Are Microschools the Next Big Thing?

The promise and peril of tiny private schools.


Portfolio School looks and sounds like a Silicon Valley tech firm's rec room—except that almost everyone is under the age of 10. The building's walls double as whiteboards, with nearly every inch covered in colorful, hand-drawn diagrams of constellations and planetary orbits. Along one side, kid-sized scissors and glue sticks are piled neatly next to a 3D printer and laser cutter.

During my visit, a boy with an explosion of brown hair skidded up to me. "We're making movies!" he announced. Around the room, other students were reading, completing lessons on educational software, working on tinker toys. Without the unconscious kid-adult barriers that traditional schools often create, the chatty boy felt free to talk my ear off about how he and a group of his classmates had created characters for a science fiction film about a trip to Mars. He seemed particularly interested in the editing process, where they would get to add Martian backgrounds and other special effects.

Portfolio School is part of a growing movement of "micro-schools." Coined by British education blogger Cushla Barry in 2010, the term refers to educational institutions that emphasize interdisciplinary project-based learning, building social skills such as communication and critical thinking, and tailoring instruction to the needs of each individual student.

The schools tend to focus on teamwork, and they're small by design—with student bodies ranging anywhere from half a dozen to roughly 150 students. The size limitations, informed by anthropologist Robin Dunbar's now famous research on the maximum number of relationships most human beings can comfortably maintain, help the employees stay better connected with their students' individual needs. Portfolio, located in Manhattan's upscale TriBeCa neighborhood, is one of the most elite (and expensive) microschools, focusing on science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects.

The movement, which grew from scrappy homeschool roots, has been taken up by nerds who want to hack primary education. Like all startups, the microschool model will rise or fall on its ability to meet customer needs at the right price. Success is far from assured. But could tech-savvy tiny schools be the future?

'Factories in Which Raw Products Are To Be Shaped'

Ken Robinson is the star of the most popular TED Talk ever. More than 50 million people have clicked to hear an education consultant with a British knighthood ponder the question "Do schools kill creativity?" (Spoiler: Yep.)

"We have built our education system on a model of fast food," Robinson explains in a follow-up TED Talk delivered in 2010. But there are at least two ways to ensure a good meal when you're cooking for a crowd: "One is fast food, where everything is standardized. The other [is] catered to local circumstances. We have sold ourselves into a fast-food model of education, and it's impoverishing our spirit and our energies as much as fast food is depleting our physical bodies."

The roots of America's education system were transplanted from the German kingdom of Prussia, where eighteenth century monarchs such as Frederick the Great established schools with the goal of molding a disciplined citizenry of dutiful soldiers and civil servants. During the next century, state-run schools played a crucial role in manufacturing a homogenized German identity. In 1807, nationalist philosopher Johann Fichte argued that forging this identity meant that "schools must fashion the person…in such a way that he simply cannot will otherwise than what you wish him to will."

American education pioneer Horace Mann visited Prussia in 1843. Convinced that what he found could benefit the United States, Mann reformed Massachusetts' school system along Prussian lines, and the model ultimately spread cross-country. Mann believed that standardized public institutions could deliver quality education on a wider scale than the hodgepodge locally run schools of the time. But Mann also wanted his "common schools" to assimilate immigrant children to a homogenized American identity. Like other native-born Protestant Americans, he saw public schooling as a bulwark against Catholic immigrants' perceived loyalty to Rome.

American industrialization through the Gilded Age and Progressive Era led reformers to try adapting the private sector's manufacturing efficiency to schools. Enter the "factory model": Drawing on the ideas of education psychologist Edward Thorndike and efficiency consultant Frederick Taylor, public schools adopted principles of "scientific management." Testing, standardized record keeping, and top-down central planning from well-trained administrators were the order of the day to churn out ideal citizens. Ellwood Cubberley, the dean of Stanford's education school, wrote in 1917 that schools were "factories in which the raw products (children) are to be shaped and fashioned into products to meet the various demands of life."

