Lake: The Future of School Choice Isn’t About Schools at All — It’s About Empowering Students With a Wider Array of Flexible Learning Opportunities

Students work together to assemble a circuit kit in a school makerspace. (Allison Shelley/The Verbatim Agency for American Education: Images of Teachers and Students in Action)

National School Choice Week is a time for advocates of school choice to celebrate. I see it as an opportunity to reflect and think about what needs to come next.

This year, we at the Center on Reinventing Public Education are celebrating our 25th anniversary. Since 1994, we have posited and tested ways to allow families to choose schools that fit their needs and give educators the autonomy to create them, without losing sight of the public interest in education.

We have watched many public and privately funded choice programs evolve and expand, and reported that in most cities, families have affirmed their desire for more good options. School choice is now the new normal. We’ve focused on how a portfolio of options can meet the diverse needs of communities. We’ve tried to be equal-opportunity truth tellers, continuously urging civic leaders and public officials across the country to do a better job meeting student and family needs.

To be sure, school choice advocates have earned the right to celebrate. Much has been accomplished, especially on behalf of low-income students. But as we look forward, we are increasingly convinced of the need to think in new ways. In the years since our founding, our ideas have informed the transformation of school systems from New Orleans to Denver to the nation’s capital. Now there are signs that the improvements in those cities are beginning to plateau. Further progress will require continued innovation.

Across the country, school systems struggle to meet the needs of the most complex learners and to serve the students most deeply affected by trauma and generational poverty. There are also signs that the definition of an “effective” school must be revisited as we learn more about what best promotes child and adolescent learning, the limits of standardized testing and the need for students to question and create, not just comply. Meanwhile, the next generation appears poised to confront a multitude of challenges — from a changing climate to a changing economy — that will demand all the talent it can muster.

The tenets that CRPE has always held — flexibility for educators, families empowered to make choices, attention to true equal opportunity, government assurances of quality, and authentic community engagement — are more essential than ever. But these strategies must evolve in ways that enable us to better meet the individual needs of students.

Imagine that 20 years from now, schools from the earliest grade level were highly customized, focused on early intervention, and cultivated students’ individual interests and talents. Schools would do whatever was required to serve the extremes, not the mean, so they capture talents that are now being lost and motivate many students who are now settling for mediocrity. This might mean that the role of some schools would be to serve as curators of services and supports rather than a single source providing everything to every student.

Schools teaching younger students would be focused only on a limited set of core gateway learning and developmental skills directly linked to readiness for secondary education. Older students could select or build personalized learning pathways toward careers by earning competency-based credits for high school graduation, college coursework, and industry credentials. Schools would not be isolated; they would use learning experiences now locked up in community resources, such as businesses, hospitals and clinics, social service organizations, cultural institutions, and colleges.

Attention to equity challenges would be prioritized, not swept under the rug. Learning navigators and other organizations would help support individuals and work to build connections and networks. New solutions would be owned and operated by local communities.

Funding would increase, be more flexible, and follow students longer. A student who graduated early could use saved funds to return to school for additional learning later in life. While still in school, a student developing a passion for dance could pay for specialized dance classes by forgoing another elective. Government would play a critical role in quality oversight, parent information, and student protection, but not necessarily in providing services or prescribing methods.

Starting with the student instead of the school has led us at CRPE to important new places, especially as we contemplate lessons from the past and look to a future of great uncertainty. This line of thinking has pushed us to think more in terms of portfolios of student pathways than just portfolios of schools.

We explore these ideas in a new set of essays that are meant to provoke new conversations and debate. We hope they inspire you to reflect as you celebrate School Choice Week. The mark of a healthy vibrant movement is continued growth and evolution.

Robin Lake is director of the Center on Reinventing Public Education as well as affiliate faculty at the School of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences at the University of Washington Bothell.

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