The Case for “Boutique” Efforts
For my money, one of the most promising developments in American education today is not in public schooling, private schooling, or charter schooling. It is in tiny schooling.
Tiny schools start in a library or classroom with a small group of volunteer students and no more than one or two teachers, usually for a couple of hours on a weekend. For up to a year, the teachers try new methods and get instant feedback, refine what they’re doing, and improve. The students attend voluntarily; they know they’re part of the experiment. If all goes well, after a year, the educators are in a much better place to start a full-fledged school than if they had tried to build a whole school from scratch. What’s more, if the plan doesn’t work, no students are harmed, and very little money is lost.
Spearheaded by 4.0 Schools in New Orleans, tiny schools are a promising response to a stubborn problem—starting a new school is incredibly risky.
Think about it: if you are an aspiring charter- or private school leader and you want to start a school via conventional means, you’re talking about an organization with a million-plus dollar budget, contracts with 10, 20, or more staff and teachers, the rental or purchase of a large building, and the lives of hundreds of children—and that is just the start. This risk explains why even the supposedly agile and entrepreneurial charter school sector has created applications to open schools that stretch into the hundreds of pages. When we’re talking about that much money and that many people, authorizers want as much assurance as possible that the school is going to work. I don’t blame them.
The most common criticism I hear, though, when I get excited talking about small entrepreneurial ventures like tiny schools is that they are simply “boutique” options. They cannot scale. “There are 50 million school children, for crying out loud, and you’re talking about teaching 20!”
Much of this ire has been directed toward AltSchool, a new private school model out of Silicon Valley. AltSchool runs a series of very small schools that personalize education to every (generally wealthy) child who attends them. They made news recently with a $100 million investment from some of the biggest names in technology and venture capital. Their model is intensive and expensive, and most have dismissed it as a viable option for students across the country. They may be right.
AltSchool critics remind me of a blog post written almost 10 years ago by Elon Musk, founder of PayPal, Tesla, and Space X (and promoter of nuking Mars). He too received criticism, particularly from environmentalists, when his first Tesla cars were priced north of $100,000 apiece. “The planet is warming, and you’re building cars only a small number of people can afford!”
Musk’s response to his critics is a good lesson for entrepreneurship in education. In a blog post titled The Secret Tesla Motors Master Plan (just between you and me), he wrote:
Almost any new technology initially has high unit cost before it can be optimized and this is no less true for electric cars. The strategy of Tesla is to enter at the high end of the market, where customers are prepared to pay a premium, and then drive down market as fast as possible to higher unit volume and lower prices with each successive model.
Replace “electric cars” with schools, and you’ll see where I’m going.
So many schools today—traditional public, charter, and even private—suffer from a kind of institutional isomorphism: Each one looks like the next. At the same time, we continue to see statistics indicating that students across the board are not prepared for college-level work. When we narrow our focus to low-income or minority students, the picture gets even worse. In Missouri (where I live), for example, only six percent of African-American students scored college-ready in all four subjects tested by the ACT. Six percent. Innovation is sorely needed.
But trying to create large-scale schools with an envelope-pushing model is expensive and risky. As a result, most people tend to stay in the same safe lane and, at best, try and tinker around the edges. This explains why most charter and even “lab” schools look so similar to the average public school and generally perform about as well.
One solution to this is the high-end model of AltSchools, where wealthy families pay for the innovations that might eventually make their way down market. Another is the small, focused model of tiny schools that rapidly iterate and see themselves as a work in progress rather than a finished product. But in both cases, it is the limited scope and tight focus of the effort that enable the innovation to take place.
We should not be so quick to dismiss “tiny” efforts to rethink schooling. A “tiny” effort in automobiles just made a car that broke Consumer Reports’ rating system. These schools may end up being bigger than we think.