The pandemic experience has revealed a great deal about the limitations of the K-12 education system. While status quo defenders intently focus on more funding as a solution, policymakers should work toward a redesign.
When school buildings closed down in March, the first instinct of state education bureaucrats was to tell schools that remote instruction wouldn’t count because they had no way to keep track of student seat-time requirements. The checklist of rules must be satisfied first, they say, regardless of academic results. Make no mistake, the experiment with distance learning has harmed the prospects of many Michigan youths.
Yet even before the COVID-induced shock, public education had many woes. Too many students were falling through the cracks. One-fifth of the Class of 2018 failed to earn a diploma on time. Roughly half of them dropped out of formal schooling. One in four graduates who went on to college needed remedial help.
Thousands of Michigan public high schoolers have no access to advanced courses that would help them en route to college. Detroit’s career and tech programs, meanwhile, are enrolling many young people in fields with limited job prospects.
Some students make progress just fine in the current system, based on available options within their district and strong supports from their home and community. But some of their peers suffer from a rigid design that leaves them with unsatisfying all-or-nothing choices. To broaden the pathway to success, the Mackinac Center proposes that Michigan lawmakers adopt Flex Learning. This plan would enable pupils to take a fuller range of online courses and career programs, directing a share of their designated formula funds to cover costs.
Under Flex Learning, participating Michigan students could combine offerings from different providers, including hybrid and virtual courses, business apprenticeship programs, and dual-enrollment credit opportunities. This would give students and their families greater ability to find engaging quality learning, master material and advance at their own pace.
A small number of innovative Michigan school districts have adopted key components of Flex Learning, allowing their students to combine their own conventional classes, virtual courses and career explorations. But such opportunities remain outside many students’ reach.
Other states have paved the way for a customized education approach, which gives students more options and keeps them engaged on the way to graduation. Utah, for example, allows students to take a full load of online courses sponsored by different public schools across the state. New Hampshire has started to let students earn graduation credits outside the conventional school system.
And Idaho allows high schoolers to direct a share of state funds to pay for advanced coursework and workforce training of their choice. Idaho’s Advanced Opportunities program also offers scholarship incentives to students who graduate early and save the state money. Michigan should take a page from this book.
The pandemic took a great toll on student learning, but providing new levels of flexibility could prove to be a true educational silver lining for years to come.