A framework exists to help guide secondary students set an academic trajectory and select relevant courses that would help facilitate Flex Learning. In 2006, the Michigan Legislature established Educational Development Plans. School districts and charter schools are obligated to give every seventh grader the opportunity to create an individual plan that focuses on developing career goals and selecting courses and experiences that lead to those goals. With help from counseling staff, each student is expected to complete their EDP before starting high school. A student may revise and update the plan each year before graduation.
Current law sets basic graduation requirements through the Michigan Merit Curriculum. Basic competencies in math, English language arts, science and social studies remain an essential core of all successful high school careers. But the law also recognizes the need for some individual variations. A student can, following their EDP, pursue a personal curriculum that deviates from the standard in certain prescribed ways.
For students with disabilities, the EDP is complemented by the Individualized Education Program, which the law says is to be developed with input from parents. By the time a student reaches age 16, the IEP should detail the extra supports and services a student needs to make the transition from school to the workforce or postsecondary education. Under Flex Learning, IEP students and their families could have more leverage to set the expectations and course of preparation. However, many of them may need the state to make funds for special education services more portable in order to reap the full benefit. Such a system should include a student’s district of enrollment retaining a small fee to administer the IEP.[*]
In recent years, the Legislature has also taken modest steps to build broader flexibility into how students may meet the state’s graduation requirements. For example, a 2020 law makes permanent the option to substitute career-tech program completion or an arts course for a second year of foreign language in the Michigan Merit Curriculum. Further flexibility would enhance the effect of Flex Learning plans and opportunities.
The existing framework prepares students, parents and counselors to take advantage of even greater flexibility to complete graduation requirements. Because of the framework’s current design, it makes the greatest sense to limit Flex Learning eligibility to middle and high school students. The process of creating an EDP facilitates thinking about career goals and interests, and the steps needed to reach those goals. [†] With Flex Learning, that experience could bring greater focus to the importance of a larger menu of course options.
As part of the EDP process, districts and charter schools would have to give timely notification to the families of all students in grades seven through 11 of the opportunity to participate in Flex Learning, regardless of the funding mechanism used. That would mean either notification about the chance to apply for a Flex Learning Account for the following academic year or introducing them and providing guidance to the expanded course catalog.
While career motivations should not be the sole determinant of secondary courses and experiences, the ability of students to establish and update their plans should be supported by current government agency collection and reporting of job market information. During the creation and revision of EDPs, students should be presented with information on various types of careers, average salary earnings and degree or licensing requirements, as well as employer demand for different industry certifications.[‡] Though economic conditions can change over time, that information could enable students and families to better weigh their future prospects and evaluate the labor market. Having both better information and greater latitude to chart a path to graduation may especially benefit secondary students otherwise lacking direction.
Students could be encouraged to set an early graduation trajectory in their EDPs by taking courses beyond the standard load for a given term, provided the student demonstrates an ability to complete the extra courses. This would resemble an approach Idaho has taken since 2016. Through its Advanced Opportunities Program, high school students can elect to receive up to $4,125 per year in state funds to fund their own assortment of Advanced Placement, overload and dual-enrollment courses, as well as postsecondary workforce training.
[*] Large shares of Michigan special education dollars are collected and controlled by the state’s 56 intermediate school districts. See the author’s chapter on “Funding for Special Education” from Ben DeGrow, “How School Funding Works in Michigan,” Mackinac Center for Public Policy, July 19, 2017), https://www.mackinac.org/23790.
[†] “EDP Fundamentals” (Michigan Department of Education), https://perma.cc/QEU4-543M.There is no specified format or template to the EDPs, but each is supposed to contain a few core elements, including career goals and plan of action.
[‡] Examples of common industry-recognized certifications attainable by K-12 students include credentials for software skills (Microsoft Office Specialist, Adobe Certified Associate), automotive mechanics (Automotive Service Excellence Certification) and construction (NCCER – Core Curriculum). See “Credentials Matter Phase 2: A 2020 Update on Credential Attainment and Workforce Demand in America” (ExcelinEd; Burning Glass Technologies, Sept. 2020), 13, https://perma.cc/ LV52-ERDM. While Michigan develops and maintains a list of approved industry credentials, data gaps need to be resolved for both student attainment and employer demand. See “State Summary: Michigan” (CredentialsMatter, 2020), https://perma.cc/L8BV-ZXV9.