National School Choice Week

"Micro-Schools" Might Be the Next Big Education Thing: Podcast

It's way past time that we dump factory-model schools for more individualized K-12 programs.


One-room schoolhouses are making a comeback in the "micro-schooling" movement. While a typical public high school might cram 2,000 students into a single grade, micro-schools cap out at 150 (and often far fewer) students for all grades. That allows students to mix across ages and interests while building skill-based knowledge and proficiency. Teachers function more as guides than instructors and learning is intensely personalized, individualized, and task-oriented. Think of micro-schools as "Montessori meets Silicon Valley."

Reason's Nick Gillespie spoke with Tyler Koteskey, an education analyst at Reason Foundation, who has a story on the micro-schooling movement in the March issue of Reason (subscribe here). They discuss the personalized approach of micro-schooling, the militaristic, Prussian origins of American factory-model education, and the costs and benefits of different modes of learning.

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Reason is a proud media partner of National School Choice Week, an annual event promoting the ability of parents and students to have greater options in K-12 education. Go here to get more information about events and data about how increasing school choice—charters, vouchers, educational savings accounts, and more—is one of the best ways to improve education for all Americans. For a constantly updated list of stories about school choice, go to Reason's archive page.

This is a rush transcript. Check all quotes against the audio for accuracy.

Nick Gillespie: This is the Reason podcast, and I'm your host Nick Gillespie. Thanks for listening. Please subscribe to us at iTunes, and rate, and review us while you're there. Today we are talking with Tyler Koteskey. He's an education analyst, and researcher for Reason Foundation, the nonprofit that publishes the Reason podcast as well as Reason magazine., and basically everything else with the Reason brand. This is also National School Choice Week, which is an annual event that celebrates the depth, and breadth, and just variety of school choice around the country. Reason is a national media partner with School Choice Week. The people who celebrate this are literally 10's of thousands of events happening all over the country. If you go to you can find a list of events in your state, and probably even in your own town. There is well over 20,000 events happening during the course of school choice week.

Tyler, thanks so much for talking with me today.

Tyler Koteskey: Pleasure to be here Nick.

Gillespie: You have in the current issue. The new issue of Reason magazine, a story that is called micro-schools. Are micro-schools the next big thing? The promise, and peril of tiny, private schools. Let's talk about that during School Choice Week especially. What are micro-schools, and why should we be excited about them?

Koteskey: So I think the best way to describe micro-schools is probably just thinking about them as kind of a revived one-room schoolhouse stuck into the 21st century. There's not really a hard, and fast definition, but some of the features that you usually see are that it's a small size. You have anywhere from maybe even just half a dozen kids to under 150 is the upper limit a lot of people use. The kids tend to learn amidst age groups. There's no age-based grades usually, and the teacher's kind of function more as these guides who are helping you kind of discover the learning yourself rather than these sages that are all-knowing, and telling you the content directly as we're kind of used to. There's a big emphasis also just on digital content, and sort of personalized learning through projects, and things like that also.

Gillespie: I don't mean to shortchange, or reduce things in a bad way, but it's almost kind of like Montessori meets Silicon Valley. It seems very individualized, very personalized. You're roaming up, and down in age ranges, and the kids seem to be doing from your story, and we'll talk about a couple of the specific schools that you discuss, and that you visited for the story, but they do a lot of projects, or tasks. It's experiential learning? Is that fair to say?

Koteskey: Yeah. I think that's a good way to put it, and like you say, there have been schools like Montessori's, and things like that before that also have kind of similar, non-hierarchical models, and I think the main difference is that there's a lot more technology, and I think kind of forward looking focus in a lot of these.

Gillespie: Let's talk about one of the schools that you talk about, which I guess was in New York City. It's called The Portfolio School. What did you find there, and what does that illustrate about the micro-school movement?

