On a recent trip to my local grocery store I was overwhelmed by the number of options I had for various products. Laundry detergent, for example. I counted 12 different brands and 27 different varieties of laundry detergent – with bleach, without bleach, for HE machines, with softener. All able to do the same job – clean my family’s clothes. The number of options made me realize that choices surround us every day. Which store I shop at, which products I purchase, which gas station I go to, which gas I buy, where I eat, the food I order – a world of choices for these everyday frivolous things. Yet we are given few options on the matters that mean the most to the majority of Americans – presidential candidates, health insurance coverage, public education.
A good friend and colleague from the Virginia Virtual Academy, Elizabeth Clark, best explains some of our students and the current educational system as “trying to fit a square peg in a round hole.” These students don’t fit into the “one size fits all” public schools that so many politicians (those that think they know our children’s educational needs best) leave as the only option in some states. Parents seeking educational options ultimately have one common goal – they want their child to be successful. In a recent Manifesto on the current state of ed reform, Jeanne Allen, founder of the Center for Education Reform, wrote, “The greatest opportunity for improving student motivation comes from personalized learning.” Personalized learning – a great concept, attempted but rarely successful in the brick and mortar classroom. How do you truly personalize learning in one environment – the classroom – with one curriculum – likely on the same grade level – in 60 minutes or less? A brick and mortar teacher unquestionably does his/her best, but with the resources and time given, truly personalized learning will not take place for most students. So what is the key to working towards more personalized learning?
The answer: options. Giving parents the opportunity to choose the best educational environment for their child. Unfortunately, for many states, alternative public education options are highly regulated and in some states non-existent.
Inequality has permeated alternative schooling options. Charter schools have been met with strict regulations and mandates in addition to being forced to operate on fractioned funding. In Virginia, despite the House and the Senate’s approval, Governor Terry McAuliffe vetoed legislation that would establish stand-alone virtual schools, saying it “undercut public schools.” The legislative scene is similar in many states, with lawmakers and politicians deciding that an institution outside of the “traditional” classroom setting is ineffective without giving it a chance to succeed. For so many students virtual education has been – and continues to be – successful. For Sophia, an acrobatic gymnast who attends the George Washington University Online High School, virtual learning meant more time at the gym as she prepared for the Olympic Trials. For Georgia Cyber Academy student Damacia, learning online allowed her to work ahead in her courses and devote her time to volunteering. Michigan Virtual Charter Academy student Ganna, used the flexibility of computer-based learning to focus on a writing her first published novel.
In a world with so many choices, we have severely limited our educational options. We must realize that the answer to education reform will not be found by imposing stricter regulations and limiting alternative education opportunities. What a progressive country this would be if public school options were as abundant as laundry detergent.