Beyond School Choice

Reflecting on this year’s National School Choice Week—a celebration of effective educational options for all children—what strikes me is how much choice is on the move these days, but not just at the level of the school.

With the rapid growth in online and mobile learning, students everywhere at all levels are increasingly having educational choices—regardless of where they live and even regardless of the policies that regulate schools.

What’s so exciting about this movement beyond school choice is the customization that it allows students to have. Given that each student has different learning needs at different times and different passions and interests, there is likely no school, no matter how great, that can single-handedly cater to all of these needs just by using its own resources contained within the four walls of its classrooms.

But by leveraging online learning technologies and other such innovations, we can unbundle the different jobs that schools do for students to provide students with a myriad of high-quality choices to meet each child’s distinct needs. Rick Hess and Bruno Manno captured this important opportunity that the unbundling of schools could afford in their book Customized Schooling: Beyond Whole-School Reform. The potential for this unbundling has never been clearer than today.

With the rise of free  (MOOCs)  from the top universities in the world, we are seeing just how even if school leaders or policymakers are slow to grant students meaningful and affordable educational choices, students can avail themselves of a myriad of educational choices anyway. As social learning continues to gain traction, students can connect themselves to teachers, other students and a wide variety of experts in a wide variety of settings—from one-on-one sessions to rich communities regardless of where they live—to collaborate on a variety of educational projects.

With the choices available, students increasingly don’t need to make the tradeoff between attending a large school with lots of choices but perhaps lots of anonymity or a small school with limited choices but a deeply developed personal support structure. They can have the best of both worlds.

Of course, this isn’t to say that policy doesn’t matter at all, particularly at the state level where states can restrict many meaningful choices that would be helpful for a variety of learners, many of whom often are overlooked and poorly served by the traditional school system today as we wait for the disruption to touch the lives of all students. Today far too many states don’t offer students the full suite of educational choices that they could to ensure that all students have access to a high-quality education that meets their distinct needs.

States that have put in policies that allow for uncapped charter schools, which themselves are increasingly utilizing blended learning to reach all children, publicly available and uncapped full-time virtual schools, and other such options are ahead of the curve.

States like  and Utah are pushing this even further, as they have created course choice provisions that unleash a wave of opportunities for students at the level of individual courses—and pay providers in part based on student outcomes, thereby creating a marketplace centered around quality.

What’s exciting is that according to Whiteboard Advisors’ latest edition of Education Insider, 60 percent of Insiders think that states will put more, or much more, emphasis on digital learning in 2013. If that’s the case, then we’ll likely see many more states follow the bold lead of Louisiana and Utah.

Nearly all of us have had an experience where we were stuck in a class in which no matter how many times the teacher explained a concept, we just couldn’t grasp it. Our friends around us may have understood, but it just didn’t make sense to us. The class whisked along, we fell further behind, and the frustration mounted.

What if we had had the chance to take the class online, at our own pace, with concepts explained multiple ways until we grasped it? Those are the types of choices that all students should have available—and increasingly will.

-Michael Horn

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