One of the perennial trends in the education debate is that someone every few years comes up with a fresh new idea that is actually a musty old idea in a shiny new bottle.

There have always been people who thought children learn best when they don’t have much structure and those who think kids need more rigidity in the classroom if they are to succeed in school. One decade the more permissive side seems to be winning and the next decade the more structured side seems to have captured the argument. About every five years someone repackages something and the program officers at foundations that fund education think they are unboxing a shiny new idea that’s actually quite old.

I suspect that if a time traveler put my teenage self in a machine and moved me forward from my time to 2018, I wouldn’t understand smartphones and the Web but I could figure out most of what is taught in today’s high schools pretty quickly.

I asked a friend of mine who is currently a senior in college, and she told me that when she was in high school earlier this decade, they still had periods, bells when classes end, and hall passes if you had to use the rest room during class. There were still campus-wide announcements to start the day, although what was broadcast over intercoms in my time were broadcast over TV in hers. And much of the time the classrooms were organized in the way they have always been, with students lined up in rows and the teacher sitting in front.

Tyler Koteskey, an education policy analyst at the Reason Foundation, wants to smash all this and encourage creativity. His solution is “microschools.”

It is the law of education writing that, in order to receive the coveted Golden Protractor, you have to mention at least once that Horace Mann liked Prussian schools and Ellwood T. Cubberley thought schools should be like factories. Sure enough, Koteskey does his duty and mentions Mann and Cubberley.

But hey, back in Horace Mann’s time, they had blackboards. Now we have Promethean boards![1]

But Koteskey at least cites something new to me, namely a TED talk by education consultant Sir Ken Robinson that’s been viewed 49.8 million times since Robinson spoke in 2006. I watched it, and Robinson’s a funny guy who tells many good jokes between the wonky bits. It’s well worth 18 minutes, but I knew Robinson’s point—schools should teach more creativity!—long before I watched the talk.

Koteskey’s piece is about “microschools,” which are private schools that are so small that they might occupy one floor of a building rather than the whole building.

One microschool he writes about, Portfolio School, is in the TriBeCa section of Manhattan. A second, QuantumCamp runs a summer camp for students interested in STEM subjects in Oakland, California, and also runs supplemental programs where homeschool students can come in one day a week for math and science classes. QuantumCamp also has contracts to teach math and science classes in larger schools. Finally, Acton Academy is a private-school franchise based out of Austin, Texas.

All three of these schools are free-form places where students are encouraged to use their imaginations. I saw a video from Portfolio School where the students spent eight weeks learning about ice cream, including how to refrigerate it and where the ingredients for their ice cream came from. Then they got to make ice cream and eat it.

Well, who wouldn’t want that? If I was seven, I’d much rather make and eat ice cream in school than learn about fractions. The problem is that the delightful days of studying about ice cream are quite expensive. And where Koteskey is maddingly unpersuasive is when he talks about how much these shiny new microschools cost.

“Portfolio’s $35,000 annual tuition may sound staggering, but in a city where the median private school cost is over $44,000 and some places cost $50,000, Habib and Schachtel (Portfolio School’s founders)[2] are offering something of a bargain for the market,” Koteskey writes.

Excuse me? $35,000 for tuition is a casual expense? Particularly when the parents who are spending $50,000 for tuition at Brearley School or Dalton are paying these sums to make sure their children qualify for the cognitive elite?

Similarly, QuantumCamp’s yearlong math and science classes range from $3,200 to $3,800, which, says Koteskey, is “well under half the cost of private school tuition.” Yes, but these classes are for one day a week. I’m sure they’re good, but for twenty percent of a school year, they’re not cheap.

Finally, I am grateful to Koteskey for giving an update on the AltSchool story, which I last wrote about in 2016. Adam Satariano reports on Bloomberg in a November story that in the past two years, AltSchool has lost $40 million, closed one school in Palo Alto, decided against opening a school in Chicago, and has renamed the two remaining schools in San Francisco and New York City “LabSchools.” Founder Max Ventilla says he isn’t sure whether AltSchool’s business is running schools or selling software to schools.

Satariano says that research firm GB Insights says that venture capitalists sank $2.35 billion in schools in 2017, with Mark Zuckerberg, Bill Gates, Reed Hastings, and others pouring money into education. “But companies haven’t come up with a formula students will embrace or that can be deployed efficiently or profitably.”

I don’t know what skills the employers of 2050 will need, but I do know students will need to know how to read, write, and count. If I were a donor, I’d see about funding charter schools where students learned the basics and studied enjoyable, but hard books. I bet those schools would prepare students as well or better than high-tech schools do—particularly if they were cost-effective places priced so that parents who aren’t in the top one percent can afford them.


[1] As I understand it, a Promethean board combines an overhead projector and a blackboard.

[2] Babur Habib and Doug Schachtel, Koteskey reports, met on a Princeton Club squash court. Of course they did.