Oivind Hovland

Most school features we now take for granted come from this period. Standardized class sizes, age groups, and curricula began to mirror optimized supply chains. Top-down hierarchies with teachers dictating content prepared students to obey factory foremen. Periods separated by bells mirrored factory shift changes. Delivering education on the scale and with the uniformity of McDonald's churning out burgers may have met the cultural needs of the 19th century—and some schools elevated the model to something more like a well-run Michelin-starred restaurant kitchen. But American education hasn't fundamentally adapted since.

In response to this model, microschooling has emerged as a more visible alternative over the past decade. For years, some families have informally executed the basic concept: Parents have long pooled resources to hire private tutors or conduct enrichment activities with larger groups of kids, thus offering opportunities for socialization while still retaining the individualized benefits of homeschooling. Microschools are a more formal, technology-enriched iteration of a borrowed idea. Their rise represents the confluence of scientific advances and society's increasingly favorable attitude toward project-based learning and the building of such "non-cognitive" skills as perseverance, creativity, and teamwork.

'One Person Doesn't Have All the Knowledge'

Portfolio School co-founders Babur Habib and Doug Schachtel met on the Princeton Club squash courts a decade ago. Habib was pursuing a Ph.D. in electrical engineering, while Schachtel had earned a B.A. in English and theater. Portfolio School was born from conversations the two later had about their frustrations with the K–12 educational status quo.

After graduating, Habib had begun a career in Silicon Valley, including a period running Intel Education's engineering and development department. Despite his experience equipping millions of students with software in four different countries, Habib felt that technology alone was "only a Band-Aid." At Intel and elsewhere, he saw that the most successful employees combined the necessary technical proficiency with "soft skills," such as teamwork, empathy, and adaptability. But most kids weren't learning those things.

Schachtel's less STEM-centric path informed Portfolio's emphasis on fostering creativity. He had secured a master of fine arts from Columbia Film School, spent time producing award-winning shorts and music videos, and served in a variety of marketing and communications roles. In 2015, he partnered with Habib to open the school.

Habib and Schachtel drew inspiration from the education reform ideas of thinkers including Robinson and Tony Wagner, a former expert in residence at the Harvard Innovation Lab. "The world no longer cares whether you're smarter than a fifth grader or how well you do at Trivial Pursuit," Wagner said in a lecture that mirrored Habib's professional observations. "What the world cares about is not what you know, but what you can do with what you know."

Portfolio School's philosophy centers on what Habib calls "learning by doing." He says he wants Portfolio "to create genuine experiences for our students through immersive, sophisticated projects" that are relevant to pupils' interests. Portfolio emphasizes student choice, eschewing more conventional linear approaches to subjects. Kids have the flexibility, through educational software, to learn topics at a pace and in an order suited to them. Beyond sheer content knowledge, Habib wants students to "understand themselves, learning their strengths and weaknesses, and learning who they really are to help them go through life."

"We have built our education system on a model of fast food," Ken Robinson explains.

Collaboration is crucial to this mindset. Students frequently work in groups to learn social skills and the art of persuasion. Habib's teaching philosophy is uncannily Hayekian. "One person doesn't have all the knowledge themselves," he says. Portfolio's collaborative process means that "teachers and students figure things out together."

Students are grouped by subject mastery rather than age. The school assigns no mandatory homework. The educational software provides periodic assessments, and teachers monitor students' portfolios to gauge their progress and needs. Shira Leibowitz, lower school director at Portfolio, explains that "we believe in letting families prioritize their educational options for their children." It's part of the school's effort to encourage learning outside of the classroom.

"Every day we want kids to experience learning something that they can apply to their lives," Director of Research and Learning Design Nancy Otero explains. This approach is clear in the school's interdisciplinary projects.

Portfolio was in the midst of a Mars exploration unit when I visited. Learning how to get to Mars meant learning about Newton's laws. To see the principles in action, students filmed each other at a local playground with the help of the Playground Physics app. Later, they applied what they learned to build model rockets and talk about propulsion systems. Experimenting with different fin and parachute designs presented an opportunity to discuss geometry and the Cartesian plane.

