Wednesday, October 4, 2023

Microschools for Dummies

While they've been kicking around for a while, microschools keep popping up in school choicer rhetoric. So if you're wondering what, exactly, microschools are about, and why privatizers like them, here's your explainer for the day.

Says the Microschools Network website, "Imagine the old one-room schoolhouse. Now bring it into the modern era." Or imagine you're homeschooling, and a couple of neighbors ask if you'd take on their children as well. Or imagine you're cyberschooling with seven kids in your kitchen. Or imagine you wanted to start a tiny pop up school. 

The website offers these five characteristics for the current microschools version.

An intentionally small student population,
An innovative curriculum,
Place-based and experiential learning,
The use of cutting-edge technology, and
An emphasis on mastering or understanding material.

In other words, invite a couple of neighbor kids over and have them gather around a computer to be taught by whatever whizbang algorithm-directed "personalized" software you've licensed to provide the educational stuffings for your microschool. Some adult is handy as a "guide," but the computer frees you from the need to actually be able to teach anything. As one company puts it, you can be a guide because "caring about people and being passionate about learning are more important than transcripts, certificates and pedagogy."

So why do it this way? The pitch includes ideas like microschooling will "allow students to take deep dives into subjects that they’re passionate about" and extend the learning "beyond the physical confines of the school" (aka "somebody's home"). Some of the pitch is what anybopdy wants from any school:

Students are encouraged to focus on mastering subjects and understanding why they’re important within a broader context, rather than on trying to get a good grade.

Why are microschools better able to provide that than any other educational model? What exactly makes mastery learning, a long-time subject of discussion in education, especially fitted to microschools? That's a bit of a mystery. Technology! 

Some of the rhetoric is just about trying to transform a bug into a feature:

In order to meet your student's needs through a customized learning journey, students of multiple ages may be grouped to learn together in a classroom. This model allows students of different ages to learn from each other, gaining a holistic understanding of the topics.

In other words, if the seven students you've gathered are of wildly different ages, don't worry--the software will handle it somehow. Also, when your teenager is complaining about being stuck in writing class with a couple of ten year olds, just tell him that this is allowing him to gain a holistic understanding of the topics.

Sift through miles of rhetoric and you find lots of language that looks exactly like what fans of public schools say about public schools (and, to be fair, what fans of private schools say about them). I can't find a claim anywhere that seems like a unique educational benefit that only microschools could offer. 

Many microschool cheerleaders are like Kelly Smith of Prenda, who is an education amateur who got excited about seeing students get excited about learning stuff, as if he's the first person to discover this amazing phenomenon. Prenda is one microschool company that hit the jackpot a couple of years ago by becoming the official microschool of New Hampshire

Microschools have plenty of fans. Tom Vander Ark, a techo-reform cheerleader who's been making a living at it for quite a while--he thinks microschools are a Next Big Thing. Betsy DeVos has been sending microschools some love. And Prenda itself got a healthy shot of investment money from a newish Koch-Walton initiative called VELA Education Fund. Headed up by Meredith Olson (a VP at Koch's Stand Together) and Beth Seling (with background in the charter school biz), the board of VELA is rounded out by reps from Stand Together and the Walton Foundation. VELA "invests in family-focused education innovations."

Which raises the question--why do all these choicers love microschools so much. Especially since microschools' dependence on computer tech makes them closely resemble the kind of cyber school and distance learning that have been so widely disdained post-pandemically?

The answer is that microschools plug a hole in the Big Choice Picture.

When someone asks hard critiques like "This voucher you're offering me won't cover the cost of any private school" or "When this voucher program guts public school funding, families in our rural area will have no choices at all" then microschools are the handy choicer answer.

Can't get your kid into a nice private school with your voucher? Well, you can still pool resources with a couple of neighbors, buy some hardware, license some software, and start your own microschool! Microschools allow choicers to argue that nobody will be left behind in a choice landscape, that vouchers will not simply be an education entitlement for the wealthy. (Spoiler alert: the wealthy will not be pulling their children out of private schools so they can microschool instead). 

In other words, microschools do not solve any educational problems. They solve a policy argument problem. They do not offer new and better ways to educate children. They offer new ways to argue in favor of vouchers. Well, all that and they also offer a way for edupreneurs to cash in on the education privatization movement. 

The rise in voucher pushes in legislatures means a rise in talk about microschools to plug the hole in voucher policy, and that's why some folks are trying to give them their fifteen minutes. I'm not convinced that isn't about fourteen minutes more than they deserve.

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