Ep. 264: Big Ideas – “Micro-Schools versus Waitlists” with Matt Ladner

August 24, 2021

In this episode we speak with Matt Ladner about his recent report, “Micro- Schools versus Waitlists: A Guidebook for the Innovative Arizona Educator.” He tells us about the innovative school choice options available in Arizona right now.

Jason Bedrick: Hello and welcome back to EdChoice Chats. I’m your host, Jason Bedrick, Director of Policy at EdChoice and this is another edition of our Big Ideas series. Today I’m very excited to be joined by Dr. Matthew Ladner, the Director of the Arizona Center for Student Opportunity at the Arizona Charter Schools Association, and a senior fellow with EdChoice. He is the author of a new report titled “Micro-Schools versus Waitlists: A Guidebook for the Innovative Arizona Educator,” which is the subject of today’s conversation. Matt, welcome back to the podcast.

Matthew Ladner: Thanks for having me on.

Jason Bedrick: Always a pleasure. So let’s start with this, probably most of our listeners are already familiar with this micro-schools concept, but I imagine that some still aren’t. So what is a micro-school and what are the differences between a micro-school and a learning pod, a pandemic pod. There’s a lot of these different terms, so guide us.

Matthew Ladner: Yeah we have a whole section in the study about a taxonomy of micro-schools. The main form micro-schools are taking is very small groups of students, usually here in Arizona, it’s 8 to 12, with an in-person teacher or guide, and usually are, but not always making use of digital learning resources, but that’s how I would describe it. I don’t know if that’s much of a definition.

Jason Bedrick: All right and so why don’t you tell us a little bit more about what you actually have seen in Arizona in terms of micro-schooling? Arizona seems to be ground zero for a lot of innovation in education. So what’s the micro-school scene like in AZ?

Matthew Ladner: Yeah, that’s really interesting, I mean, it started well before the pandemic here and the most prominent micro-schools from here in Arizona is Prenda. It was started by a gentleman named Kelly Smith who was running coding clubs for his own children and other children out of libraries in Mesa, Arizona, and he has described how he noticed a lot of these kids were totally into coding, but would talk about just how much they hated school and he said, well, we can do better than that.

And so when the pandemic struck, Prenda was already at 700 students in micro-schools here in Arizona. And probably one of– not the only but one of– the really fascinating things about Prenda is that they scaled up to about 4,200 students after the pandemic struck, very quickly. Normally a charter management organization or a private school network, or anything of the sort to have enrollment increase at that size would require, either millions of dollars in a facility, debt and construction, or, renting out a lot of space. Nationwide charter schools spend about 15% of their total revenue on facilities in one form or another, whether it’s debt financing or renting space. Prenda scaled up very quickly without doing either of those things. And so it clearly constitutes sort of a fascinating model for charter groups or, private schools potentially, that have wait lists of students who they’re not able to serve.

Jason Bedrick: And so Prenda had about a six-fold increase in just over a year. Obviously a lot of that had to do with the pandemic, although they were already going gangbusters. I think in just in two years, they went from about 7 kids to 700 kids. But what do you think is…explains the dramatic growth in Arizona?

Matthew Ladner: I visited a Prenda campus and my instant reaction watching the kids do project-based learning is that this looks like a lot of fun, right? My snap judgment was, I would not hesitate for a second to put my own daughter into a Prenda school. I think that the model they have, which is basically they meet in person and they meet in sometimes informal spaces like a library or a church campus, but other times in people’s homes, they do sort of self-paced digital learning, but together in community, and then they break and then they tend to work on project-based learning. And the project based learning is kind of the secret sauce, in my opinion. When you walk into it, it’s obvious that the kids are totally into it and having a lot of fun. And I’ve seen a lot of educators react to similar schools and kind of say, “well, why can’t we do this? This is why I went into education in the first place.” And so I think that the model certainly has the potential to sort of recapture that one room school house kind of vibe.

