Flex Learning's Time Has Come

Flex Learning's Time Has Come
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Though it prides itself on individualism and individual liberty, the United States has a one-size-fits-all education system that too often falls short of those ideals. Many students are stuck in an education framework based on where they live, regardless of their pursuits and long-term goals. Where choice exists, it’s mostly all or nothing: enrolling in a district or charter school may mean forfeiting other opportunities. Middle and high school students can sometimes explore classes based on their interests – but what if they were given even more options?

The pandemic exposed an education system unable to adapt to changing needs. Many months after school buildings shut down, the delivery of remote instruction still leaves many students disconnected and struggling. At the same time, millions of parents gained a front-row seat to their children’s education and got a firsthand view of what works and what doesn’t. This experience offers insight into what education can and should be, even in normal times.

The Mackinac Center’s Flex Learning plan puts a new level of control into the hands of students and parents who want it. Under it, middle and high school students stay enrolled at a district or charter school. But they also can use shares of their per-pupil funding to “purchase” individual courses and other learning opportunities from across the state, as long as these offerings are provided or sponsored by another public education entity.

The possibilities are nearly endless. Students could take virtual or hybrid classes, participate in a career and technical program, attend community college or university classes, or even do an approved training from a private provider. Students could get real-life experience in high school while completing an internship or apprenticeship program.

Allowing students this type of flexibility is not a new concept. Some parents have been taking advantage of a flexible style of education for years.

Julia Fuller is a Michigan mom who has seen the benefits of a customized education plan. After watching her children struggle academically and socially at a conventional public school, Fuller pulled them out and began homeschooling. To keep the children connected with other students and give them more opportunities, the family joined the Gull Lake Virtual Academy & Homeschool Partnership. Fuller’s sixth-grade and ninth-grade daughters have taken classes specific to their interests, including horseback riding, pottery, and photography.

Through Flex Learning, students would not only be able to take more interest-based classes but would also be able to grow in traditional academics by taking classes tailored to their learning level. Some, like Becky Daniels’s daughter, could even get a jump start on college. Daniels, another Gull Lake parent, understood that every child learns at a different pace. In ninth grade, her daughter started taking college classes. The classes counted toward her daughter’s high school diploma while also letting her earn college credits.

Key components of the Flex Learning plan have been tried in other states. Utah’s Statewide Online Education Program lets students take a full load of online classes from various providers, and with few exceptions, schools must recognize the course credit a student earns. Utah also sets up a course-payment system that increases the incentive for students to succeed. The provider receives the last half of the course fee only after a student satisfactorily completes it.

New Hampshire is pioneering Learn Everywhere, which gives the state authority to accredit individual courses provided outside the conventional education system. Schools must recognize high school graduation credits from these nontraditional experiences, up to a certain limit. Flex Learning could also benefit from something like Idaho’s Advanced Opportunities Program, which offers high schoolers money to create their own accelerated path to a diploma through a mixture of Advanced Placement and dual-enrollment courses, as well as industry certification and other workforce training.

A number of states offer programs that let students take a limited number of classes from outside entities, but Flex Learning would open the doors wider. Students would stay on a course plan toward graduation, but they would be able to do so while subscribing to courses and opportunities from a large pool of providers.

Students in rural areas could benefit the most. In Michigan alone, tens of thousands of high school students aren’t able to access key math, science or Advanced Placement courses where they are enrolled. Giving more choices of course provider and content increases the chances that students anywhere find not only the knowledge and skills but also the inspiration and motivation needed to succeed.

A robust Flex Learning policy could also have a dynamic effect on the education system by encouraging more districts to get creative in reaching students statewide with quality learning opportunities. Teachers could focus more of their professional energies in specific courses, while helping more students make progress. Districts could reap greater benefits from establishing partnerships with businesses or other organizations that provide meaningful credentials for important skills.

The long year of COVID has highlighted how our school system is not well-suited to meet the diverse needs of students. Flex Learning offers a solution. States should adopt a nimbler approach – one that trusts families to choose learning opportunities that set their children on a path to success.

Ben DeGrow is the director of education policy and Holly Wetzel is the communications manager for the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, a nonprofit research and educational organization based in Midland, Mich.

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