Koteskey: Portfolio School was kind of in my view sort of represented the top of the market in terms of the offerings that you can find in this pretty diverse movement. This was in downtown Manhattan. It's in Tribeca, and founded by a former Intel employee, and a cell maker, and they were both Princeton graduates, and you walk in, and the walls were all-

Gillespie: I hate them already. Intel, science-based Princeton grads, but … So you walk into the room, and they were working—

Koteskey: It's the first thing I noticed was that the walls are all whiteboard. They're all covered with these diagrams about the planets, and different equations, and everything. The time that I had gone specifically they were doing this whole Mars exploration unit. It was this big, long, interdisciplinary unit where they're learning how to get to Mars, because you know that's something that engages the kids, but to learn how to get there you've got to learn about Newton's Laws. They do things like go to the local playground, and film each other using these apps that they could then … They go back to school, and they see how when you're on a swing, or something like that, you can see the law that you're learning about in action. They make a big effort to relate what they're learning in school to their daily lives so that it seems relevant as opposed to just kind of being sat down, and told, hey just learn this, because you have to accept that it's important without—

Gillespie: With the age range, and with the mixed ages, which sounds really kind of great, because school is the one place in our life when we're five, or six years old, we go to this place for the next 12 years, and then another four more if you go to college, or grad school where you're hanging out with people who are basically the same age as you. It's a very strange thing that we take for granted, but what is the age range? Say at Portfolio, or a typical micro-school, and what do you do with a seven, or eight year old who can't really read that well, and then there might be somebody who is 15, or 16. How do they get engaged?

Koteskey: With Portfolio school they've been around I believe for about two years now so they're still in the elementary school stage. I guess it would go from about five to 10, and they break up the kids based on, again, not age, but sort of their competency at various skills, and things like that. You might have a reading group that's taking more basic tech, and everything, and one that's a little bit more advanced, and because of their use of a lot of personalized learning software, they can have a decent sense of where each individual student is in terms of their achievement on just the core scale is like reading, and math, and things like that to be able to then figure out where to place them in some of these differentiated lesson groups.

Gillespie: And then what happens, or where do the teachers come from? Because this seems like it's not just students who get regimented, and taught a very kind of inside-the-box way of thinking about school. It's true that education programs turn out teachers who think of the students as widgets somewhat. Where are the teachers coming from at Portfolio?

Koteskey: So I know the head of their curriculum design, and everything had a pretty extensive career working both in psychology, and various lab schools, and trying to pile it out different innovative learning techniques. It's clear that that philosophy was informing a lot of what they were doing. Especially in trying to make what they were learning relevant to their daily lives. I know at least the two teachers who they call 'Master Educators' which I suppose in New York City you got to try different [inaudible 00:08:07]. Kind of like that. They've both had careers teaching for about 15 years beforehand at various different schools so I think they both seem to have a general openness to trying something new, and at Portfolio school, and other places we've tried to do the new approaches that we wanted in public schools, or even traditional private schools, and it just hasn't been possible in those contexts so we're trying something new.

Gillespie: How much does the school cost? This one?

Koteskey: It's hefty. It's about $35,000, which is a lot, and it's certainly not in reach of a lot of folks, but the important thing is your average private school tuition in New York City is about $44,000, and some of the more expensive ones are even topping $50,000 now. It's a significant savings in context, but I think that's one of the potential drawbacks of the model is depending on where you are in certain cities it may still be out of reach for your average person without some kind of program like a voucher, or education savings account to help make it more viable.

Gillespie: Do you know offhand, what does the New York City public school systems spend per student? It's got to be north of 20 grand itself, right?

Koteskey: Yeah. I'm blanking on what the exact figure is here, but I think it is definitely in … I think about 15, or $20,000. It's definitely investment-wise it's not getting a lot of ROI on that.

Gillespie: So then you talk about a place that's in Oakland, California. It's the opposite side of the country. It's called Quantum Camp. What was interesting about Quantum Camp as a micro-school for you?

Koteskey: That one it was I think really innovative in the sense that it wasn't even necessarily a full school. They were just offering sort of STEM curriculums. The science, and math courses from … You could do that from sort of first grade level. Ages like 7, or so. All the way up to high school, and it's just this guy who had taught in Oakland public schools for a good 10 years, or so. Was just totally disillusioned with the science curriculum 'cause he knew just kind of implicitly what would be more engaging for his kids. Wanted to try it out, but just with the structure of the curriculum, and union constraints, and how you can teach things like that really didn't have the flexibility so a friend sent him that he couldn't teach quantum physics to 12 year olds, and he basically said, 'Hold my beer.' And started this school. I think that the thing is most interesting to me is that is also … A big part of their customer base are part-time home schoolers.