Jason Bedrick: So it’s usually about 5 to 12 kids and they call the three phases “conquer, collaborate, and create.” So conquer is the kids usually using an online platform like Khan Academy or Lexia to do for the most part, math and English language arts. And then during the collaborate and create phases, they’re usually working together and the projects can range from history, science, art, all sorts of different things, but in each case, the children are going at their own pace, if they want to go faster, or they want to go slower. They get to pick which area they’re studying. They get to choose what the project is. So it sounds very loosey goosey, it sounds like glorified summer camp. Are these kids actually learning? Do we have any evidence that there’s learning going on here?

Matthew Ladner: Yeah, we do. Prenda was kind enough to share their formative assessment data from the previous school year and to allow us to publish it in the study. There are scattered around the country a little bit of formative assessment data here and there, there’s Southern Nevada Project that’s been… that’s published some formative assessment data, Great Hearts from Texas have published some formative assessment data.

Jason Bedrick: Just to clarify, you’re talking about formative assessment data for other types of micro- schools. So in… Great Hearts in Texas is running sort of a micro-school project in addition to their traditional charter school classrooms. In Southern Nevada, you’re talking about Southern Nevada Urban Micro-school Academy, or SNUMA. They have some formative assessment data, but it’s a very small sample size, I think fewer than 100 or 200 kids.

Matthew Ladner: Right. So Prenda on the other hand had 4,200 students. They literally had before and after testing, from the beginning of the fall semester last year to the end of the fall semester. In the study, we lay out a number of caveats that we have to take about this data; really only have as a comparison, a full year of data using the same test, but when you look at the results, the question is, is there evidence that the Prenda students were making learning gains? The answer is yes, there’s clear evidence of learning gains.

And having said that, this is very early, we have a very limited amount of information from only three micro-school projects at this point. Over time, we’ll have a far more complete picture, but, I think the most interesting thing is that parents are not waiting around for this. Nor would I. Again, when I walked in, I actually got to see a Prenda micro-school in San Carlos, Arizona out on the Apache Nation. And when I got there, the kids were doing 3D print design as their projects. So in time all will be revealed about the academics. We do know a little bit of data right now and what we know is promising, but parents aren’t waiting and neither are teachers: one of the things we discussed from your own EdChoice polling is just how wildly popular pods are amongst teachers.

Jason Bedrick: I want to get into that teacher thing first, but I want to stay on the student assessment data because it’s really mind blowing. So first of all, they were not creaming, right? I mean, anybody that wants to join can join. And actually a lot of kids– I should take a step back and say, “how do kids access these micro-schools?” Well, in Arizona, some kids are accessing them using their education savings accounts, paying for it that way. In some cases, they’ve had partnerships with public schools, where they have a public school classroom, the kids are counted as public school students, but they’re running essentially Prenda in a public school, a traditional public school. And I think the majority of kids right now are accessing as an online charter.

Now, they will have the AZ merit scores, at some point; as of when this podcast was recorded, they weren’t available yet. But a majority of the children that are in grades K-5, when they started Prenda, they were below grade level, 56% started below grade level. And then the test later in the year, I think the spring 2021 test is that right?

Matthew Ladner: No, that was at the end of the fall.

Jason Bedrick: The fall, sorry, after one semester. So after one semester, they cut in half the number of students, more than half, the number of students that were below grade level. So it went from 56% below grade level to only 24% below grade level. Meanwhile, the students who are above grade level, they started only 4% of children started Prenda above grade level. By the end of the semester, 34% were above grade level in grades K-5. That’s just astounding.

And then you’ve got a lot of data, I won’t go through all of it, but for grades six to eight, it breaks it down a little finer, that there’s a reading comprehension, grammar, word study, et cetera, but let’s just take reading comprehension. There were 15% of kids started below grade level. They cut that down to 6%, so basically a third of the kids. They started 34% above grade level. By the end of the semester, 54% were above grade level. That’s a nearly 60% increase, 20 percentage point increase. And now a majority are above grade level. That’s absolutely astounding.

