As course-choice policies—in which K–12 students have the choice to take courses from a range of, often but not always online, providers; public dollars follow students to the chosen course; and some percentage of the funding is withheld until the student successfully completes (ideally masters) the course—gain popularity across the country, an important question to ask is what constitutes success for course-choice policies?

In brief, course choice has become possible at scale because of the growth of online learning, which is modularizing the educational experience to allow for customization in how students learn. Online learning holds the potential to create a student-centered educational system that can personalize affordably for students’ different learning needs at different times—a key to allowing all students to maximize their success—if policy moves away from regulating inputs and toward focusing on individual student outcomes and other conditions are put in place.

Because course choice has the potential to have a simple and elegant way of focusing on student outcomes by rewarding quality and drowning out poor providers—payment for third-party verified mastery—theoretically, a great outcome for many course-choice advocates would be lots of enrollments into state course-choice programs that have established high bars for quality.

But I’m not sure this is a realistic metric by which to gauge success.

Although it seems important to begin course-choice policies by creating separate funding streams that don’t compete for district dollars so as to gain acceptance from districts of course choice’s role in the educational system—similar to what happened in Florida with the Florida Virtual School—over time, in order to create a system that can grow organically as more students want to enroll, moving to a system that will take some dollars (not an unfair amount I hope) from districts is almost a certainty.

My suspicion is that if this happens, as districts see dollars flowing away from them, they will seek to hold onto student enrollments by innovating and starting more aggressive blended-learning programs to personalize learning themselves—through everything from home-grown programs to partnerships with outside providers. This is likely a good and predictable outcome, although one that will make it difficult to measure the success of course-choice policies in spurring these innovations.

But the growth of blended learning in districts as opposed to through the course-choice mechanism will create a bigger challenge. Because course-choice policies have the potential for an elegant accountability mechanism tied to the financing of outcomes, once students take courses back within the traditional district schools, that accountability mechanism would go away.

If the goal is ultimately to create a student-centered educational system—that prizes student-learning outcomes and not where the learning occurs—then what should be done about that? Are there ways to incentivize districts to buy in to the accountability pieces of course choice with the contracts they sign with outside providers—for example, by signing contracts with outside model providers like New Classrooms in which they will only pay for student success themselves as measured by the state’s (hopefully) new and on-demand systems of assessments (or through various assessment sampling mechanisms)? How would that be done and how would it be successful? It would almost certainly require some big overhauls in how school financing works.

Although these are second- and third-order questions, they are not trivial ones. We should not be surprised to see states that pass far-reaching course choice policies not always see huge enrollments in these programs. And yet, I’m not sure that will be a sign of failure. If the districts create innovative programs that improve the success of each student, then that could be a big win.


  • Michael B. Horn
    Michael B. Horn

    Michael B. Horn is Co-Founder, Distinguished Fellow, and Chairman at the Christensen Institute.