Microschools - The Startups of K12 Education
The optimistic world of microschools
Schools have been immune to change
Companies that fail to innovate don’t survive. Animals that don’t evolve become extinct. Managers that don’t do a good job are let go.
But American schools seem to be omnipotent. They are shielded from competition. They are protected from dying off.
Our failure to allow for means of error-correction within the school system has resulted in an unsuccessful experiment that has overstayed its time. When public schools were initially established by Thomas Jefferson, they were structured as three-year schools meant to teach only basic literacy and math. In the 1840s, Horace Mann, known as the Father of Modern Education, advocated for emulating the Prussian model of education which is very similar to the “factory model” that exists today. 1852 was another turning point - Massachusetts became the first state to adopt compulsory schooling with the other states following soon after. By 1910, public school in America was transformed with 72% of American children going to compulsory schools.1
While providing literacy to all is a noble cause, the 1840 Prussian school experiment has failed to adapt to a dynamic world. Today, schools resemble institutions that are subduing the youthful energy of our kids. In a nutshell, we set up schools, made them compulsory, and then decided to lock our kids in there without bothering to see whether the experiment is working, or making meaningful progress to correcting errors in the experiment.
The government has taken it upon itself to make our children literate and it’s failing miserably. According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), only 31% of 8th graders performed at or above proficiency level in reading in 2022. The same number was 33% for 4th graders, and 37% for 12th graders2. This means that nearly 70% of our students can’t read at the proficiency level for their grade, a skill that is the most important superpower for learning.
The bleak results are largely because public schools don’t operate in the free market, shielding them from competition and accountability. Charter schools have tried to compete with public schools but it’s notoriously hard to get mandates to set them up. This is because charter schools threaten funding away from low-performing public schools (it should be the case if we allow for free competition), which tends to create an uproar among teachers’ unions. Regardless, most private and charter schools have to comply with the state curriculum, thereby not innovating much on learning pedagogy either. As a result, they’re running the same experiment as public schools.
It’s not that public schools haven’t tried to adapt. Clayton Christensen’s book Disrupting Schools argues that contrary to what most people think, public schools have made many attempts at curbing the criticism hailed at them. However, these attempts have not been enough and have not yielded results. And the attempts at change have been heavily restricted because of lack of free market competition.
Disgruntled parents recognize that the lack of free market activity has caused the entire school system to not function well. The way out is the way out of the school system.
The rise in homeschooling
Currently, around 3.5 million children are homeschooled in America. While this number might seem small compared to the ~49 million students enrolled in public schools, homeschooling far surpasses public schools in enrolment growth. Over the last 6 years, homeschooling has seen a ~51% rise in students, compared to only 7% for private schools, and a decline of 4% for public schools.3
Many people associate homeschooling with parents who want to provide religious instruction to their children. While this is true to some extent, religious instruction no longer remains the dominant reason to homeschool.
In 2012, 60% of parents picked religious instruction as the primary reason to homeschool, compared to 34% in 2023. Today’s parents are dissatisfied with schooling primarily because of “concern about school environment”, “to provide moral instruction”, and “dissatisfaction with academic instruction at schools”4. Some other parents realized how their kids were happier, more engaged and curious when homeschooled during Covid, compared to public schools.
Hence, parents have taken it upon themselves to educate their children. And they’re right in doing so. Studies even indicate how homeschoolers score 15 to 25 percentile points above public school students on standardized academic achievement tests.5
However, homeschooling is not feasible for all parents. They go to work, they want other teachers for their kids, and they want more social group activities. Ingenious parents evolved another way to solve this problem. They created learning pods and microschools. Parents have innovated more in education in the last 5 years than the government has in decades!
Microschools – the startups of education
Microschools are informal schools of a small group of students where the learning is centered on the student’s needs. Typical schools are focused on standard curriculums, but most microschools take a more personalized approach to learning. Some people describe them as the re-emergence of the one-room schoolhouse where students of mixed-ages would follow their individualized curriculum with the teacher serving as the guide. Microschools also tend to be 15 students or under, although you will find some larger ones. Most allow for flexible schedules - parents can choose to send their kids to the microschools for a couple of days a week and only for a few hours as opposed to the standard schedule offered by traditional schools.
Some microschools are science-based, some focus on classic studies, some cater to neurodiverse students, some are faith-based, some are Montessori-inspired, and some are for unschoolers (self-directed learning), among the many diverse variety.
You will notice that there is no standard definition of a microschool and I’m describing many of its features. The truth is that there is no concept of a standard microschool; they don’t come in cookie-cutter coke bottles. And this is exactly what makes them so special! Each microschool innovates in its own way, trying different education pedagogies and teaching methods. However, they’re all coherent in their mission towards student-centered learning and towards creating a better educational environment for children than what exists in traditional schools. Microschools allow for more experimentation in education.