I think about if I wanted to homeschool my kid I would be very scared about trying to teach them physics, or chemistry. So to have a place where you can basically have all of your math, and science content taken care of for three, four thousand dollars is incredible. In a way it seems to really engage the kids from what I saw.

Gillespie: And then you also talk about another school. The Acton Network. I guess they're business schools, or business academies. What's going on there?

Koteskey: The Acton Academy it was started by Jeff Sandefer who also created The Acton Business School. That's a highly-rated school on the Princeton Review hype ratings, and stuff like that. He's already had a non-traditional model. They always fire the lowest-rated teacher every year, and things like that.

Gillespie: That's really got to make for a tough spirit rally at the end of the year. I don't know.

Koteskey: A little Hunger Games, you know.

Gillespie: Yeah, or "Vice Principals." The HBO show. It seems a little grim.

Koteskey: Right, right, but at least with Acton Academy, which is a bit of a school obviously, that's the whole post-grant deal, but for Acton Academy it's all this … They have this philosophy of them viewing of a sense of hero's journey into their kids, and sort of the belief that they're seeking their passion, and trying to find something that they can get excited about that's meaningful, and productive to contribute. For instance, you see the philosophy of the business school coming through, because one of their defining projects is the Acton Business Fair that every school will do. They basically tell the kids alright, create a product, and you're going to sell it to strangers on the street at this thing we have set up, and you're going to have to keep track of your cost, and materials, and everything like that, and we're going to grade you on if you're ending up in the black, or not. How real life works.

Gillespie: The founder of the Acton Academy in Placer County, California. A guy named Matthew Beaudreau. I might be mispronouncing his name, but he also says that he thinks of himself as a 'creatively insubordinate' that's what he's trying to instill in his kids. Talk a little bit about that. You don't really typically hear teachers, or principals saying, 'I want my kids to kind of be a pain in the ass.'

Koteskey: Yeah. Again, he's part of this team of people who has tried to innovate within a more traditional educational status quo, and have sort of been rebuffed by the constraints of the systems. He was a teacher, and administrator in both public, and private schools, and found the system kind of far too rigid. Basically wanted to create a more non-traditional setting where kids would be kind of more openly thinking for themselves. Not just blindly accepting rules for their own sake. I know one of the things I like about Acton Placer from talking to Matt was their whole system of the students setting their own individual learning goals, and this is part of what I guess the technology enables when you can have this individualized software so you can say 'Alright, I'm going to learn this many new words in Spanish, or this new type of equation in math, or something like that.'

The kids will kind of pressure each other in some ways to set high enough goals. If you can sort of complete these tasks over time you get lion bucks, which is I guess their mascot. You can use that to buy stuff. This one parent I talked to, her son was kind of more of the spend it immediately type, and got a pop socket grip thing for his phone, whereas the daughter was saving up to maybe buy like a pizza party for her friends, or lunch with one of the teachers they call guides, and everything. It's kind of a cool incentive system in a sense that you're not being afraid of harnessing self interest in a positive way.

Gillespie: One of the really remarkable things about your story, which is in the March issue of Reason, which subscribers will have now, and if you buy a print, or digital prescription you would have it too as well by now. It will go up later for free on the website in a few weeks I guess, or whatever. That's a unveiled subscription pitch, but one of the things that I liked about the story a lot Tyler was your kind of thumbnail history of where, why the American educational system read large. This is true of most private schools as well as most public schools. We have a kind of factory model-education. One of the things that's interesting about micro-schools. Not only they're smaller size. Instead of talking about these regional, or mega high schools that might have a couple of thousand students in three, or four grades, or something like that, but you have small classes of mixed ages.

It's a relative freedom, and it's that idea of the kids you're talking to here, and the scenes you're describing for somebody I went to high school in the 70's, and 80's, and The Wall. The Pink Floyd concept album that was all about how shitty, and repressed of the British schooling system was spoke to everybody. School was a drag. Talk about where did the American model of education that we are slowly chipping away at, where did it come from? What are the roots of that? What are the limitations of that?