Matthew Ladner: It’s very promising. I do want to just begin to sound a bit of a note of caution that this was during a pandemic, it was a very strange time. I’m not at all surprised the kids started off below grade level because most of these kids were coming from a situation where they had been forced into impromptu digital learning and all the rest of that stuff. There’s clear evidence of academic gains during that semester. And it’s very promising and we’ll be studying this a lot more over time.

Jason Bedrick: The note of caution is well taken, but the Wall Street Journal just highlighted this McKinsey report, which shows massive learning loss. That schools that switched to digital. Now this isn’t, this isn’t a knock against digital, right? There’s a huge difference between online learning and a program that was intentionally designed to be online versus, “Well, we’re going to take what we do in the classroom and try to do it at home on a dime, because of a pandemic.” These are two totally different situations, but it seems that the vast majority of public schools and actually, frankly, even private and charter schools that tried to take what they do and do the same thing online, have really struggled and understandably so. They weren’t designed to do this. This was an emergency situation, but there has been tremendous learning loss. Yet here is an organization that found a way to combine some amount of digital learning with in-person–instruction actually may be too strong, a word because they intentionally don’t have teachers, they have guides, but you’re putting these children in a small classroom, in-person, where they can focus on what they love, go at their own pace, and it seems like they’re not wasting time. They’re actually, at least the children who are in this program, the vast majority, are not only catching up, but getting ahead of where they were before at a much faster pace than on average than their peers who remained in their assigned school system.

Matthew Ladner: Yeah. I think that one way to think about the micro-school phenomenon, and of course it’s far broader than Arizona, right? Pandemic pods; millions of people did it around the country. But one way to think about it is if you recall back a decade ago and, or maybe a little more when the first appearance of MOOCs, the massive open online courses appeared, there was a Stanford artificial intelligence master’s level course that hundreds of thousands of people took, and the next thing you know, it was like oh, there’s only going to be five universities left when this is all over and all of us are going to have six PhDs and things got away from us a little bit there. And now all the MOOCs are still around and they’re actually more important than ever in reality, it’s just that sort of over-hype stage, but where it crashed down to reality is that lots of people looked at a lecture, but the completion rates were super low, the people sort of persisting.

So one way to think about a micro-school vis-a-vis digital learning is what set of social institutions can make it so that you could actually realize more of the potential gains for digital learning? What’s missing from the “MOOCs take over the world story?”: Community, classmates, in person guidance from an adult? These things that most families desire as a part of their education. So I think that the pandemic may have sort of sped up innovation on this front. It was bubbling before the pandemic. They may have sped things up about a decade and through sort of forced experimentation, if nothing else. And I’m excited to see where this goes in the future.

Jason Bedrick: And as you noted, teachers seem to be excited about where this is going, what are the data on teacher interest in learning pods or micro-schools?

Matthew Ladner: I actually quoted EdChoices’ fantastic survey of teachers on this, which found that a majority of teachers across sectors were either somewhat interested or very interested in teaching at a pod. And the percentage of charter school teachers was: 86% were either someone interested or very interested. The survey I’d really love to see you guys do next is former teachers. When you think about this in terms of a talent pipeline, every state has like a large group of people that used to be in teaching, a lot of whom grew frustrated with the profession for a whole variety of different reasons and the possibility of getting some of them back involved in the sector in an education role, it could be a lot of fun. It’s especially exciting to me because even before the pandemic, our normal pipelines for teachers were drying up: enrollment in colleges of education around the country, for instance, was into a steep decline before COVID. I don’t think COVID did anything to help that, it probably made it worse. So being able to offer teachers alternative models, where they’re more in control of their education communities and which can offer perhaps more of what really attracted them to the profession in the first place is something that I think that everyone should be very interested in. The old fashioned way of doing this was falling apart even before the pandemic.

Jason Bedrick: So look, parents are flocking to options like Prenda, at least early formative assessment data is stupendous. Teachers are apparently very interested in this type of model. People in Arizona must be celebrating. I mean, nobody could be complaining about this, right?