I see microschools as the startups of K12 education.
Microschools offer choice to parents
Microschools started gaining popularity during COVID when parents banded together to start small group learning pods for their kids. Some of the parents would take turns teaching the students and some others would hire a teacher for the pod. Microschools are the more formal name for a learning pod typically implying that the pod is run by a teacher instead of parents, and they charge tuition. If homeschooling can demand a lot of time from parents, and traditional schools aren’t geared towards student-centric learning, microschools are a great solution that incorporate personalized learning solutions, small group socialization, and flexible schedules.
Moreover, microschools give parents more choice in schooling for the first time. Similar to how you walk into a grocery store and can pick your choice of yogurt, parents and students can pick the microschool that best suits them. They no longer have to be restricted to only one type of curriculum offered by the public and private schools in their area.
Factors favoring Microschools
Public school teachers starting their own microschools
It’s not just parents who are disgruntled with the traditional school system. Teachers are too. Troubled by low pay and the compulsion to comply with state mandates that often make little sense, public school teachers are leaving the system to start their own microschools. Between 2020 and 2022 alone, about 300,000 public school teachers and staff left the education system, corresponding to ~3% of the workforce6.
A lot of these teachers have started their own microschools, giving them an opportunity to become business owners. Additionally, smaller classrooms have allowed teachers to develop stronger bonds with each student, a primary reason they were attracted to teaching in the first place.
School Choice Movement
Innovations on the financing side are also aiding microschools. The school choice movement is growing steam. Currently, there are 15 Educational Savings Account (ESA) programs in 13 states7. This means that if you choose to not send your child to public school, you are eligible for ~$8k towards private school education or after-school programs, including microschools. 7 of these programs are universal school vouchers available to any student. And 8 of them provide school vouchers for students with special needs or to those from low-income families.
For many parents, this money is the deciding factor between being able to send their kids to a microschool vs. continuing public school, as further evidenced by the growth in students using ESA money.8
School vouchers are not only beneficial to parents, but they also help state and local budgets. Taxpayers spend an average of $16,446 per student annually in public schools.9 Conversely, school vouchers of ~$8k are less than half the cost of public school student allocation. This frees up resources for state and local governments to allocate to other causes.
Microschools are not immune to error-correction
The greatest aspect of microschools is that they operate in the free market and don’t block the means of error correction. If a parent is not satisfied with their child’s microschool, they will pull their child out. If a microschool does not solve the academic rigor a parent is looking for, a new microschool might pop up to serve the unmet demand. Microschools operate more like private businesses and not schools shielded by the government, which means that if they fail to serve their consumer, they will die and deserve to. Further, one can hope that competition from microschools would make public schools step up their game.
Microschools are more nimble
Most microschools are being established as homeschool co-ops or after-school programs such that they don’t have to jump through regulatory hoops to get school licensing. This makes it faster and easier for them to start up. The current rules around school licensing aren’t structured to work for microschools, so it only makes sense for microschools to chart their own path for now.
There is a growing concern that states will begin to crack down and enforce rules of traditional schools onto microschools. For example, one microschool was forced to shut down because of zoning restrictions, a rule that has been set for traditional schools and doesn’t make much sense to the new situation. Regulation should update its playbook for microschools or stay away to allow the free market to innovate in education. People worry that without regulation and mandates, there is a chance that some of the kids might not learn much. This argument is not very strong for two reasons. One, the data shows that kids aren’t learning much in public schools so the mandates aren’t working too well – note that mandates don’t imply learning. Two, if the kids aren’t learning, the parents can simply pull their kids out of the microschool.
Microschools work well in a free-market system, shifting the accountability from the government to parents. In most states in the U.S., the public school your child goes to depends on the district you reside in, leaving parents with few school options. As a result, public schools don’t leave much room for parents to be accountable for school choice. On the other hand, microschools bestow parents with more decision making power.
The optimistic world of microschools
The Internet era has changed many products we interact with. Physical newspapers are on the decline. Maps are a thing of the past. Taxi cabs are not hailed in traditional ways anymore. Books can now be read online. Food is ordered to your doorstep in minutes. The best teachers are available at the click of a button.
Yet, despite one of the biggest advances of the Internet being that learning online is now abundant and free, schools haven’t adapted to the new world. They don’t allow for error-correction and this is a fatal mistake.
In a dynamic world, if there is no way for us to correct our errors, society won’t move forward. Progress will decline. And human quality of life will suffer.
We’ve tried the traditional school experiment for decades. It’s not working. It’s time to try something new. And microschools are the pioneers of this.
Please share this essay with anyone who might be interested in microschools. You can follow me on X @aasthajs for more on the topic of alternative education.