Koteskey: It's a pretty interesting story for folks who haven't looked into it before. For a country like ours where we think of ourself as this liberal democracy, sort of the default standards of our public education systems came from Prussia, which was this 17, 1800's German kingdom that was super militaristic, regimented, and authoritarian, and more or less were based on the system of public schools that kings there such as Frederick the Great set up with the goal of pretty much creating these disciplines due to full citizen redo, make good soldiers, and administrators, and sort of embody the values of the state to serve the sovereign. A lot of people, especially in Europe as you had the rising nationalist movement, saw education as sort of this key means of forging a national identity that didn't exist before, and sort of creating it out of thin air.

How it got to translate to America was that Horace Mann, who's this famous 19th century educator from America.

Gillespie: The father of American education, right? Yeah.

Koteskey: Indeed. He goes, and visits Prussia in 1843, because he's heard about this system, and he thinks, 'Oh my goodness, this is great. We can standardize everything, and have great quality control.' He becomes sort of the first Secretary of Education of Massachusetts, and reforms the school system all on these Prussia lines to create what are called 'common schools,' which were basically public schools then. He thought, 'This is an important part of assimilating those ghastly Catholic immigrants into a homogenized sort of American civic identity.' People were worried that, 'Oh maybe these immigrants are going to have dual loyalty with the Pope' or something like that. It was sort of to forge this baseline kind of Protestant U.S-centric sense of civic values.

Gillespie: It's kind of to create a civic religion, really. To put a more positive spin, or less dastardly spin on it. It seems similar to the early industrial revolution where one of the great triumphs was that a mass production allowed more people to feed themselves. It comes at the cost of variety, and standardization, and everything. You quote the educational theorist Ken Robinson, who has given, I believe you say, he has the single most-watched TED talk on youtube. He says we have an education model that is essentially built on the model of fast food. That everything is standardized, everything is homogenized. When did that model, which I think most of us recognize unless there was a period of a lot of experimentation I think in the late 60's, and early 70's in public schools as well as private schools that kind of faded away, but seems to be coming back.

What is driving that interest in kind of moving away from almost a factory farm version of schools to these more individualized products? What are the drivers of that shift?

Koteskey: I think it's the change in just educational theory, partly. Just because there's been a renewed interest in interdisciplinary knowledge, and everything. For instance, Babur Habib whose one of the Portfolio School founders, he's working at Intel, and he's noticing that the people who are more successful there aren't necessarily the best coders. You have to be confident at that, but it's people who can interact well with others, and work in groups. Be empathetic, be creative, things like that. As Tony Robertson who formerly at the Harvard Innovation Lab said it's, 'The world no longer cares how much you know in trivial pursuits, it's about what you can do, and with the knowledge that you have to apply it in a useful way.' I think probably a shift in some of the background theories behind that, and also just a cultural shift among parents.

I think like you say with Pink Floyd, and other people sort of talking about seeing this stagnating process in our public schools, right? Where since the 70's I think the total cost of educating someone from Kindergarten to 12th grade has tripled in real dollars, and our sort of national test scores have been stagnant. I think it's probably a reaction just against the status quo not working.

Gillespie: Yeah, and you know part of when I was reading your story I was moved to think of John Mackey, the co-founder, and former CEO of Whole Foods. A book that he put out a couple of years ago called, 'Conscious Capitalism' he talked about moving past the industrial revolution model of standard products, or standard ingredients in, and then you have standardized products coming out, which is part of quality control, and was an important era to pass through an industrial production of food, and clothing, and you name it. You have the dean of Stanford Education School. A guy named Ellwood Cubberley who in 1917 actually wrote 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.' I mean without saying this without any kind of qualification, but it seems like we've evolved as a society past that. We don't want to think about our kids as products.

As raw materials, and then as products. Especially if they're standardized, and they're like everybody else. How do we know then? You raise us in your story as well. How do we know that this isn't a fad? How many micro-schools are there? What do we look for say in a couple years to see if this is panning out, or if it is influencing broader parts of the educational system?

