Raising Student 'Voice and Choice' Is the Mantra. But Is It a Good Idea?

Without strong guidance from teachers, students may opt for the easiest path instead of the one offering the best learning experience

| Corrected: November 12, 2018
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Giving students more choice over what they learn and how they demonstrate mastery is a tricky task for educators.

Take the case of Lancaster, Texas, 10th grader Michael Lundy. He had to pick from three options to report on his summer reading project, and opted to create a mock Instagram post. "I chose the one that was the most fun for me," he said.

But was the "fun" option the best educational one? How much of a role should the teacher have played in helping the teenager choose from the options? And will giving students greater choice in what they learn and how they learn it lead to higher student achievement?

Educators are wrestling with those kinds of questions as more and more schools embrace personalized learning and its accompanying mantra to give students more individualized control over their academic experiences.

Proponents of this belief argue that it fuels student motivation—which, in turn, improves achievement.

But critics see it very differently.

"We're exacerbating an existing problem" by letting kids, instead of teachers, guide learning, said Benjamin Riley, the executive director of Deans for Impact, a coalition of education school directors working to improve teacher preparation and student achievement. "Whether a student is smiling, happy, and jumping around doesn't tell you whether they've learned anything."

The worry is that too much student choice could turn into a free-for-all that could hurt graduation rates, lead to poor performance on state tests, and weaken academic skills.

Still, educators across the country involved in personalized learning initiatives are embracing greater student choice. They cite higher student engagement, lower absentee rates, and even improvements in test scores.

But leaving more learning decisions up to students—especially those who are struggling academically—may leave a lot to chance.

Weighing the Power of Choices

Educators need to ask some tough questions about the value of giving students greater control over what they learn and how they learn it.

• What are the benefits and drawbacks of giving students more choices in their education?

• How much choice should students have about what they learn and how and when they learn it?

• When students are permitted to go at their own pace, what structures need to be in place to prevent some students from falling far behind?

• Should greater choice be given to more motivated students, or be offered equally to all students?

• If students are allowed to work at their own pace, how does that connect to the need to graduate on time and meet state standards?

• If you are providing students with options to show mastery, what is the rationale behind providing those specific options?

• What kind of data should students be able to access about their own learning?

"If you have kids working far-below grade level, how do you reconcile those things?" asked Laura Hamilton, a senior behavioral scientist at the RAND Corporation, who has researched personalized learning.

At he Myrtle Beach Middle School in the 42,000-student Horry County, S.C., district, personalized learning has taken some interesting twists and turns. When it began in the middle school five years ago, the model was heavy on the use of digital curricula and was highly prescriptive in terms of pacing and what teachers were expected to cover.

Five years later, teachers and students have more control over the resources they use and the lessons they progress through. Students can make choices about their path and focus through digital content. Teachers frequently meet with students and help them set their own goals for achievement—for example, how well they would expect to perform on state tests, said Principal Janice Christy.

"We don't want to be teaching students what they already know," she said. "Once you know they know it, it's time for the student to move on."

Myrtle Beach Middle School teacher Rebecca Myers said her students often work on very different projects or assignments in the same class. Some might be collaborating on a project, others working in small groups to build academic skills, and others meeting with her one-on-one. Sometimes, these might be self-selected tasks, while on other occasions they might be driven by the teacher's decision. Students also have choices about how to demonstrate their understanding of a reading passage, picking from an essay or a Google slide presentation, she said.

'Bringing KIDS Into the Conversation'

Myers insists it's not a free-for-all. What students learn is tied tightly to state standards. Teachers frequently meet with students to guide them in setting their own goals, and data play a critical role.

But the student is a key player in this process, examining data and setting expectations for where he or she should be in the learning process.

"When all the adults share a vision for student achievement, the piece that often goes missing is when children are left out of the loop," Christy said. "We are really focused on making sure we bring the kids into the conversation."

Though the results don't conclusively demonstrate the impact of that approach, the school has seen jumps in achievement on state tests in reading and math in 7th and 8th grade. For example, from 2015 to 2018, 8th grade reading proficiency jumped from 59 percent to 65 percent. Seventh grade math proficiency jumped by 10 percentage points in the same period.

Empowering students to make choices can build important skills, said Betheny Gross, a senior analyst and research director for the Center on Reinventing Public Education, which released the report "Personalized Learning at a Crossroads" in June.

"We want kids to grow up and be confident and capable and charting their own course," Gross said. "We know from brain science that developing the capacity to enlist your executive function and meta-cognitive skills takes training, and school is a good place to do that."

The downside is it's tricky to do that well.

Gross said researchers working on the report did see instances of students taking positive control of their own learning and developing that agency and capacity. But they also saw drawbacks.

Often, she said, teachers don't have a clear theory of action about how to provide "voice and choice" for student learning. When students are picking among options without a rationale behind what matters, "students are just picking," she said.

In fact, when they have choices, students often go for the option that will be the easiest, not the one that will help them improve their skills the most, Gross said. "The kids suffer the consequences of making bad choices—always picking the collage, never developing the writing skills," she said.

And that reality, many educators say, can affect students who struggle in class—or even typical students—significantly more than high-achieving students.

Riley of Deans for Impact said educators often point to student engagement as a way to measure whether giving students greater choice over learning is beneficial. But he said there's little evidence that engagement leads to better learning outcomes: "Engagement is a poor proxy for learning."

Similarly, some researchers say allowing students to go at their own pace through materials presents complications. Researchers at RAND who are studying personalized learning found that when given flexible deadlines, some students wait until the last minute to do their work, the research group's Hamilton said. "You can create some inequities if you allow pace to vary for different students," she said.

Plus, she said, "there's an inherent conflict between wanting students to have developed those skills required and giving students choices about what and how they learn. We heard from a lot of folks that there is this tension between state standards and grade-level testing and letting kids go at their own pace."

'What I Want to Learn'

In teacher Sarah Martindale's Advanced Placement biology and chemistry classes at Lancaster STEM Early College High School in Texas, students get plenty of options to demonstrate learning, using a tic-tac-toe board with choices in every square. As assignments progress, students must use at least three of the options to demonstrate mastery.

Lundy, the student who chose the "fun" option for his summer reading project, is in Martindale's class. He concedes that he does sometimes choose the fastest option. "You always think: What's going to take the most and least time? But I only think about what will be fastest if my schedule is packed. Otherwise, it's more about what I want to learn."

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Martindale is particularly proud of the fact that all of her students passed the State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness, or STAAR, biology tests—a record in her 18-year teaching career. She attributes it, in part, to students having those choices and taking ownership of their own educational success. "If they're more excited about the work, they'll remember it," she said.

Martindale frequently does "check-ins" with students to make sure they're progressing and sets deadlines. During those meetings, she pushes them to take learning further. "Even the procrastinators, when they know you're not going to leave them alone, they get it," she said.

Lyric Clayborn, a 10th grader who is also in Martindale's class, said she appreciates the value of allowing students to have greater control over their education. "Not every student gets it when the teacher lectures and they take notes. Some students need to go home and watch videos," she said. "I want to be able to choose the way I learn."

Vol. 38, Issue 12, Pages 19, 24

Published in Print: November 7, 2018, as Raising Student 'Voice and Choice' Is the Mantra. But at What Expense?
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Correction: 
A previous version of this article should have said the Horry County Schools are in South Carolina.

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