Microschools exist as a midpoint between homeschooling and traditional schools. Typically, the entire school will only have twenty-five students and one or two teachers—often parents, sometimes former educators looking for a more personal classroom, and occasionally local community members like doctors who have expertise to share.
During the pandemic, learning pods developed in an ad hoc manner—parents pooling their time and resources to monitor online learning, find supplemental material, and fill in as instructors. Similarly, co-ops are an assemblage of homeschooling parents who come together to share their expertise and provide socialization for their children. Microschools are more formal affairs with budgets, paid staff, often (though not always) accreditation, and umbrella networks.
I attended a conference on microschools recently at Harvard’s Kennedy School and found much to love about them. One microschool founder spoke about the ease of taking ten kids on regular field trips and the gas station attendant who handed out Slurpees to this little troop of children every time they were on the way back from a local monument or museum. It’s the kind of little platoon upon which a healthy society functions.
Another attendee runs a learning lab that provides space and educational services for homeschooling parents who need a classroom space or tutor. This type of institution is typically called a partnership microschool, an organization that can collaborate with homeschoolers to buttress their work with space, instructional expertise, and curriculum. It’s the kind of institution that will foster a robust school choice landscape—not just choices between this or that charter school, but more expansive options.
Unfortunately, the movement faces many challenges. Antiquated policies block their expansion. Logistical hurdles stymie newcomers. And a commitment to dubious education theories threatens their success.
First, the policies. Bathrooms were a frequent topic of conversation at this conference, and by that I don’t mean inquiries about where to find the loo at the Kennedy School. Rather, regulations about bathrooms in schools were a pain for many of these microschool founders. To start a school with fewer than twenty kids, many states required that these entrepreneurs have three bathrooms in their building—one for boys, one for girls, and one for adults. Fire codes posed similar difficulties. Does grandma’s house really need sprinklers if a homeschooling co-op works there twice a week?
The regulations and laws that govern traditional schools simply don’t fit the microschooling format. Does a parent, who happens to be a pharmacist, need a license to teach chemistry twice a week? Can running a community garden fulfill the credit hours of a typical ecology course?
In many regards, they need deregulation, but that’s not to entirely dismiss the need for safeguards. Should they have to demonstrate that their students achieve basic competency in reading and writing? Should their staff require background checks lest they turn out to be predators or thieves? How does a chemistry class handle potentially dangerous chemicals?
There are also logistical hurdles to starting a microschool. In one panel, Matthew Kramer, the co-founder of Wildflower, a network of over sixty Montessori-based microschools, acknowledged such difficulties. How do you fund it? How do you find a building? What materials do you use? How do kids get sports or clubs? Isn’t it lonely teaching all by yourself? Who teaches advanced math when your expertise is twentieth century history?
For all its faults, the much-derided public-school bureaucracy has utility. Yes, it slows needed reforms. Yes, it treats everyone the same. Yes, it’s a fiscal drag. But the bureaucracy at my public school system also meant that I walked into my classroom with a course syllabus outlined for me and recommendations for lesson plans, a lifesaver especially in my early years. I didn’t have to bother filling out tax forms or jumping through regulatory hoops because we had HR managers and lawyers to handle that stuff.
Unfortunately, hurdles will likely always exist to the scalability of microschooling. Lots of people want to become teachers; far fewer want the headache of founding a school. As the movement grows, however, systems such as Wildflower will develop to accomplish some of the bureaucratic functions that a district does, and other organizations will pop up to provide teacher training or facilitate the founding process.
But that’s only half the story. Another challenge to microschooling is far more noxious: an ideological undercurrent that left me unsettled by the end of the conference.
In a compelling piece a few months ago in these pages, veteran homeschooling mom Larissa Phillips details the movement’s infatuation with unschooling, a theory of education (if we could call it that) that postulates that, if we just let kids be, they’ll follow their own passions to success. She details parents arguing about whether kids should be expected to follow basic rules, attend classes that they don’t like, or bother getting out of bed if they didn’t feel like it that day.
Scroll through stories of model microschools on the National Microschooling Center’s website, and you’ll see a commitment to similar ideologies. Inquiry learning, project-based learning, self-directed learning, and other models of a similar stripe abound. The center’s founder argues that this preference for self-direction is inherent in the model’s rejection of systematization. In an interview with the New York Times, Jerry Mintz, the founder of Alternative Education Resource Organization, an institution that supports microschools and independent schools, shares a similar sentiment: “Kids are natural learners and the job of the educator is to help kids find resources; they are more guides than teachers.”
Color me skeptical.
There’s little evidence that this build-your-own-adventure approach to education actually works. There are a few capacities, such as spoken language, that evolution has primed us to learn naturally and seemingly without effort, but everything else requires structure and effort. What’s more, I don’t much care if a kid inherently wants to learn his phonics and math facts or read Shakespeare or the Declaration of Independence. Some of the most important things we do require external compulsion. How many kids declare their opposition to summer camp only to discover they never want to leave?
At some point, Johnny can only learn so much from a nature walk and needs to sit down and read a science textbook. Children need explanation, direction, and structured practice. That being said, maybe the small scale of microschools will allow educational models such as project-based or inquiry learning to succeed, where they failed in large classrooms, but I doubt it.
My colleague Mike Petrilli believes that these “hybrid homeschools” will likely remain a niche phenomenon. Perhaps they will. But 5.4 percent of 73.1 million children is still a lot of children, and trends suggest an even larger share of the population will begin to homeschool in the coming years. To ensure that those children receive the education they deserve, it will require policymakers to craft smart laws to govern these new institutions and the movement itself to interrogate its own beliefs and practices, experimenting with new educational practices, yes, but willing to alter course if they’re proving unsuccessful.