Four Critical Considerations for Micro Schools

Feb 25, 2016 11:00:00 AM Justin Barbaro Teaching and Learning

Micro schools represent a surging trend in U.S. public and private education. In practice, micro schools deliver personalized, blended, and/or hybrid learning environments to 150 total students or fewer (Prothero, 2016; Benson, 2015). The increased capacity of micro schools to personalize student learning, empower teachers, and decrease operational costs holds the promise of disrupting the contemporary U.S. PreK-12 educational landscape (Benson, 2015). However, the future expansion of micro schools is not without foreseeable obstacles. In addition to potential instructional, resource, and accountability challenges previously identified (Benson, 2015), four further critical considerations for micro schools include:

1.) Social Capital Sparsity: Substantial evidence suggests that parents who choose to send their children to private or elite public schools seek returns beyond educational attainment. Elite private schools in particular serve the functions of concentrating social power and preparing children for leadership positions in adulthood (Domhoff, 2013). Micro-schools may attract parents who are looking for a different path, but the limited size and history of these organizations increases the difficulty of community members leveraging their school network in an increasingly networked world.

2.) Diminished Professional Development Capacity: Several identified opportunities for micro schools include capabilities for rapid iteration and teacher empowerment (Horn, 2015). Yet micro-schools will more than likely face tremendous challenges regarding budget, scheduling, and staffing to attend or receive external professional development to meet identified needs. This may be particularly concerning for micro schools fostering personalized learning environments that are highly reliant on effective continuous professional development opportunities for teachers (Pane et al., 2015).

3.) Personalized Learning Promises: Altschools, a micro schools network operating in New York City and the Bay Area, claims that each student has personalized learning plans based on their current content knowledge as well as, “individual goals and interests” (Horn, 2015). However, survey data from a RAND/Gates Foundation report (Pane et al., 2015) on personalized learning environments in 62 charter and district schools recently revealed that administrators, teachers, and students identified low levels of student choice regarding academic paths. Although this report did not investigate micro schools (or Altschools in particular), micro schools should be wary of advertising personalized learning plans that fail to adequately account the individual ambitions of the learners they serve.

4.) Sound Governance Sufficiency: Almost all U.S. independent schools rely on a self-perpetuating board of governance responsible for ensuring the fiduciary responsibility of the organization, while most U.S. public school districts leverage an elected board for governance responsibilities. In other words, ensuring that the school is well managed and fiscally sound. Other than micro-schools operating in networks, who will work to make sure that individual micro-schools are headed in the right direction?


Benson, S. (2015, September 14). Micro schools: Opportunities and potential challenges. [Web log post]. Retrieved from

Domhoff, G.W. (2013). Who rules America? The triumph of the corporate rich. (7th ed.). New York: McGraw-Hill.

Horn, M.B. (Summer 2015). The rise of AltSchool and other micro-schools. Education Next, 15(3), 77-78. 

Pane, J. F., Steiner, E. D., Baird, M. D., & Hamilton, L. S. (2015). Continued progress: Promising evidence on personalized learning. Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

Prothero, A. (2016, January 26). ‘Micro Schools’ could be new competition for private K-12. [Web log post]. Retrieved from