The weirdness and diversity of microschools is a feature, not a bug

If there was any doubt about where microschools currently stand in the hype cycle, critics on the left are now being joined by worriers on the right.

Daniel Buck of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute recently reflected on his visit to a conference hosted by Harvard University that highlighted the rise of microschools and other learning environments that defy the conventions of schooling.

He describes seeing “much to love” about these small independent learning communities, but also notes a troubling “ideological undercurrent” among many of the educators who animate it, including an infatuation with progressive and student-led pedagogies.

In a compelling piece a few months ago in these pages, veteran homeschooling mom Larissa Phillips details the movement’s infatuation with unschooling, a theory of education (if we could call it that) that postulates that, if we just let kids be, they’ll follow their own passions to success. She details parents arguing about whether kids should be expected to follow basic rules, attend classes that they don’t like, or bother getting out of bed if they didn’t feel like it that day.

Inquiry learningproject-based learningself-directed learning, and other models of a similar stripe abound. The center’s founder argues that this preference for self-direction is inherent in the model’s rejection of systematization. In an interview with the New York TimesJerry Mintz, the founder of Alternative Education Resource Organization, an institution that supports microschools and independent schools, shares a similar sentiment: “Kids are natural learners, and the job of the educator is to help kids find resources; they are more guides than teachers.”

Color me skeptical.

The philosophy drawing Buck’s skepticism was famously summed up by Plutarch: “The mind is not a vessel that needs filling, but wood that needs igniting.”

There’s a reason this kind of thinking takes root among microschools, homeschoolers, and others operating outside the public education system.

If the past 200 years of American public education were a battle between the vessel-fillers and the fire-igniters, the vessel-fillers have won in a rout. Compulsory schooling laws, accountability systems tied to standardized tests, and a grammar of schooling that assumes teachers lead classes of students with desks lined up in rows are all victories of the bucket-fillers.

The fire-lighters have been pushed to the margins, where they wage a guerilla campaign that waxes and wanes over decades. The last great insurgency came during the ’60s and ’70s, when the “freed school” movement spawned a proliferation of small independent learning communities across the country.

Scholars who documented free schools noted they appeared to have two major flavors: One led by hippy types committed to progressive student-directed pedagogies, the other led by African Americans who critiqued a public education system that they felt mistreated their children. The former were committed fire-lighters; the latter were more amenable to vessel-filling.

The freedom school movement died off over the past few decades (though a few live on). Both its major strands are present in the new wave of microschools, hybrid homeschools, and other small learning communities operating outside public education that has gained momentum after the Covid-19 pandemic.

But the current wave includes other ideological currents, some of which conservatives like Buck will likely find more amenable, like commitments to religious instruction or classical education.

A crude account of the appeal of classical education is that it critiques public education from the direction opposite the progressive fire-lighters, arguing conventional schools fail to instill virtue in young people or fill their vessels with sufficient knowledge of the great cultural works of Western civilization.

In short, the educational philosophies animating the current microschool movement are all over the ideological and pedagogical spectrum. But they have one important thing common: They reject some of the prevailing norms in public education. They are intentionally creating models that are, in some way, different.

So, while Buck makes important points about the need for educators operating in permissionless learning environments to continually examine their methods and improve their practice, it’s also essential to recognize that the movement is likely never to reach consensus on some fundamental beliefs about what education ought to look like. That’s a feature, not a bug.

Avatar photo

BY Travis Pillow

Travis Pillow is Director of Thought Leadership at Step Up For Students and editor of NextSteps. He lives in Sanford, Fla. with his wife and two children. A former Tallahassee statehouse reporter, he most recently worked at the Center on Reinventing Public Education, a research organization at Arizona State University, where he studied community-led learning innovation and school systems' responses to the Covid-19 pandemic. He can be reached at tpillow (at)