America’s schools need to think small


About 27 kids sit in the average public school classroom. For a new crop of education entrepreneurs, that number is nearly perfect — for an entire school.

These entrepreneurs are rebelling against the educational status quo by bringing the centuries-old one-room schoolhouse into the 21st century. They maintain new “micro schools” leverage technology to give students a personalized learning experience in radically small classes — at a fraction of private school tuition rates.

There’s mounting evidence that they’re right.

Small classes have well-known benefits. They improve student performance and pay off in future social and educational capital — especially for minority and low-income students.

Studies associate small classes with lower juvenile crime and teenage pregnancy rates — and higher high school graduation and college enrollment rates. Small classes even correlate with longer lives.

They’re so effective partially because they enable teachers to tailor instruction to each student’s needs. Modern technology makes such learning a lot more feasible — and scalable.

A recent study examined “personalized learning” at public and charter schools. Researchers discovered an array of innovative teaching methods across schools. One student channeled his musical talent to compose an imaginary country’s national anthem.

Story time took a variety of forms — some students read the story aloud, while others followed the book while listening to headphones.

In two years, these schools caught up with — and began to surpass — national math and reading averages. Elementary school students gained 13 percentile points on average in standardized math tests and eight on reading.

Micro schools take these promising research recommendations — and turn them up a notch. Instead of sticking to fixed curriculums, they’re customizing lessons to each child’s strengths, learning style, and existing knowledge.

Some micro school students only receive two-and-a-half hours of direct instruction a day, mostly online. They may spend their remaining time in Socratic-style discussions, building drones, or doing yoga.

At my Maryland-based micro school, Mysa School, a sports-obsessed student might receive a math lesson built around baseball statistics. A student who loves horses may spend her English time reading “Black Beauty” and her science time with an equine veterinarian. This creative approach fuels students’ curiosity and desire to learn.

Micro schools draw on cutting-edge technology to personalize the classroom experience. My school is about to turn the student “menu” — a customized list of weekly projects children complete at their own pace — into an app. AltSchool, a Silicon Valley-based micro school network, gives students “playlists” — digital flashcards detailing tailored tasks, like drawing a jellyfish or completing keyboard exercises.

The app lets teachers update parents on their kids’ progress instantaneously. Teachers can snap a creative art project or insightful written response to parents right away.

Many micro schools group students of different ages, enabling them to learn from one another. It’s helpful for younger and older children to interact because studies show “they may be operating in overlapping cognitive domains.”

But can micro schools measurably improve student performance? Undoubtedly.

Consider Texas’s Acton Academy. Founded in 2009, this micro school draws on a variety of techniques: personalized online learning, Socratic seminars, game play. The school’s first class completed an astounding 2.5 grades in less than a year.
Unlike private schools, micro schools don’t have college price tags. AltSchool’s tuition is 15 percent cheaper than comparable San Francisco private schools.

The American educational status quo isn’t one-size-fits-all. Micro schools are an alternative — and prove education leaders can deliver big gains in student performance by thinking small.

Siri Fiske is the founder and head of Mysa School.

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