In designing the Mars film project, Portfolio's staff offered students the choice between documentary and science fiction about a Mars journey, with Schachtel drawing on his filmmaking experience to serve as an artist-in-residence for the project. Schachtel taught students about plot design, storyboarding techniques, and filmmaking basics. In post-production, the kids even worked with musicians from New York University's Music Experience Design Lab to create soundtracks.

In its second year, Portfolio School enrolled 19 students, aged 5–10, but it plans to build out to 80 and open additional campuses and an upper school in the city as it grows. Portfolio's $35,000 annual tuition may sound staggering, but in a city where the median private school cost is over $44,000 and some places break $50,000, Habib and Schachtel are offering something of a bargain for the market. Nevertheless, the price raises broader concerns about whether microschools are accessible to families who aren't already financially secure enough to be choosing among elite private institutions.

'As Teachers, We Don't Talk a Lot'

On the other side of the country and the other end of the price scale is QuantumCamp.

As a science teacher in Oakland, California, Michael Finnegan was frustrated. "I saw that the curriculum was boring and I knew it needed to be more exciting," he says. But the systemic constraints of the public system didn't give Finnegan the flexibility to adapt his curriculum to his students. Upset by his belief that dry teaching was killing the natural scientific inquisitiveness in most children, Finnegan wanted to pursue different strategies. He founded QuantumCamp in 2009, after a friend bet him he couldn't teach quantum physics to 12-year-olds.

Today, the organization hosts science and math summer camps for Bay Area families. It also provides a full suite of STEM curricula at three locations, allowing homeschoolers to come together for weekly labs and discussions over the course of 10-week trimesters. During the week, students work with problem sets and receive extra readings, videos, and podcasts, called "learning extensions." Finally, QuantumCamp collaborates with 12 schools, seven of which contract the team out to deliver the entirety of their math or science content. These partnerships extend as far as Riyadh, where QuantumCamp collaborates with MiSK Schools, an International Baccalaureate institution funded by Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman—part of the Kingdom's "Vision 2030" effort to reduce dependence on oil by diversifying its economy.

QuantumCamp's curriculum spans 57 courses in science and math for a variety of age levels. Kids as young as 7, for instance, can learn the basics of statistics or study prehistory.

Lessons generally have three parts. The "launch" primes students for the day, recapping past concepts and addressing questions. The lab itself is a process of organic discovery, where students develop hypotheses, work through obstacles, and refine their theories over time. QuantumCamp emphasizes students arriving at concepts instead of being dictated them. "As teachers, we don't talk a lot" during labs, explains Shreya Padmanabhan, a school manager and science and math teacher. "We let the kids engage with each other."

QuantumCamp tries to embed discovery in the curriculum. Over a trimester, high school thermochemistry students learned the significance of the Gibbs Free Energy equation by mirroring the experiments that formulated and refined it historically, arriving at the equation at the end of the unit instead of being told to simply memorize and apply it. Lessons end with a "landing," reviewing what students learned and struggled with during labs. Many trimesters culminate in project presentations—third- and fourth-graders recently made probability games incorporating their interests, with one student creating an Oregon Trail–style adventure game complete with built-in dice calculations predicting disease outbreaks.

Oivind Hovland

QuantumCamp offers its courses a la carte or in combinations, with yearlong math and science packages ranging from $3,200 to $3,800 depending on the number of subjects chosen. That's well under half the average American private school tuition, according to the latest data from the National Center for Education Statistics. These savings are possible because QuantumCamp capitalizes on the microschool model, keeping staff to a committed minimum who are willing to share teaching and administrative duties. Facilities costs are another major source of savings—renting small venues weekly eliminates the need for building leases. Where schools like Portfolio are technology-centric, QuantumCamp relies on the strength of its instructors and its curricular design, showing that heavy software investments aren't necessary to harness the benefits of microschooling.

