What Are Microschools and Should We Have More of Them?

For our new report, “Working Toward Equitable Access and Affordability: How Private Schools and Microschools Seek to Serve Middle- and Low-Income Students,” we identified almost 200 intentionally small schools, often called “microschools,” across the country. Microschools’ small size — typically between 20 and 150 students across multiple grade levels — allows them the flexibility to implement innovative educational approaches such as multi-age classrooms, highly personalized and student-led learning, blended learning, experiential learning, and teachers as the primary school leaders.

Some proponents see microschools’ intensely relational, customized classrooms as a potential vehicle to improve educational opportunity for low-income students and students of color who are disproportionately underserved in our traditional public system. But is it a good idea to expand the model beyond the private school sector, where it largely lives now?

That question is hard to answer, largely because we don’t yet know enough about the quality and impact of existing microschools.

Microschool leaders often report that operating in the private sector offers them more freedom to explore alternatives to traditional education. Although many seek to serve students from diverse socio-economic backgrounds, it is challenging for these small independent schools to offer affordable tuition for low- and middle-income families while maintaining financial sustainability.

This tension has led some microschools to explore public models in order to reach a wider range of students. For example, the Wildflower Montessori Foundation supports a growing network of nearly 25 Montessori microschools across five states and Puerto Rico. The network includes both private and public charter schools who commit to a set of shared principles. Capital Village Schools, a new network planning to launch in Washington, DC in 2020, is designed as a set of public charter microschools run by one CMO. The central office provides efficiencies of scale while allowing each individual microschool to remain small. Another model, the CICS Boy’s Lab, co-locates within the Chicago International Charter School Network’s Longwood Campus, where the larger school serves as an incubator to support the microschool’s launch.

As these and other microschools explore public sector options, questions of quality and accountability loom large. To ensure that each microschool is serving all students well, policymakers, parents, and other stakeholders need information about how the school is performing relative to other schools. By definition, however, microschools are designed to be responsive to local contexts and to deviate from traditional models. Public microschools in our study cited a tension between exploring alternative ways to show mastery and participating in standardized assessments to demonstrate overall school quality. Furthermore, with fewer than 150 students and multi-age classrooms, the small number of students assessed at any given grade level makes it difficult to draw statistical conclusions about impact even when assessment data is available.

What kind of accountability structure could hold publicly funded microschools to a quality standard without compromising their ability to experiment with alternative approaches to instruction and assessment? Should microschools be required to group together in networks that serve a minimum number of students at each grade level and share common instructional approaches? Should performance be assessed over time as the microschool accumulates a large enough sample of graduates to measure outcomes? Answering such questions is critical to evaluating microschools’ impact at scale.

A microschool is not the right environment for every student, but there are students of all income levels who could potentially thrive in a microschool’s highly relational, personalized setting. Providing those students equal access requires walking a difficult tightrope between ensuring fair and transparent measures of quality and maintaining the autonomous and innovative character of microschools. Until we better understand how to achieve that balance for public sector microschools, we will not know the true potential of microschools as a vehicle for improving educational opportunity.

Disclosure: CICS has been a client of Bellwether.