Education Options in an Age of Customization

Many parents in the United States have a growing number of options available to them when it comes to their children’s education. Out of curiosity, I experimented with Google Maps and a couple of other resources to discover that I have close to 50 viable schooling options for my children within 10 square miles of my home. That includes traditional public schools where my children would be eligible to attend, charter schools, homeschooling co-ops, virtual charter schools, as well as a variety of private and parochial school options. I’m not sure if most parents realize how many options are available to them. However, I am a strong advocate for exploring/comparing options and then making an informed decision that is based entirely upon what one believes in best for their unique child. What environment will best help the children thrive and develop their gifts and passions? I know that there are a variety of political positions that people take when it comes to public versus private, the benefits of homeschooling over traditional schooling, etc. However, as a parent, I believe that my first responsibility is to do what is best for my individual, unique children. And as an educational leader, I believe that it is my job to aid people in making informed decision about their educational options. It is not my job to “sell” my brand at all costs. Instead, it is my responsibility to listen and learn what they want and/or need, and when allowed/asked, give a few thoughts or suggestions. This doesn’t mean that I don’t reach out to people and share the benefits of the schools that I support. I most certainly do. However, I refuse to do it without taking into account the individual. Individuals matter. Context and life situations matter. Needs and desires matter. Education is not at its best when it touts a one size fits all model. Of course, this doesn’t just apply to the education options of the young ones. It applies just as much (or perhaps even more) with regard to options for an initial college degree, graduate studies, and continuing education options. You can get a glimpse of that in books like Kamenetz’s DIY U or Curtis Bonk’s The World is Open: How Web Technology is Revolutionizing Education.

Several years ago, I had the opportunity to listen to Gene Frost, author of Learning from the Best, address a group of Lutheran school teachers and administrators. Gene’s book took the ideas of the wildly popular Jim Collins book Good to Great, and applied them in order to explore what makes a great school. During Frost’s speech, he explained that there was a significant shift in the typical parent’s thought process about choosing a school. Thirty years ago, Frost stated, parents chose to send children to a specific school for “identity” reasons. It was a matter of the school with which they identified. I send my son to the local public high school because I went there and it is a family tradition. It was good enough for me and it is good enough for him. Or, maybe I sent a child to the local Catholic school because we are Catholics and we support the work and ministry of the Catholic church. Parents sent their child to a school because they identified with the school on some level.

It was not primarily a decision based upon the child’s unique needs and interests. According to Frost, this is changing. More and more parents (maybe even a majority in some places) are choosing education options based not upon “identity” reasons but instead “value” reasons. What educational option has the greatest value for my family and my individual child? Parents may send one child to one school and another child to a separate school, based upon the children’s unique needs and interests. Homeschooling is growing around the nation, partly because parents want to have a fully customized learning experience that aligns solidly with their values and their beliefs about what is a great education. Similarly, there are many parents who are getting increasingly informed about matters of curriculum and various learning environments (project-based learning, classical education, self-directed learning, direct instruction, etc.).

We are in an era of customization. In the 1970s, most people consumed media on the terms of the media provider. Today, the consumer chooses what to consume, when to consume it, and how to consume it. He can even shape the media message as it unfolds (as in the votes in some reality television shows). The variety of kitchen appliances and household gadgets have skyrocketed in that same time period. Americans have more choices than ever, and they increasingly demand to have things on their own terms. We even see this with small items like the customized covers on our favorite mobile device or cell phone. This mindset now informs more and more parent’s decisions about the education of their children. It informs more adult’s decision about continuing education and graduate school. People will argue that this is a good or bad thing. I always argue that it is both. It has benefits and limitations and it is part of education in the digital age. Educational leaders and learning organizations would be wise to consider the implications for their own work and organization.

If you want a thought-provoking read on this notion of customization from a business perspective, you may enjoy Anthony Flynn’s Custom Nation.