Is it Time for A La Carte Education?

I had a bit of an epiphany this weekend, y’all:  We live in an a la carte world—and a la carte worlds are not comfortable places for organizations like our public school systems. 

Need an example?

Then let’s look at the source of my weekend’s curse quota:  The greedy corporate thieves Time Warner Cable and the Dish Network.

If you’ve followed me for any length of time, you’d know that I ditched my cable service completely back in January.  I’d grown tired of dropping my child’s college education funds $100 a month for access to hundreds of channels when I was only watching 10. 

So instead of paying the money hungry sons-a-guns Time Warner Cable or Dish Network, I bought me a Roku box and signed up for Netflix Streaming and Hulu Plus

Combined with a decent digital antenna and the same major networks I grew up with, we’re doing just fine in the Ferriter house—and saving a TON of cash while we’re at it.  My monthly outlay for television:  16 bucks.

Things came to a bit of a head for me on Saturday, though.  You see, the one thing I can’t get through Netflix, Hulu, or the major networks is Carolina Hurricanes Hockey

Most of their games are broadcast on a Fox Regional sports channel called Fox Sports Carolinas—which the dirty rotten scoundrels Time Warner Cable and Dish Network include on their middle to high end television packages.

On an ordinary day, I could probably live without the Canes.  Don’t get me wrong:  I LOVE seeing the boys play but nine days out of ten, I’m too busy to sit and watch a game.

This weekend was different, though.  The Canes were sitting just two points out of the playoffs and had a huge game against the Stanley-Cup-less and seemingly always angry Buffalo Sabres. 

I wanted to watch the game pretty badly, so I scoured the Internet looking for options to watch it legally—and despite spending nearly 2 hours checking three different options, I discovered that there is no way to watch just one Canes game without giving your life’s savings away one month at a time to the less-than-admirable scalawags Time Warner Cable or the Dish Network. 

I gotta tell ya, the whole experience left me pretty damned pissed more than a little heated—and more than a little convinced that cable companies are going to go belly up.

You see, we really do live in a world where people are growing to expect to be able to customize their content streams

I don’t want to read the entire newspaper.  Instead, I want to follow updates to sections that I care about.  And I want to be able to read the comics, the horoscopes and the sports section those sections from my devices and on my time—not when you decide to print and deliver it to me.

I don’t want to watch a million television shows.  I want to watch 12.  And they’re all on different networks and on at different times.  But that’s your problem, not mine.  Just figure out how to give me what I want.

The way I see it, if I can watch the Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants or UFC 131: Lesnar v. Dos Santos “pay-per-view,” I ought to be able to watch ANY show on demand and for a one-time charge. 

Now I know what you’re thinking.  You’ve probably decided that I’m angry and more than a little spoiled—and to be honest, you’re right.  Life in today’s world is easy:  I want what I want in the way that I want it and I won’t be satisfied until I get it.


What should force you to think, though, is that as the a la carte lifestyle takes greater hold in our world, schools are going to have to start answering lots of difficult questions.

Think about it:  Why should the boy in my classes who plays on three baseball teams and has 8 practices a week spend any time in public school gym class? Shouldn’t he be able—with his parents’ permission—to take an extra math class or two?

And why should the girl in my classes who has spent her whole life studying engineering with her mother and father spend any time learning science from a poorly trained rube like me?  Shouldn’t she be able to opt out of my class—or at the very least, opt in to a class with an educator who her parents believe in?

Now, schools can take the white-collared bandits’ Time Warner Cable’s approach to these new demands from a-la-carte-loving clients and keep pretending that there’s nothing wrong with what they are offering. 

Or schools can start to rethink their approach to offering services.  We can—and I’d argue that we should—begin to allow parents and students more choice over then whens, wheres, whys and hows of their education.

The changes won’t be comfortable.

We’re going to need to rethink how students are assigned to teachers and examine the kinds of classes that our communities value.  We’re going to need to imagine new ways to use digital tools to differentiate instructional experiences at the student level. 

We’re going to have to decide just how committed our constituents—who are increasingly likely to be folks with highly individualized expectations like me—are  to a “common core” and “national standards.”

And yes, taxpayers—we’re going to need more resources in order to overhaul a system that has been in place for the better part of a century and to ensure that every child has access to the same range of opportunities.

But the changes just aren’t optional anymore, y’all.

We’ve either got to adapt or die


18 thoughts on “Is it Time for A La Carte Education?

  1. Gillian Percy

    Regarding the comments about parent choices and their children’s education: Many parents are making actual choices about what is important to their children’s education and those choices may be different than mine- that’s fine. What I mind is when the parent is not really chossing anything– they simply don’t want to be bothered doing any thinking or work whatsoever. I hate watching as you see the kid slowly falling farther and farther behind, not doing homework, skipping school etc. , while other kids just as weak slowly catch up because their parents do care and do make choices to help them.