Koteskey: Well unfortunately the answer right now is we don't know if it's going to be a fad, or not, and hopefully it isn't. We saw one of the highest profile micro-schools that was getting a lot of the coverage was AltSchool, which had four campuses in New York, and San Francisco. Started by a former Google employee. Got tons of venture capital from folks like Peter Thiel, and Mark Zuckerberg. In any case, lots of fanfare when they started, but over time they sort of got away from the schooling aspect, and decided they wanted to go more into educational software. There were some anecdotal parent concerns reported out. Not necessarily being attentive about kids falling behind, and things like that. I think it goes to show that … Now they're closing two of their four schools as a result. I think it just goes to show that you can't rest on the laurels of having an interesting concept.

You have to actively engage these parents, because by nature anyone who's going to sign their kid up for something that is so different from what we've been conditioned to believe just has to be the default of education is done. They're financially going to be a risk taker so you have to convince them that the investment that they're making is worth it, and so I think in the micro-schools that seem to be succeeding, and hopefully will succeed in the future, it's about that parent engagement, and making them feel like their part of the process, and able to easily attract how their kids are doing.

Gillespie: Is a lot of the action in school choice, and kind of fragmentation, and disruption of the public school monopoly, and public school still serve what over I think it's around, or a little bit over 90 percent of the student population for K through 12, are any charter schools, or public voucher schools doing micro-schools, or something like that, or has this mostly been a product of private education so far?

Koteskey: It's a interesting mix. Some people see micro-school as being sort of useful pilot labs. What practices that a lot of charter schools could adopt. I also know with Quantum Camp for instance, there's a lot of parents who will have their kids in independent study charter schools, and Quantum Camp is listed sort of as a vendor that they can use their funding for to get their science, and math content. Quantum Camp itself actually has started marketing out it's instruction to other schools, which I think is a great way, especially if we're going to facilitate a more dynamic education market. If you can just contract out the curriculum that you might not have … You might not know where to get as the teachers, or it's lowering the transaction cons for new schools to spring up. There's a variety of ways that people can access these courses, and put more price points on more parts of education so they can ultimate how we get more choices instead of priority.

Gillespie: Speaking of this idea of breaking down the kind of mental model of school. A school. You can go to any town in the country, and you know what the school buildings are, because they all look basically the same, and they all look a little bit about minimum security prisons. It is so hard even among kind of radical libertarians to break out of that mindset of saying, 'Well you know, education first off it's not going to last from September to June. It's not going to last from the time you're six until you're 18. It's not all going to take place at the same place.' I love the idea of an educational savings accounts, and a couple of other places where parents have an essentially almost unrestrictive pot of money, and they can say, 'Well I'm going to send my kid to mornings at this language camp, because that's good, and then I'm going to send them on a trip, because that will be educational, and I'm using dollars that are allotted, and set aside for education.'

That idea of thinking so broadly, and so differently than what we're used to, which is school is a place that you go, and kind of nap from 9AM to 3PM every day, and then you get excited about one, or two classes. You do something after school, etc. I want to ask you your general thoughts on school choice. We seen school choices growing. The number of charter schools continues to double, and triple every few years. It is really hard to get out of that mindset in which we're raised. Where do you see a part from micro-schools? What are the parts of the school choice movement, or the school choice reality that you see that are particularly exciting to you?

Koteskey: Well I do agree with you. I think probably the education savings accounts represent just the leading edge potential for where school choice could go in terms of being able to give every child sort of this individualized boutique experience, because why not? Especially if we can do it on average far cheaper than what the status quo has been in this sort of subpar model.

Gillespie: Kind of theoretically an education savings account would be something instead of a state, or locality saying okay, we're going to spend 15 grand, or 20 grand a year per pupil, that money, or some portion of it gets put into an account that the parents, or guardian of kid just uses to kind of stitch together whatever educational experience they want for the kids, and it could be mix, and match of all sorts of things.

Koteskey: Exactly. It really provides the ultimate flexibility for parent preferences, and because it rolls over each year, it gives you an incentive to actually save, and spend the money on high quality materials and schools, and things so it almost helps produce its own sense of incentive for parent accountability. You could use it at your local public school, or charter school potentially for certain courses if you thought they were providing them well. It's not necessarily anti-public education, but gives so much more options to people than they usually have.

