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January 23, 2014

Creating a good course choice market

by Thomas Arnett

In the last few years, a handful of states (Florida, Texas, Utah, Michigan, and Louisiana) have pioneered a new breed of education policies called ‘course choice’. These policies allow the states to provide their K-12 students with individual course options—from both private and public providers—using state funds. Many of these courses are online, but some are offered in traditional or blended-learning formats.

To some, the idea of having the state fund online course options is alarming. Critics of course choice worry about the motives of private course providers and fear that such providers will profit off of state funding while offering only low-quality courses to the state’s students. Given the problems of high dropout rates and low student achievement that many states have already faced with fully-virtual schooling providers, quality concerns over providers of individual online courses should not be ignored.

At the same time, focusing on these concerns leads people to overlook the real value that course choice policies have to offer. Course choice should not be viewed or implemented as a cheap substitute for traditional courses in traditional schools, but rather as a means for serving certain student needs that would otherwise go entirely unmet. Leveraging the ubiquity of the Internet, course choice policy gives many students a selection of electives, language courses, and AP courses that their schools do not have the capacity to provide or may not provide at times that work with the rest of a students’ schedule.

So, how can we capture the benefits of course choice while also protecting students from poor-quality course choice providers? Like other ‘choice’ policies in education, course choice is based on the idea of setting up a market of options and then letting the participants in that market decide how to best meet their own needs. Those who favor market-based approaches should keep in mind, however, that most real-world markets fall short of the ideal of market-based efficiency because they do not satisfy certain prerequisite conditions.

One condition that is often poorly met in educational choice systems is that the “buyers” in a market need to have good information about their options. Often the only information parents and students have about a course they are considering is the biased marketing material offered by the course provider or information obtained through word of mouth. When good information about course quality is in short supply, parents and students can easily find themselves enthusiastically enrolling in a particular course, only to discover later that the course does a lousy job of actually helping the student to learn and succeed.

When a market fails to function as it should, some argue for shutting down the market altogether or putting regulations in place to hopefully police bad outcomes. A more productive approach when practically possible, however, is to figure out where the prerequisite conditions for a well-functioning market are not being met and then determine if there are ways to remedy those conditions. Given the problems of poor information that currently exist in course choice, here are a few ideas on how that unmet market condition might be remedied.

First, we need entities that are independent from course providers to measure and certify student learning. These independent agencies would provide measures that are unbiased by the interests of the course provider and are comparable across the system. To some extent, state end-of-year exams fill this role. State exams, however, are only administered for certain grades and certain subjects. Furthermore, state exam results do not come frequently enough to provide actionable information. Ideally, we need a system for measuring learning that is rigorous, competency-based, on-demand, and that covers the majority of K-12 content areas.  Such a system would allow parents and students to closely monitor on a daily or weekly basis the effectiveness of the learning experiences they are enrolled in. This data could also be made available in aggregate for each course so that parents and students would have a sense of the quality of a course before enrolling.

Second, we need a system for providing both expert and user reviews of course choice options, similar to those available from Consumer Reports or on sites like CNet, Angie’s List, or RateMyProfessors.com. Standardized measures are nice because they are quantitative and objective, but they cannot capture all the aspects of quality that parents and students may want to know. For example, is a course provider good at serving students with certain learning disabilities? How much individualized support does a particular provider offer to its students? What do other parents or students like or dislike about a given provider? These are just a few examples of possible questions that parents and students might want answered before enrolling in a course. Already, sites such as LearningList.com are stepping up to potentially address this need.

Third, we need a funding mechanism that distributes course choice funds based on this information. In reality there are two types of customers in the course choice market: students’ families and the state. While students and their families exercise choice by selecting which courses to enroll in, the state in its own right should be a discerning customer as it decides which courses get paid for. To make this type of funding work, course choice policy should pay course providers not by the number of students they enroll, but by the number of students who complete the course with satisfactory levels of academic achievement. Such funding mechanisms create strong incentives for providers to ensure that students are succeeding in their courses.

Often when we talk about course choice policy, the conversation centers on where funding should come from and how options should be made available to students. Yet, as states and districts increasingly offer their students the benefits of course choice, information systems like those described above are essential for making course choice work. Good information protects students from poor-quality providers and helps high-quality providers expand their impact.

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