  2. Talena L. Kettrell

    Firstly, Thank you for the humor. I laughed out loud more than once.
    Secondly, I agree with you regarding the cable companies, thumbs down. There has to be a better way.
    Lastly, but not least, an a la carte education would be just right in the interim while we figure out how to change the tired and old educational paradigm that we struggle with now. The future of education, I trust and will work toward, will be one that embraces all types of learners in an ala carte way so that every learner reaches her full potential and adds abundance to the world.

  3. Julia Peterson

    As a teacher of the gifted, I like the idea of an ala carte education. I have students who are writing music, winning concerto competitions during the extra curricular activities. Why do they need to take elementary school music? (Fortunately we have fabulous music teachers who expect a lot, but those students don’t need to sit and “learn” how to count music) Teaching in a high income, athletically active community, many of our students don’t require P.E. for health and fitness. Why should they have to spend their time taking it if their BMI is in a certain range and they are getting exercise outside the class? Why should a child whose family speaks Spanish in the home be required to take Spanish immersion classes? Why should gifted students have to sit in a 5th grade inclusion math class and spend the first half of the year in review? Gifted children should be challenged and learn as much new material as the lower ability students do. When we deprive them of this opportunity, we are directing them down the path to underachievement.

  4. Bill Ferriter

    Im with you here, too, K: I really am comfortable with the kinds of a la carte suggestions that youre making.
    The only hitch in my thinking is that some children cost far more than the average to educate. An example: Our building serves 5 severely autistic students. There is a full time teacher and three aides working with that class. Combined, the investment in that classroom just for teaching salaries is probably close to $125,000—–$50K for the teacher and $25K for each full time assistant. That per pupil expenditure is way, way above the $7,500 average.
    Another example: If I were serving a group of really high performing students from great families who were heavily involved in their childs education—-which, most years, I do—I would love but not necessarily need $7,500 per pupil. Students who are already well prepared and supported at home dont require the same level of costly support services.
    So as we move towards a more a la carte system of education—-something that Im pretty certain is going to happen in the next decade—–I just want to see us move away from conversations around average per pupil spending because that average is actually built from wildly different numbers instead of a set of even expenses on every child in our system.
    Id like to see us work out a wider spread of average spending based on what we know it takes to support the different types of kids in our schools.
    If we had a more sophisticated definition, it would become possible to allocate resources more fairly to schools—and to homeschooling parents, and to charters—based on the real needs of the populations that they were serving.
    Does this make any sense?

  5. K. Borden

    Mr. Ferriter:
    You commented on school funding and tailoring funding to student needs.
    This is the time of year I order materials, tools, and contract services for the upcoming year. Receiving the items now allows me to become familiar with the products, formalize the plan and schedule. I have a budget and must make the best choices to suit my learner’s needs within it. While I don’t come close to spending as follows, I present it to serve as an example and promote alternative thinking.
    What if every teacher for every student had $7500 (one estimate of the average spent per student today) yearly to allocate. What could you buy or provide for a middle schooler in one year?
    Course Specific Materials (books, software, equipment, supplies) @ $250.00 per course for 5 courses: total $1,250.00
    Special lessons/training in the various arts $1,400.00
    Graphing Calculator $135.00
    Laptop $600.00
    Foreign Language Program $250.00
    Microscope $200.00
    Miscellaneous supplies/fees $500.00
    Testing $100.00
    Total thus far: $4185.00.
    Note several of the purchases would serve several years.
    Also note, the ability to tailor the materials to the student’s learning style.
    Add $2500.00 per student to pay the “teacher”.
    Subtotal: $6685.00
    Remaining $565.00
    Bring that to scale, apply discounts for quantity purchases and a greater amount could remain.
    What could you do with a given student in a given year with the autonomy to allocate from a pool of funds? If a student needed additional support, counseling, tutoring, how much more would need to be allocated? Who and what would be essential in your learning community? What cost for buildings and maintenance thereof? How much easier or more difficult would it be to make the case for these needs, evaluate the impact of increased spending?
    What if teachers had a clear set of common standards, 30 students each and the power to allocate resources to the students specific needs? What if teachers worked in teams, applying their best talents cooperatively to making these decisions and fulfilling the plan for each student? How would teaching change? How would the experience of the student change? What role for administrators?
    What if?
    What would real A La Carte decision making look like?