QuantumCamp's model points the way to a world where education providers don't even need to be full-fledged "schools" as we typically envision them. And as private school choice programs continue to proliferate through more states, specialist services like QuantumCamp could be a key part of the future—helping reduce transaction costs for would-be homeschoolers and new school founders alike.

'Creatively Insubordinate'

Entrepreneur and business school professor Jeff Sandefer was considering moving his two children from their Montessori school—which emphasized choice and trying to connect learning to students' interests—into a more traditional environment. Before the move, he asked a top teacher at a high-performing traditional school when his kids should make the transition. "As soon as possible," the teacher replied. "Once they've been in an environment like that, they will hate sitting in a desk and being talked at all day."

Sandefer left convinced he had to create an alternative, because "my children aren't widgets and neither are yours." So he and his wife Laura co-founded Acton Academy in 2009 with 12 students in Austin, Texas.

Michael Finnegan started QuantumCamp in 2009, after a friend bet him he couldn't teach quantum physics to 12-year-olds.

Sandefer was experienced at designing schools that broke the mold. He's best known in higher education circles for his Acton School of Business, which, among other features, requires its students to experience door-to-door sales, drops its lowest-performing teacher each year, and earns consistently high marks in Princeton Review's business school indices.

Eight years later, the Acton network has exploded to over 50 locations operating or starting up across the United States and in seven countries. The network's meteoric rise was possible because the Sandefers intentionally kept entry barriers low for prospective "owners" of new Acton branches, letting locations spontaneously spring up where parent demand and passionate educators intersected. Owners pay a one-time fee for access to the network name, its curriculum, and some resources. Branches keep all of their revenue, except for a 1 percent cut allowing the network to invest in curricular development. At Austin's annual Acton Conference, school leaders share their experiences and best practices.

Acton marries the Montessori mindset with the independent learning of microschooling. Each student is seen as traveling a "hero's journey" of the type formulated by mythologist Joseph Campbell—an odyssey involving struggle and a self-reflective search for one's talents. The aim is for students to discover their calling, or unique ability to change the world. Like Portfolio, Acton believes education needs to go beyond basic book learning and address what Sandefer calls "learning to do" and "learning to be."

The founder of the Acton Academy in Placer County, California, is Matthew Beadreau, who proudly describes himself as "creatively insubordinate." Beadreau worked as a teacher and administrator in both public and private schools, growing dissatisfied with traditional models and their resistance to experimentation. After learning about Acton, Beadreau jumped on board, launching the Placer campus this past September in a rented parks-and-recreation facility. Less than a year in, he has 70 students aged 5–14, with a couple of dozen kids on the waiting list.

Every week, pupils set learning goals, using adaptive software programs such as Dreambox for math, Lexia for reading, and Khan Academy, a set of online tools that cover a variety of subjects at all levels. This gives them the flexibility to choose what to learn and at what pace. Beadreau couples the goals system with badges students earn for completion. The kids also learn in mixed age groups; at Acton, the opportunity for older students to mentor younger ones is part of their own growth. Socratic discussions feature heavily, teaching students to understand other perspectives and disagree civilly. Teachers are called "guides." Instead of answering a student's inquiries directly, they pose questions of their own, hoping to channel the child's curiosity in the right direction. Like its counterparts, Acton also puts heavy emphasis on projects, called "quests."

Lacy Pryde, a parent of a 9-year-old and an 11-year-old at Acton Placer, tried three years of homeschooling and part-time charters for her kids but grew frustrated that the school environment still reflected a "'sit down, do as I say' kind of set-up," she says. Then "I saw one of Matt's TED Talks and thought, 'This is it.'"

