Change the Preposition: No More Choice “of” Schools, Choice IN Schools

Guest post by Kevin Lein

Throughout my career in education, various school choice initiatives have come and gone, but now school choice has the backing of our current political administration and Secretary DeVos. As a staunch advocate of public education, I am deeply troubled by these efforts to undermine and dismantle the progress we have made in our public schools. I believe that the solution to the question of school choice lies not in offering choices between schools, but rather in promoting choice initiatives within our public schools. 

Proponents of school choice say that thought competition will create better learning environments and better opportunity. But unless we determine our students to be “products” and retreat to assembly-line, industrial-aged thinking, business models alone will never create the intended result—i.e., to level the playing fields for all demographics and meet students where they are to take them as far as they can go.
Only when we acknowledge these realities will we have a solid foundation from which to explore the effects of school choice.

Relocating students is not always the best option. Such an approach underestimates the power of technology and the support our communities can provide. Instead of thinking about moving students between different schools, we should be looking for ways to encourage students to move within their existing environments, according to their needs and abilities. In other words, we should aspire to develop an IEP for every student. Practically speaking, it may be difficult to achieve this vision with existing resources, but the point is we need to shift our mentality and look for new and better ways to help our students succeed in their own communities. For example, we should aim to:

  • Offer certification programs in the community or online rather than graduation “treks.”
  • Destigmatize vocational routes and encourage dual targets of academia with CTE-focused possibilities.
  • Allow for more work-based credits to unlock opportunity and promote schedule flexibility.
  • Integrate non-traditional demonstrations of mastery and practice to provide more sustainable and credible assessments for certain student populations.

Skills-based curriculum and assessment must be the rule rather than the exception. We should focus more on developing traits that can be generalized to any future, such as discernment, discrimination, communication, critical thinking, creativity, accountability, and responsibility.

To the proponents of school choice, I ask you to consider a different path. Instead of pushing policies that relocate students to different schools and making education a for-profit enterprise, push instead for choice within our public schools.

To my colleagues leading our public schools, I ask you make a conscious effort and set a goal to integrate more skills-based curriculum, teacher training, and student assessments. Think about ways to encourage student mobility and choice within your campus community.

Kevin Lein, EdD, is the former principal of Harrisburg High School in Harrisburg, SD, and current regional administrator for Prairie Lakes Area Education Agency in Jefferson, Iowa, where he continues his work to create customized learning environments for students. He is the 2016 South Dakota Principal of the Year.

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