Opinion
School Choice & Charters Commentary

How School Choice Is About to Fundamentally Change

The pursuit of personalized learning will dramatically shift how schools are run
By Mark A. Elgart & Belle S. Wheelan — July 16, 2018 6 min read
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The battle lines have long been drawn, but the context in which educators debate school choice is likely to shift in the coming years. As schools catch up with higher education in using new technologies to reshape how and where we learn, hopefully we will see fewer skirmishes depicting opponents of school choice as “flat Earthers” or proponents as enemies of public schools. Instead, educators and policymakers finally will have to address fundamental challenges in giving every student an equal opportunity to reach his or her full potential.

Our educational system has always offered choice for some, in the form of private schools. Today, some sort of public school choice has become a reality nationwide. At the same time as public charter school enrollment has skyrocketed—tripling between 2005 and 2016 to exceed 3 million—traditional districts have relaxed once-rigid attendance boundaries and created magnet and special-interest schools to better address the needs and aspirations of individual students. In fact, more students attend traditional public magnet schools than charter schools. While both charter and traditional schools have a long way to go before they meet public education’s promise of providing a high-quality education for every child, it is hard to argue against broadening the opportunities available to students, particularly those who have traditionally been underserved by public schools and unable to access private schools.

The conversation about school choice soon will shift from buildings to programs."

At the same time, research has consistently shown that school choice—whether through private school vouchers or lotteries for public charter schools and specialized district schools—still disproportionately benefits better-off students. Where students live still largely determines their options, given the cost and time of transportation, policies that bar cross-district choice, financial constraints, and barriers that prevent parents from learning about the options available to their families.

However, the current school choice debate over access and equity fundamentally misses where choice is headed.

We believe that in the not-so-distant future, choice will not primarily be focused on families and students selecting the particular school that best fits their needs. Instead, parents and students will create a customized educational experience from a menu of options that ultimately will become granular down to the course level. A high school student, for example, might be able to enroll and participate in sports or extracurricular activities at the neighborhood public school, yet travel to a nearby magnet or charter school to take advanced math or science classes—all while taking online foreign language courses or completing college-level coursework with students from around the country.

This approach, while a dramatic shift from how schools are run today, represents a powerful way to meet the imperative of personalizing education for each student. It is already increasingly common in higher education, where consortia collaborate on blended learning offerings and students patch together courses and competencies across a number of providers. And in K-12, the idea that students are not anchored in one school setting is becoming a reality in both affluent suburban school systems and progressive urban districts that offer part-day programs that allow students to take courses in multiple schools.

The proliferation of online learning models soon will extend these options to rural areas, where school choice has been constrained by physical distance. In short, the conversation about school choice soon will shift from buildings to programs—and more often than not, multiple programs for each student.

This shift is being driven not by policy or politics, but by improvements in technology and by the desires of large numbers of parents. It will require an equal shift in the mindset of school leaders and policymakers to ensure that these new opportunities are available to all students, particularly those who need it the most. Among the issues these leaders will have to confront:

Eliminating roadblocks to physical school choice. Funding for choice programs must include viable transportation options for students and foster cross-sector collaboration with regional transit agencies and paratransit options, which supplement public transportation for individuals with disabilities. Policymakers also must continue efforts to eliminate barriers that prevent students from attending classes in schools in an adjoining city or county that better fit their needs.

Managing student records. If students take courses from a range of schools and providers, the question of who manages the credentials will become critical. This issue has already complicated efforts in postsecondary education to better manage stackable credentials—a sequence of certificates, certifications, licenses, badges, apprenticeships, and other credentials that can be accumulated over time and move an individual along a career pathway or up a career ladder. New efforts, supported by the Lumina Foundation and others, are working to connect different kinds of credentials that are likely to reshape how employers hire and how colleges recognize and reward students in higher education. The demand for these approaches will intensify as competency-based education and micro-credentialing proliferate.

Ultimately, we believe each student in both K-12 and higher education will have his or her own “digital backpack” that contains all information about the coursework, credentials, and innovative educational experiences he or she has completed. Policymakers will have to work with technology providers to create an environment where the need for the free exchange of information among schools and providers is balanced with concerns about student privacy.

Improving parent access to information. Even in cities with a variety of options, parents say that they lack quality data to make good decisions. Ensuring that all parents have access to accurate, unbiased, and easily understandable information about educational options will only become more important as parents look beyond schools to nontraditional providers and technology-based options for their children.

As education offerings and their providers become differentiated moving forward, it will be even more difficult to make apples-to-apples comparisons of quality, making it all the more important that all parents have common-sense, plain-English explanations of each offering. Accreditation may ultimately provide an assurance of a baseline of quality that can guide parents as they weigh disparate options that best fit their child’s individual needs.

This transition will be challenging and complex, but parent and student demand is already driving these shifts, requiring policymakers, educators, and parents alike to advocate that all students will have access to the broadening menu of options that can ensure that their education will be the best possible fit for their needs.

Can our evolving educational ecosystem provide this rich spectrum of choices on its own? If not, how can policymakers ensure they are available to all students? That is the question that will shape the future of school choice.

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A version of this article appeared in the July 18, 2018 edition of Education Week as How to Prepare for the Future of School Choice

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