Matthew Ladner: If only! Remember Jason, no good deed goes unpunished in this wicked world. There’s been a lot of complaints from the usual suspects. And you know, and in fact there is a very prominent charter school critic, I guess you might call him, who filed complaints about Prenda with the state charter board and with the state attorney general and the Arizona Republic wrote a front page story about it like, “Oh my gosh, the attorney general of Arizona is investigating Prenda!” You know, mysteriously enough, they failed to write a story where both the charter board and the attorney general dismiss the complaint.

You know the reality is that schools, public schools, charter, and districts are perfectly free in Arizona to…the essence of the complaint was about subcontracting, which everyone is free to do. And in fact, we had examples in the pandemic of Arizona school districts subcontracting out the entire education of their kids to the Florida Virtual School. Mysteriously enough that didn’t seem to generate an Arizona Republic story. So, predictably, the people that don’t like things like private school choice and they don’t like charter schools, generally, they also don’t like micro-schools, but I don’t think that a) they don’t have a substantive case and b) they forgot to tell teachers because teachers absolutely love these things. So parents and teachers love them and our friends in the K-12 reactionary community don’t, and just have to kind of move along.

Jason Bedrick: Yeah. And actually I recall during the pandemic that the Wall Street Journal got their hands on an opposition report produced by the National Education Association, the larger of the two national teachers’ unions, both on micro-schools generally, and one specifically on Prenda, just warning about all the potential hazards that these organizations could cause for families. But what they were really saying is watch out here comes the competition.

Matthew Ladner: Yeah. And you know, one of the things we talk about in the report is there are a whole set of equity issues and student safety issues that have been sorted through. I mean, when the pandemic pod hit the country last year, the first reaction against it was this sort of violent, “this is horrible, it’s so inequitable, only rich people could do this, et cetera, et cetera.” Now, when celebrity DJ showed up on people magazine talking about the pods they created in their guest house in Beverly Hills, it didn’t exactly help dissuade that stereotype.

But the reality is, is that if you want to address the equity issues, potential equity issues, that are very real in micro-schooling, it requires access to public funding. So for instance, who is paying the guide, or the teacher, are students provided with devices? Who pays or the internet access? Is there a student testing going on, all these sort of very basic things. So in Prenda’s case, for instance, most of the kids are enrolling in an online charter school and then Prenda establishes the pods, but all their students, no matter how they’re accessing public funds, all of Prenda’s students are taking the state AZ merit exam. And the ones going through the online charter school, those scores count against their accountability rate. So now for the 7 million kids scattered around the country that did this on their own, there’s none of that. Who pays the guide? Mom and dad do out of their wallet. Who provides digital access and a computer as well? Mom and dad do out of their wallet.

And then, on student safety, Prenda has a very well thought out set of protocols that are actually based on the state of Arizona’s statute for in-home childcare facilities. So background checks, not only for the guide, but for any adult that might come in contact with the kids, so background checks, fingerprints, smoke alarms, fire extinguishers. If the place are operating in has a swimming pool, it has to have a fence, Prenda has some additional safeguards about the internet, filtering and things like that. So while opponents are kind of like, “don’t tell me how horrible and unsafe these things are!” Even though the reality is these are practices that are not yet required in statute, because micro-schooling took off so fast that regulations and whatnot are running behind actual practice, but anyone that’s doing this stuff, these are common sense things that anyone that is operating in this space ought to do on their own volition simply to keep the students safe, to hold the confidence of parents and to stave off absurd regulation, which of course, is a typical tool that opponents use, to try to overreach stuff in order to hamstring possibility.

Jason Bedrick: And, and lo and behold, since these are institutions operating in a market, parents have a very high degree of concern for things like safety. And so the micro-schools are actually making sure to meet those parents’ concerns because otherwise the parents are going to go elsewhere, if they think that… sort of at the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs is safety. And so that’s sort of a bottom line issue. And it seems that the micro-schools are finding ways to make sure that that need is met first, before they meet other needs. The report is titled micro-schools versus wait-lists. What are these wait-lists you’re talking about and how do the micro-schools solve those wait lists?

