Today, President-elect Donald Trump appointed school choice advocate Betsy DeVos as our next secretary of education. Given DeVos’s decades support for charter schools and tax-credit scholarships, most are speculating that this signals Trump’s commitment to follow through on his promise to commit over $20 billion to expanding charter schools across the country.
Looking ahead, Trump and DeVos would be wise to embrace an expanding notion of educational choice. Indeed, in the 21st century, a choice agenda should focus on optimizing instructional choices, not just school choices. A next generation vision of choice should be about schools—of the district, charter, or private varietal—providing numerous and flexible learning pathways tailored to each of their students. In the long run, we believe that a robust supply of personalized instructional options within schools may be the most potent driver of combatting stubborn achievement gaps and graduating more students college and career ready.
Historically, the quality and experiences that a given school could offer were fairly uniform within that school. All students sat in the same rows, with the same educators, receiving the same lectures, reading the same materials, and taking the same tests. School was designed like a factory assembly line, providing all students with the same—regardless of whether that particular version of “same” was a good fit. As decades of research have shown, this led to variable and often unequal learning outcomes among different students, both within and between schools. But because of the manner in which most school districts operated, if a school model proved ill-suited to a student or his family and couldn’t pay out of pocket for another option, then he was essentially out of luck.
School choice regimes, in part, emerged as an answer to that embedded constraint of our factory model education system.
This is still largely the case today. And yet, over the past decade, we have witnessed technology-enabled instructional models begin to upend that factory model. In blended and personalized classrooms, teachers are better able to reach each individual student and provide various pathways and experiences across numerous students. Learning in part online, students are able to move at a flexible pace and often get more one-on-one and small-group time with their teachers. Online courses offer anytime, anywhere opportunities to access learning. And in the best of these models, teachers are able to see how students are performing in real time and adjust learning experiences and supports accordingly.
In light of this incredible shift afoot, choice advocates should start to ask: how can we ensure that every student has access to an education—and the particular instructional experiences and supports—that best suits his needs and strengths? And how can more classrooms across our country embrace designs that reach each student, rather than some nonexistent middle?
Charter schools are certainly proving to be part of the answer to how personalized approaches can reach more students. Over the past decade, our research on disruptive innovations in education has spanned district, charter, and private schools. Charter schools, like California-based Summit Public Schools and the Virtual Learning Academy Charter School in New Hampshire, have pioneered some of the most promising personalized and blended-learning models. And other charter networks, like High Tech High and Uncommon Schools, that have built innovative teacher preparation programs that focus on practical training embedded in real classrooms, are helping to train teachers for more blended, personalized, and project-based environments.
But if we are focusing on instructional choice, disruptive innovations stand to flourish in both district and charter schools alike, affording students far more flexible and customized learning experiences than were feasible even a decade ago. Just last month I visited a school district in Greeley, Colo., which is using blended learning to provide differentiated and flexible learning experiences among its students. In fact, inside a single 8th-grade math classroom I spoke with a range of students who were working individually and in small groups on everything from basic geometry all the way through Algebra I. And this flexibility and customization is starting to become more widespread. As we profiled in a 2014 research report, numerous school districts are seeing similar successes as they embrace blended, personalized instructional models across their schools and classrooms.
Champions of school choice often bemoan the monopoly that public school districts hold on a child’s education. But they should be equally concerned about another monopoly: the monopoly that a time-based factory model of learning has long held on instruction. An onslaught of analysis and commentary on DeVos’s appointment is sure to surface the age-old “charter versus district” debate that has kept education reformers fiercely divided. We could cut through that debate by exploring the sorts of instructional innovations and choices, within and across school systems, that stand to bring more students into 21st-century schools.