An Unexpected Learning Journey

Providing true alternatives to a one-size-fits-all approach to public education. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Steven Guttentag

CREDIT Pearson.pngIn 2013, 3.17 million students graduated from public high schools throughout the United States. Among them, a young woman in Ohio who had overcome deeply-etched academic and social frustrations to earn her high school diploma in a new school and was making plans for her first semester as a freshman in Tuscaloosa that fall.

As is the case for many students, Alex did not easily fit into the traditional school model through which we are all asked to pass. In a recent note to a former high school guidance counselor, she reflected on that time, writing, “I hated school and was dead set against going to college. I didn’t even want to finish high school.”

In the case of students such as Alex, it is not a question of square peg, round hole. That would mean each of us could be grouped like-for-like, dismissing the unique characteristics and needs that shape the individual. While students are more often than not taught at a prescribed and constant rate, each learns and grows independently of the whole and may not easily move through – or “fit” – the established academic road map purposefully designed for mass education.

Six years ago, Alex questioned her relationship with school. Today, she is navigating the highest levels of academia.

Clearly at a crossroads that would determine the trajectory of her life, Alex was fortunate to have an option, an opportunity to try an entirely different learning environment. She enrolled in an online public charter school at the beginning of her junior year. Though not the appropriate environment for every student (what school is?), the self-paced learning path inherent to her new school allowed Alex to re-examine the role of education in her life, as well as her experience as a student. She learned to love learning and, through the encouragement of her teachers, was surprised to find not only an aptitude, but also a passion for math and science.

Alex was indeed fortunate. Fortunate to live in a state with options beyond her traditional brick-and-mortar school. Fortunate to have trusted in herself. Fortunate to have found the successful student within before abandoning her education and traveling down a very different – perhaps difficult – road.

A second chance at making high school work for her, rather than the other way around, set Alex on a path toward a very bright future. In May, she graduated from the University of Alabama with a degree in physics and mathematics. Successful completion of minors in both German and Russian also grace her transcript. This fall, she will begin a Fulbright Scholarship in Germany, followed by a Ph.D. program in physics at Princeton.

This story doesn’t have to be an outlier. So many of our students could be pulled back from the brink of leaving school if only we provided them with true alternatives to a one-size-fits-all approach to public education. Six years ago, Alex questioned her relationship with school. Today, she is navigating the highest levels of academia. If history is any guide, a guess as to what tomorrow will bring for Alex would certainly fall short of the reality.

Steven Guttentag, Ph.D, is president for Online and Blended Learning, K-12, at Pearson, and co-founder of Connections Academy, a provider of online learning solutions for grades K-12 since 2001.

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