"One of the ways I sold my kids on Acton was through the business fair," she explains. In its defining "entrepreneurship quest," students create a product, buy materials, and pitch their service to strangers at a fair. The grading mirrors the real world: Students are evaluated on whether they ended up in the black at the end of the day. As experienced lemonade-stand vendors, Pryde's kids, Uriah and Layla, were excited for the opportunity to earn more and be part of a school that actively gives its students the tools to start their own businesses. Pryde told me Layla was weighing whether to market the trinkets and bracelets she makes for her friends or to focus on selling the custom slimes—exactly what it sounds like—that she likes creating. Choosing a school that fostered a can-do attitude was key for Pryde. "Who says that just because you're a kid you can't create?"

Connecting practical kid-relevant rewards to student success is a clear part of the operation. "At public schools you get stickers, stars, grades. What's the point? Here you put in the work, you get something," said Pryde. For completing their self-set learning goals, students at Acton Placer earn "Lion Bucks," named after the school mascot, which can go toward purchasing items from the school's store. Pryde's son recently bought a popsocket grip for his phone, while her daughter is saving up for something bigger, like a pizza party for her friends or lunch with one of the learning guides. While some parents initially balked at the thought of quasi-monetary incentives, Beadreau argued in parent meetings that we're all fundamentally motivated by financial concerns and that it's a good concept to instill early on.

Acton Placer's tuition is $4,500 per year for part-time homeschool students and $7,500 for full-time students. That's not much beyond a car payment, and it's below both the average national private school tuition and the per-pupil expenses of the local Rocklin Unified School District. As with its counterparts across the industry, having fewer adults and using cheaper facilities and inexpensive or free educational software allow administrators to run an Acton school for less.

'I Want Them to Question Things'

Microschools hold exciting potential, but as with any new education reform, they risk becoming just another failed fad if the merits of the model are taken for granted, the ideas are implemented poorly, or there's a mismatch between the product and the customers.

One of the most high-profile microschool networks learned that lesson the hard way. Former Googler Max Ventilla founded AltSchool in 2013, raising over $173 million in venture capital from high-profile backers like Mark Zuckerberg and Peter Thiel. Despite its impressive start, AltSchool is now closing two of its four locations in the San Francisco Bay Area and New York City amid financial troubles and concerns from some parents about too much emphasis on testing proprietary software on students rather than teaching them.

AltSchool didn't defraud anyone—early adopter parents in any school are necessarily accepting risk and should be prepared for experimentation. But if schools want parents to bear those risks, they need to keep families sufficiently confident about the product they're investing in—a $27,000 annual tuition investment in AltSchool's case. In November, Bloomberg reported on disagreements inside AltSchool about its future direction and about whether the software wing had eclipsed the teaching camp. Business Insider added anecdotes from disaffected parents who cited unmet promises about personalized learning and readily available progress reports.

By contrast, Matthew Beadreau of Acton Placer anticipated the potential parent–school leader gulf because of his experience as a public school administrator. Before the launch, Beadreau held multiple Sunday workshops where parents could hear, react to, and share their own ideas and feedback about the vision and direction for the institution. This kept morale high.

Both experiences demonstrate that in a competitive school market, leaders can't rest on the laurels of their concept. Staying in business and growing means keeping the customer—families—engaged.

Microschools aren't new in rejecting the Prussian schooling model. Montessori, Waldorf, and Sudbury schools have all presented more democratized, less structured, more student-centered alternatives that thousands of families enjoyed throughout the 20th century. But microschools' embrace of technological innovation sets them apart. The promise of a "bespoke" education for each child was inconceivable just a decade ago.

Besides effective administration, the biggest concern for microschools' future will be whether they can work in a way that is cheap and scalable enough to meaningfully challenge the traditional education model. Where families can't afford the tuition, vouchers and tax-free education savings accounts could help close the gap—if policy makers are willing to take a risk on a promising new idea.

For parents like Pryde, microschools' small size is central to their effectiveness. Where classrooms need less focus on maintaining discipline, she notes, kids are freer to become independent thinkers. "In public school they're so focused on behavior, the good student is the one that shuts up, does what they're told, and follows directions," Pryde says. "My kids were able to do that, but that's not what I want for them. I want them to question things, not blindly accept what they're told, whether from me or others."