  6. mratzel

    Sure Bill everything you said makes sense to me. And I’m behind the idea that a parent has that right even when we don’t agree. I’m sure that there were times when I was raising my own kids that the teachers and schools just shook their head at my “poor decisions”.
    It is that schzie part of me that wants to protect and the part of me that says that it’s not anyone’s business but the parents.
    So how are WE going to be a part of the a la carte train? That’s the most important question. Have you heard some of the Alan November interviews with Brad Carter from Think Global School the nonprofit HS that travels instead of having a building. Now I’m not saying that we should all travel, but I’m saying that it’s going to take this kind of thinking to develop ideas that are customizable to the little guys that are just starting school.
    They deserve that from us. How are we going to do that?

  7. Bill Ferriter

    You make great points, Marsha—and I agree that one of the greatest frustrations as an educator is watching the different levels of parent involvement in my classroom just knowing that those very real differences will have either positive or negative influences on what my students will become.
    So in theory, Im with you: Sometimes, there are students who really could use us to step in on their behalf and support their choices when their parents arent.
    But sometimes that sounds so patronizing to me that I just cant fully embrace it. I guess this is where the conservative and liberal angels sitting on my shoulders start to battle.
    You see, a part of me believes that even when we dont agree with the choices that parents are making, they have the right to make those choices—-and for us to try to insert ourselves into those choices strikes me as grabbing more authority than we really deserve.
    Dont get me wrong: I hope that the vast majority of parents would take our advice about their childs education simply because they know us and believe in our professional judgment. I hope that my a la carte suggestions would be applied in only a handful of cases at each grade level simply because I believe that we DO get things right most of the time.
    But in those hopefully rare cases where parents decide to take a different approach to the education of their child, Im starting to believe that the choices of the parent—whenever it is feasible—should play the primary role in deciding where and how a child is educated.
    And I also firmly believe that parents are eventually going to have more choices beyond our public schools than ever before—-so even if we dont change, interested parents can start rocking the a la carte train without us.
    I just want to see us changing to adapt before it is too late.
    Any of this make sense?

  8. mratzel

    Dear Bill,
    Having just raised my three children, I would be in favor of this all the way IF parents were involved and would help students makes choices. And I’m all for student choice, too…at some point. Just not sure where they are responsible to make these decisions.
    My kids were bored to death for most of school….after elementary school. Now you’d think it be the other way around wouldn’t you. But it wasn’t. Why you might ask?
    Because the place they went to elementary school used very clever and useful techiques. They taught for the deep end….but here’s the catch. When they taught a skill, student differentiated the materials that were used to practice the skill. So if one student need below grade level materials…that’s what they used and they practiced on that level because there was always at least one other kid out of a class of 30 that they could be paired up with. And the opposite was true too…if you were grade levels beyond, you used materials beyond and paired up with someone else.
    There were very few kiddos who really needed to be skipped ahead…like the engineering genius you mentioned but I’d say those few could be accomodated.
    It was only when they got to middle and high school that all that stopped…because teachers taught from one resource and it was all at the same rather dumbed down level.
    So yes…I’d definitely be in favor of that. But also I’d also say that most parents aren’t going to be involved enough to help their kiddos make good choices. Again as a mom (not a teacher) I don’t think my own children were necessarily the best choosers at the HS age. Could they pick a topic within a class? You bet. But if they had to pick to take a class or early release so they could sack groceries…they would have picked sacking groceries everytime. Being the mean old mom, I refused to let them do that. Figured there was plenty of time to sack groceries and not enough time to explore all the cool extras of HS that only come around once in life…so I MADE them take photography, dramatic literature, auto tech, woodshop, jewelry, textiles, health career field experience, linear equations/problem solving with math, field biology, creative writing, drafting, clothing design. As a mom, I’m thrilled that I made them “suffer” thru those choices and so are they now that they are in their 20s and almost 30s.
    But I can’t even find enough parents that make their kids do their homework on time now because they have soccer practice or church and school is not the priority. It’s probably not a reason to keep the choice from being offered…I don’t like it…but I suppose it no better than trapping them in a class that will bore them to death.
    There are amazing kinds of new online learning that is becoming aavailable…have you seen the new middle school online game from NSF, Smithsonian and MIT? My students are loving it and it draws them in….what possibilities are there going to be?
    Don’t you think that online offerings will blow all of this to pieces? I think our teenagers will be walking away in droves with their fingers very soon. Our HS sleep, not realizing that a tsunami of options are about to blast them off the beach…and no containment fields will be in place. We owe it to our kids to think bigger, think better and come up with options.

