Opinion: Enabling student choice improves Michigan education system

Lisa Sitkins

Our education system has been in a constant state of reform since the No Child Left Behind Act was passed in 2001. The focus on state assessment performance has not produced the academic results intended and leaves little room for our students to be inquisitive, creative, collaborative and confident life-long learners.

The state Legislature needs to focus on personalized learning if we are going to move education forward in Michigan. One way to allow personalization to flourish is by passing Zones of Innovation that provide a safe space for districts to continue offering innovative personalized learning options.

We need to tailor learning toward each student’s strengths, needs and interests, Sitkins writes.

We need to tailor learning toward each student’s strengths, needs and interests. To do that, we need to give students a voice and a choice about what, when and how they study. 

Students should be allowed to work at their pace, not the school’s schedule. They should be able to choose where they want to learn, be it a traditional classroom, a drop-in center, the community or at home.

In a personalized schooling approach, students demonstrate their learning beyond test taking, and educators support students as they learn. This support may be as community learning coordinators, curriculum and assessment developers, academic coaches/mentors, classroom teachers, or drop-in center educators.

Many districts across Michigan, like those in the Michigan CoOp (MiCoOp), have modernized their educational approaches within the confines of the traditional model. To support these districts as they continue building creative models of personalized learning, the Legislature needs to create Zones of Innovation like other states around the country, such as West Virginia and Massachusetts.

These zones would allow Michigan districts to try innovative approaches to learning and assessment without the fear of losing funding. In these “safe zones,” state decision-makers would support districts as they plan, design, implement and evaluate personalized models. From this process, evidence-based best practices can be developed.

One of three priorities the Michigan Department of Education has set to boost academic results statewide is a focus on the whole child. Under the whole child model, collaboration is necessary between home, school and the community to develop healthy, educated children. MiCoOp districts understand that “it takes a village” to educate students, and that student learning occurs outside school facilities and/or with community members.

Berrien Springs’ Parent Partnership, Hamilton’s STREAM School, and Oxford’s Hybrid Pathways provide learning options that give students choices, engage the community, and provide supports from public school educators. Safe zones would allow districts like these to test new personalized learning models in educating the whole child.

To move education forward in Michigan, we need to expand our thinking of what it means to “go to school.” Successful personalized learning models provide students flexibility to explore their own interests, strengths, and possible career paths while building intrinsic motivation and maturity through the freedom to make choices in their learning. The Michigan Legislature needs to find a way to fund multiple formats for learning so students have those choices.

Zones of Innovation would give school districts the flexibility to offer students more choices in when, where and how they learn. Choices, along with the oversight and guidance of professional educators, will allow all students in Michigan to reach their full learning potential.

Lisa Sitkins is a consultant with EdTech Specialists and an educator passionate about life-long learning.