The Flex Learning program would make it easier for students to take courses they need to advance toward graduation. All college-prep, dual-enrollment and career-technical offerings would be fully accessible, as long as they were provided directly by, or through partnership with, a school district, charter public school, community college or public university. This could include learning opportunities provided by private businesses or nonprofit community organizations, as long as they are sanctioned by one of these public education agencies. Student selections would be supported by funds, where needed, to provide internet connections to virtual content or underwrite transportation costs needed to access educational opportunities in person.
A diverse set of learning pathways reflects parental choice and student agency. It also helps mitigate the limits of steering students into particular tracks through one-size-fits-all learning plans. The implementation of Flex Learning should scrupulously avoid the type of tracking mechanisms that predominated U.S. high schools in the first half of the 20th century, and that have continued in many ways to sort students by abilities real and presumed.[*]
A template for Flex Learning can be found in New Hampshire’s newly enacted Learn Everywhere program. The innovative program essentially unbundles the accreditation process. New Hampshire goes beyond the usual practice of accrediting a school or district to determine individual academic progress and issue diplomas. Instead, its state education officials now also recognize credits students earn for individual courses completed outside the conventional school system. All public schools must allow students to earn as much as one-third of their graduation credits through Learn Everywhere, though local school officials may award diplomas for a student who completes all their credits through this non-traditional program.
In order to receive accreditation, a business or community organization applies to the New Hampshire Department of Education. The applicant must describe the project-based learning and how a student’s performance is assessed, as well as share evidence of the instructor’s qualifications. Traditional teacher certification is not required. But the applicant must provide assurances of liability insurance, a clean criminal background check and a nondiscrimination policy for student enrollment. The department performs an on-site visit and recommends favorable applications to the State Board of Education for a vote on an initial one-year authorization. Programs that follow the rules during this probationary period are then authorized for an additional five years.[†]
State law could require that participating private entities meet the basic assurances that New Hampshire applicants must provide. Michigan public education agencies that embrace this opportunity through Flex Learning could consider implementing other procedures like site visits to their approval processes. Getting funding for accredited coursework from a private provider would relax the requirement that instruction must come from a state-certified teacher.[‡] However, nothing would prohibit agencies from mandating partners hire credentialed educators to differentiate themselves.
Following New Hampshire’s example, students could continue to advance toward a diploma strictly through an established school program, but their schools would have to allow them the option to gain some course credit by participating in a community orchestra or theater program, for example, or by completing an apprenticeship with a private manufacturing company. Those recognized programs thus would be eligible for high school graduation credit, without the programs themselves having to be part of a school district. Learning opportunities are not restricted to a classroom nor to the direct control of school authorities, and Michigan’s public school system should formally recognize this fact.
[*] Marc Tucker, “Student Tracking vs. Academic Pathways: Different...or the Same?” (Education Week, Oct. 15, 2015), https://perma.cc/2S32-EBHK. Tucker identified the potential danger of multiple high school pathways leading to more tracking and sorting.
[†] “Learn Everywhere Fact Sheet” (New Hampshire Department of Education, June 13, 2019), https://perma.cc/LR9T-GWKP; “Learn Everywhere Program Initial Application” (New Hampshire Department of Education), https://perma.cc/SL7X-L7ZN. The process is modeled after New Hampshire’s process for state board authorization of public charter schools. “Charter School Authorization” (State of New Hampshire, 2020), https://perma. cc/6UY5-E6AK; Nathaniel Greene, administrator, Office of Academics and Professional Learning, New Hampshire Department of Education, telephone conversation with the author, Oct. 15, 2020. The initial application period was opened in September 2020. Department officials are hopeful that the first few applicants will go before the State Board for a vote before the end of the calendar year.
[‡] State law makes provision for students to test out of a subject and earn credits without sitting through any course instruction from a certified teacher. See “Testing-Out: Questions & Answers” (Michigan Department of Education), https://perma.cc/X8TF-PM5L.