  9. Bill Ferriter

    Hey Parry,
    I think my approach to charters and vouchers is pretty simple: As long as we—as a community—are accepting collective responsibility for providing a sound basic education to every citizen, I dont care where it happens.
    The hitch in too many conversations about vouchers and charters, though, is the refusal of taxpayers to accept responsibility for providing a sound education for EVERY child. Theyre usually only interested in the quality of the education that is given to their OWN child—-and if they dont have children, they just dont care.
    In practice, that would mean investing tax dollars into ensuring that public schools—-which I believe will almost always serve the majority of the kids in our community—-have what they need in order to reach the students that they are serving. If a school has a high percentage of students with learning disabilities, they should get more cash. If theyve got a high percentage of students living in poverty, they should get more cash. If theyve got a higher percentage of students who have fallen behind in education, they should get more cash.
    Maybe the hitch here is our per pupil funding models dont take into consideration the very real fact that some students cost more to educate than others.
    If we can figure out a model of funding based on that truth—which would ensure that schools (public, private, charter) were getting what they needed in order to effectively educate the actual kids coming through their doors—-I dont care where the money is spent.
    Any of this make sense?

  10. Parry

    You’re sounding a little more radical and a little less tempered these days. Keep it comin’!
    Is there an implicit argument in here for expanded choice options for parents, a la more charter schools and maybe even vouchers?
    I’m not judging, just wondering.

  11. Kevin

    I agree with you. I am experimenting with giving up some control and working in different ways. I think given the current political climate with governors like ours in Ohio trying to privatize all education, it is necessary to be ahead of the curve.
    I am still hopeful this all works out well, but there are going to be growing pains.
    PS – As a Buffalo boy I am assuming you were rooting for the Sabres. Go Sabers!

  12. Bill Ferriter

    Thanks for stopping by, Tim…
    Whats interesting to me is the mixed messages that come from policymakers about schools. They scream about our failures to innovate and then they created scripted curricula. They scream about breaking the system to pieces and then they create national standards that will result in one massive system larger than anything weve ever seen.
    Its almost bipolar.
    (Im beginning to believe thats a prerequisite for holding legislative office.)
    Rock on,

  13. Bill Ferriter

    Cori wrote:
    Bill, this is exactly what Im hoping to offer students in an advanced
    ELA program – an, Im excited, I want in. A passion based program.
    My kids already imagine new ways. Just ask em. The pain might be mine,
    but Im in.
    Hey Cori,
    First, its great to see you again! Thanks for stopping by. Youre one of the single most energetic and inspiring teachers that I know.
    And thats what worries me!
    You see, I completely believe that youll run with a la carte education in your own classes and with your own kids. Youll knock it out of the park even if it kills you in the process.
    Thats what all good teachers do, right? We make it happen even in the face of almost impossible circumstances because were passionate about doing whats right for our kids.
    Now dont get me wrong: I admire that about you and about the passionate teachers that I work with.
    But I also worry that our passion and determination to overcome impossible circumstances gives legislators and community leaders an easy out when it comes to reforming schools. They can point to people like you—who will succeed even in the face of your systems failure to support you and to create the conditions necessary to make a la carte education possible—and say things like, Well if Cori can do it, why cant every teacher do it?
    In the end, the pain of rethinking education shouldnt be borne by classroom teachers and classroom teachers alone—-but often, thats exactly what happens.
    And sometimes I think we shoot ourselves in our own feet when we fail to point out the incredible failures of those who are supposed to be supporting us. Its almost like every time a teacher does something heroic, those heroic actions become the new normal for legislators and community leaders.
    Does any of this make sense?

  14. cori saas

    @Charma What about if students ask?
    #ohya Bill, this is exactly what I’m hoping to offer students in an advanced ELA program – an, I’m excited, I want in. A passion based program.
    My kids already imagine new ways. Just ask ’em. The pain might be mine, but I’m in.

  15. Charma Craven

    BTW, we already do this in Kansas. For example, there is a student next year in my gifted class that will not take PE because she is in gymnastics for 15 hours after school each week. With the IEP, she will take something else. Students not on IEPs take higher level math classes if they are at that level. If parents ask, we try to accomodae them.

  16. crazedmummy

    (1) I thought that’s why they had sports bars. I think it costs you $10 for snacks and drinks to watch your game. A restaurant-style place lets you take your kids. Then it costs more. But still less than cable.
    (2) As I said in response to the lawyer post, I have no problem with a la carte education – it’s why people home-school – as long as the deciders pick up the tab if they opt their kid out of classes. My neighbor had a great idea to give everybody 12 years of high school education, you could take it when you wanted. So if you decide you know everything at age 15, and drop out, you can drop back in at 21 when you’re ready to learn, and pick up your missing 3 years of high school at no cost.
    The tough part will be to get students and their parents to understand the cost of going through school with 6 hours of gym and band. The Marines marching band still needs you to be able to do math and english.

  17. Tim Kanold

    Great post. Funny and yet spot on in terms of message. If we can just get more outside the boundaries of how we think of school…
    love the #sothere… could be a great twitter community!

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