Gillespie: Here's an off beat question to talk about during school choice week, and both acceptance of school choice, because everybody in every parts of our lives were looking for more individualized, and personalized experiences. We don't want to eat what everybody else is eating. We want our clothing to be personalized, etc. It's coming to our kids education finally, but two things. One is what is the role of sports teams in keeping the public school monopoly? And actually even the private school monopoly, because where I grew up in New Jersey the sports power house teams particularly in basketball, and football were almost always Catholic schools, because they could be single sex, and they could effectively recruit much easier from all over the place than a local public school, but how much is the sports culture that almost … The United States is almost the only industrialized country that has done this where they fused sports culture, and school culture in education.

How big an obstacle is that to just change in the way we think about school choice?

Koteskey: It's funny you mention that, because it is this sort of sleeper element that you might not think about if you're talking to a state legislature, or something. You might think the only consideration is oh, it's just going to be cheaper, better quality, yada, yada, yada, but yeah. There's a lot of times where a legislature might think, 'Well if the starting quarterback at my hometown public school has school choice, we might lose him to somewhere.' Our team has enough experience in places where, and states where this sports culture is. Really big deal to sort of know that this implicit barrier in the back of some people's heads. It is really interesting to see that pop up sometimes even though if athletes had school choice it would probably be better off for them because-

Gillespie: Yeah. Of course.

Koteskey: … they'd be able to go to a program where they could play more whether, or not they were star athletes or not.

Gillespie: Yeah. I know that this is generally considered one of the reasons why Texas, which in many ways is a great, innovative state. It deregulates a lot of business stuff. It's good for business, but it's a relative laggard particularly for a red state in school choice, and part of the blame gets put on the fact that Texas has a particularly a football culture where you'll get 30, 40 thousand people turning out on Friday night for high school football, and you don't mess with that. It also doesn't have the same tradition of really high powered Catholic schools, and private schools that would build a sport's monopoly. Here, the other question. This will be the last one that I ask of you, but does an individualized education on the one hand at reason, and another libertarian, and free market groups, and individualists outfits. On the one hand we keep talking about how we want individualized education. Individualized experience.

We talk about molecular medicine where Doctors should be treating people based on their god damn DNA, because everyone is different, and yet when it comes to higher education we're constantly talking about snowflakes, and people who … Students who can't deal with any kind of negative feedback, or anything that seems to impose on their unique vision of the world, and their place in it. Is school choice, or micro-schools, or charter schools, or schools that cater to students needs, are they creating a generation of super duper snowflakes who will be fit for nothing in the world? Is there attention there, or am I just being puckish by asking that?

Koteskey: I mean considering the state of our college campuses, it's an important one to ask. I would say that I think if you look at the research on things like civic engagement, volunteerism, tolerance of people who don't share your political beliefs, they've done studies on students in traditional public schools versus in school choice options. Even just traditional private schools, and it shows that these students have better 'civic values' I think most importantly in the sense that they are more tolerant of people who disagree with them. In a micro-school context though I can see very much why, especially if there's more of an emphasis on working with others, thinking critically, being able to civilly articulate your viewpoints, especially when they oppose someone else's.

I think there's a lot more of a culture of taking personal responsibility for what you believe, and what you're saying than in the public school system where I think it's much easier to just get by, by keeping your head down, and completing the right tasks without actually having to have this journey of self reflection that I think a lot of the places that I visited in the micro-schools movement wanted to facilitate.

Gillespie: That's a very convincing, and compelling argument. It's also very comforting to hear that. Who knew that individualism breeds respect for others, and tolerance, and an ability to engage people that you disagree with. I hope that's all true. I want to thank Tyler Koteskey. He is an education analyst at Reason Foundation. He has a great new story in the latest issue of Reason magazine. It's called are micro-schools the next big thing? Tyler, thanks for talking to me today.

Koteskey: It's been a pleasure Nick, thank you.

Gillespie: This has been the Reason podcast. I am your hose Nick Gillespie. Thanks so much for listening. Please subscribe to us at iTunes, and rate, and review us while you're there. Also given that it's school choice week, go to, and check out all of the things. All of the events. 10's, of thousands. 20 of thousands of events happening all over the country. Looking at the variety, and range of school choice options. Thanks for listening.