Matthew Ladner: So a lot of Arizona charter schools receive more applications annually than they have seats to offer. State law requires us to hold a random process, it’s usually a lottery, to determine who gets the seats, and the kids that don’t win the lottery are sitting on a wait list. And sometimes these wait lists can be like several times the size of the actual enrollment of the school. One of the biggest inhibitors to charter school growth and ability to serve wait-listed families is a need to raise facility funding. It literally could take millions to tens of millions of dollars to create a facility to educate less than a thousand kids, depending on the details, honestly. So the possibility of charter operators taking a different approach in order to try to serve their wait-listed families is very appealing because this could be done and Prenda’s kind of demonstrated that it can be done. It’s possible to scale out without going into millions of dollars of facility debt. It’s a different way of operating.

And we offer a number of cautions in the study about, I think operators need to be very thoughtful about creating something that is unique. I think that one of the things I’m hopeful that we will see in the years ahead is a more pluralistic set of micro-schools that are available to people. In other words, like different flavors. But how their model translates to the micro-school setting, do they want to try to run two different school models at the same time? These are not questions that I can answer, or anyone else. This is something that the practitioners themselves have to figure out. And they’re a matter of art rather than science.

But I think that the prospect of reaching students with a new type of offering that could easily become proximate to people, because that’s what really matters to a family, right? It’s like, what kind of options do they have within the area they can reasonably access to get their students there. Here in Arizona, we’ve been expanding that since 1994, we have the nation’s largest charter school sector, we have multiple private choice programs, and our districts are very open enrollment compared to most states. Not coincidentally, I think Arizona also leads the nation in academic growth. We don’t have the highest scores, but our kids learn the most per year in data compiled by Stanford University. So the more varied and proximate options that families can have, the more likely it is that families will find a good fit for the needs and interests of their individual child. So I think micro-schools potentially have a very large role to play in expanding that menu of options for not just families in Arizona, but families around the country.

Jason Bedrick: So if there are charter school operators out there for that matter, private or other types of schools, or even just teachers or parents who are looking to form a micro-school, what is your advice for them for how to do that?

Matthew Ladner: Well, you’re signing up to be a pioneer, right? People are literally learning by doing this as we speak. It’s exciting. And one of the things that is very exciting about this, I talked to Kurtis Indorf from Great Hearts a few months ago, and he described on a podcast not dissimilar from this one, about how the parents that Great Hearts has been interacting with are actively kind of shaping what the school model looks like. Is it going to meet every day or is it going to only be less than, is it going full custodial or non-full custodial? It’s really interesting. Parents do have a lot of different preferences and whatnot, and unlike anything I think we’ve ever seen before, they are actively shaping what this space looks like in partnership with providers. So it’s incredibly exciting.

And you know, anyone that wants to get in this space, I would encourage them to read up, we wrote this study in the hopes of being a resource for those people who were thinking about this as a possibility, there’s a lot to think about. There’s a lot of different models. There’s a lot we don’t know yet. For instance, different models use different techniques. Some are heavy with live instruction. Some are making use of more use of asynchronous tools. I don’t suspect that there’s any one right answer in terms of what that should look like. I suspect that it might have a lot to do with the type of education you’re trying to provide, what grade level, what kind of focus. But ultimately I think that this is a very exciting time, that we’ve seen a great deal of innovation over the last two years, and I’m hopeful that 20 years from now, we’ll be able to look back and clearly identify it as a term.

Jason Bedrick: Our guest today has been Dr. Matthew Ladner of the Arizona Center for Student Opportunity at the Arizona Charter Schools Association. His new report is “Micro-Schools versus Wait-lists: A Guidebook for the Innovative Arizona Educator.” Matt, thank you so much for joining us.

Matthew Ladner: Thank you.

Jason Bedrick: This has been another edition of EdChoice Chats. If you have any ideas for authors you’d like us to interview for the Big Ideas series, please send them to media@edchoice.org and be sure to subscribe to our podcast. Follow us on social media at EdChoice. And don’t forget to sign up for our emails on our website, edchoice.org. Thank you. We’ll catch you next time.