly popular. These microschools allow learners to attend less than five days per week, and to “share the lift” of their learning between multiple sources. A child may attend a microschool three days each week, and add learning from private classes, tutors or other experiences.
Microschools may adopt “learn everywhere” models—drawing from outdoor experiential learning, Montessori or other child-centered approaches, social and emotional growth designs, workforce preparatory programs, community schools, or countless other learning paths.
Microschools can thrive with as few as five learners. As they grow, microschools can also serve well over 100 students. Multi-age classrooms are common in microschools, and traditional grade levels usually carry less significance. Mastery-based models are often popular as alternatives to advancement based on seat time.
Microschool leaders are often innovative when it comes to their facilities. Storefronts, adapted living rooms, commercial or office space, houses of worship, or places of business are all common spaces where microschools operate.
According to the National Microschooling Center, three prevalent types of microschools today are: Independent, Partnership, and Provider Network Microschools.
Independent Microschools most resemble the one-room schoolhouses of earlier eras, although they can also be larger. They can be created by an individual, team, or a group of families.
Partnership Microschools are comprised of a host partner (such as an employer, local government, nonprofit or house of worship) working in partnership with a technical partner who oversees teaching and learning.
Provider Network Microschools can support local leaders in various ways, offering varying degrees of flexibility for instruction along with different types of institutional supports.
While no formal censuses currently exist, researchers Paul DiPerna and Michael McShane from EdChoice estimated in 2022 that between 1.1 and 2.2 million learners were attending microschools as primary replacements for typical schooling environments.
It’s important to note that advocates prefer not to publish maps or lists of microschools in most jurisdictions because regulatory harassment of microschools can be common—and a map would likely exacerbate these problems for those offering or relying on microschools.
In a growing number of states with active school choice programs, microschools are becoming allowable recipients of program funds.
In other states, practitioners often draw funds from nontraditional sources such as non-education government funding streams or funding from family-friendly employers. The VELA Education Fund has served as a pioneering leader for permissionless philanthropy to support the launch of more than 1,000 microschools through the end of 2022.
Most microschools employ tuition-based models, often on sliding scales to allow the schools to serve learners from families with the greatest need. These are frequently a fraction of the cost of average per-student funding in adjacent school districts.
Reliance of standardized, criterion-referenced testing for purposes of “accountability” is widely unpopular in microschooling communities. Microschools want to avoid compromising the personalization their families seek by being tethered to academic content requirements that many question as appropriate preparation for success in today’s (and tomorrow’s) economies. Many choose to use measures of academic growth of individual learners over time, while others prefer varied measures of impact—such as surveys of learners’ and families’ satisfaction with different aspects of the program, tools to register growth on dimensions of social and emotional competence, or other types of goals met.
Some states have Education Savings Accounts (ESA) programs that help parents pay for alternative education options like microschools. The state government deposits a portion of what the state would have spent to send the child to public school into a private account that parents can use for education-related expenses.
National Microschooling Center (Winner of SPN’s 2021 EdPrize)
Pods, Hubs and Microschools in the Wake of the Pandemic
Tom Vander Ark
Mississippi Microschools Are Expanding Education Options for Families
State Policy Network
New SPN report outlines how states can encourage education entrepreneurship
State Policy Network
The Rise of AltSchool and Other Micro-schools
Microschools, hybrid options, and online classes: Education during COVID and beyond
Georgia Center for Opportunity
Introduction to Micro-schools
What Is a Micro School? And Where Can You Find One?
The one-room schoolhouse is the next big thing in education
Microschooling: A new educational option for parents
Nevada Policy Research Institute
Let’s Get Small: Microschools, Pandemic Pods, and the Future of Education in America
The Heritage Foundation
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