Parents have plenty to consider when helping their kids choose the right school. How good is the neighborhood public school? What are the other possibilities, such as nearby charter, magnet, private, and parent co-op options? As parents, we try to make the best decision we can based on where we think our kids will thrive given the options that are available.

Another set of factors is starting to rise to the top for many families, and that is the extent to which a school can meet a child’s individual needs. The idea of a one-size-fits-all school that processes kids through each grade like a factory is becoming a thing of the past. In cities around the country, schools are cropping up that use digital leaning, small-group discussion, project-based learning, and competency-based learning (also called mastery-based learning) to help each student learn at his or her own pace and in a way that’s customized for individual needs. In my experience, once kids taste that kind of control over their path and pace, they can’t imagine going back.

So how can parents factor those new opportunities into their school searches?  Last week I wrote here about Wave IV of the Next Generation Learning Challenges (NGLC), a grant competition that the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation sponsors. One of the things I like most about this competition is that NGLC has done a great job articulating the design principles that should be the foundation for every breakthrough school. The principles summarize what parents should shop for if they are fortunate enough to have more than one school option. Here is NGLC’s description of the first five principles of breakthrough school design:

  1. Student Centered: Designed to meet the diverse learning needs of each student every day
  2. High Expectations: Committed to ensuring that every student will meet clearly defined, rigorous standards that will prepare them for success in college and career
  3. Self-Pacing and Mastery-Based Credit: Enables students to move at their own optimal pace and receive credit when they demonstrate mastery of the material
  4. Blended Instruction: Optimizes teacher- and technology-delivered instruction in group and individual work
  5. Student Ownership: Empowers students with skills, information, and tools they need to manage their own learning

Are these criteria too much to ask of schools? In the past, individualizing instruction and giving students this kind of control were prohibitively expensive. But the emergence of disruptive technologies—such as online tutorials, learning management systems, and software that creates personalized learning playlists—makes student-centered learning actually well within reach of even the poorest U.S. public schools. Check out the Blended Learning Universe database to sort by state for schools that, to varying degrees of quality, share in some of these five design principles.

Parents can be a voice for bringing individualized learning opportunities to our kids. We should shop for and support these principles.


  • Heather Staker
    Heather Staker

    Heather Staker is an adjunct fellow at the Christensen Institute, specializing in K–12 student-centered teaching and blended learning. She is the co-author of "Blended" and "The Blended Workbook." She is the founder and president of Ready to Blend, and has authored six BloomBoard micro-credentials for the “Foundations of Blended Learning” educator micro-endorsement.