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Look Inside the Micro-Schools Movement

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As another school year begins, many continue asserting that education needs a different approach.

4.0 Schools is looking to humanize education using technology to connect students with the teachers, experts and resources they need through schools that are smaller and more personal than schools usually are.

Could micro-schools be the future of education?

Matt Candler, the founder and CEO of 4.0 Schools, sat down with 1776’s Clare Bennett to share his experience. With his extensive background in education, consulting and working with startups, Candler believes that micro-schools could a breakthrough step in education reform.

CB: What is the story behind 4.0 Schools?

MC: I joined KIPP to run school development there and was there for the three of the craziest years. We went from five schools to about 42 when I left. I went on from there to help create something called the New York City Charter School Center, the first citywide charter school incubator.

I was doing that when Katrina hit.

I came down to New Orleans after the storm to help and started realizing that maybe my weird little skill set of starting schools would be useful. So, I moved down to serve as the first CEO of New Schools for New Orleans.

In December 2010, I launched 4.0 Schools as a new school incubator, mostly for schools in the southeastern United States. Unfortunately, that first version of 4.0 Schools wasn’t very inspiring or dynamic, and it wasn’t very different than the status quo.

I think I had this very over-simplified idea of what it took to make great schools. That I would just help a lot of people make more of those. I’ve been humbled quite a bit since then by a lot of the entrepreneurs and people I’ve met, and 4.0 has changed a lot since then because of their feedback.

CB: What do you think has changed since 4.0 Schools’ founding to what it is now that’s making it more effective?

MC: When you are dealing with something as sacred as schooling, public schooling in particular, you can’t afford to do that kind of research and development without a responsible approach to testing on a small scale before going big.

This concept of testing a big idea at a tiny level started with our first cohort, when Josh Densen, founder of Bricolage Academy, pushed me to rethink my old-school “send you to a school that’s already working” approach.

He wanted to build a school that didn’t really exist elsewhere, so we had to think of a better approach to testing his concept.

We were eating at a lot of food trucks then, and the fight between old-school New Orleans restaurants and these startups got us asking how we might test new school ideas the way chefs were testing new restaurant concepts in food trucks.

CB: From the 4.0 Schools’ perspective or for some of the education startups you have worked with New Orleans, what are the biggest challenges the education industry is seeing right now that these startups — specifically micro-schools — have the opportunity to address?

MC: What I think is exciting about the micro-schools movement — and there are echoes of this in how we do it — is the opportunity to humanize education by going small. Whether it is a school, a learning place, an art studio, a reading laboratory or an educational technology — all of these things started as tiny ideas.

I would like to push back on the 100-year-old notion of scale economies as the best way to achieve diversity for students. This industrial revolution concept of big is better remains the dominant theory of impact and policy making in education.

I think we need to push back on that and ask the question: how small could a school be and still serve a wild array of students?

In a city like New Orleans, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity are things that we are talking about as core to making a healthier school system over the next decade.

Micro-schooling is about making school a more humanizing experience by constraining it to about 150 kids, which anthropologist Robin Dunbar established as close to what most of us can handle when it comes to human relationships. If we keep our schools at that number, it makes it school a more humanizing environment and lowers the costs by avoiding big vertical org charts full of administrators who oversee administrators who oversee administrators who oversee teachers.

If you say let’s make schools small, it might allow us to put more resources near children.

The other thing that I think it unlocks are our most under-invested resources: students themselves. This is the thing about micro-schools that I’m most psyched about – that they make are small enough for every student to become a teacher.

CB: To critics who say that micro-schools are too expensive or will fall short of being as inclusive and diverse as your hope outlines, what do you say in defense?

MC: That is a great question. We are obsessed with the concept and the promise of micro-schools that are accessible. I’m not too interested in micro-schools that cost just as much as factory-sized private schools.

You will continue to hear 4.0 Schools as a very loud voice in favor of leveraging the economic efficiencies of micro-schools so more kids can access them. We are helping people create micro-schools that pass the cost savings on to parents.

We are really excited about the growing number of people bringing this technology — if you can call it a technology — of micro-schools to everyone.

CB: Could you tell us about 4.0 Schools’ Tiny Fellowship and how people can get involved with what you guys are doing?

MC: The Tiny Fellowship helps education entrepreneurs get what they need to run a real-world pilots of new schools or learning spaces in their hometowns without having to quit their day jobs. On top of $10,000 in capital, you get coaching from experts from all over the country and get to run your project within in a community of amazing people pushing you to build something truly useful for families and students.

What is cool about the experience is that you get all of this help with a very specific goal in mind, and that is to run a 10-student version of the idea that you have in your head in your hometown.

You can learn more about the fellowship at 4pt0.org/tiny.

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