When Elaine Nielson was in sixth grade, her teacher noticed that she and a few of the other students in her class were up for a challenge and decided to start teaching them Algebra. The following year at her local junior high, Elaine found Algebra I to be a breeze because so much of the course content was on material she had learned the previous year. Then when Elaine was in eighth grade, her mother found her working on her math homework one day and noticed that she was frustrated. At first, her mother wondered if she was struggling because the concepts in Geometry were not as easy for her as the concepts from Algebra had been. But she soon discovered that Elaine’s frustration came from being bored almost to tears because her class was spending time to go over the same Algebra problems that she had learned back in sixth grade.

As Elaine’s parents considered how best to help their daughter, her father remembered hearing about the Utah Statewide Online Education Program. Through that program, Elaine was able to take Geometry as an online course during her second semester of eighth grade while completing the rest of her courses at her local school. She did well in the course and decided the following year to again complete her math requirements through the state’s online program. Taking Algebra II online allowed Elaine to make room in her school schedule for band, choir and other courses that she was interested in. The online course also gave her the flexibility to complete her math in just one semester so that she would have more time in the spring to be involved in her school’s musical.

Before long, many more students across the country should be able to have experiences similar to those of Elaine. The Utah Statewide Online Education Program is a promising example in a growing national trend toward state-sponsored course access programs. These programs allow students to enroll in a variety of online, blended, and face-to-face courses from a wide selection of accountable providers, in addition to the courses they take through their local schools. Course access plays a critical role in giving students learning experiences that would otherwise be unavailable to them.

For example, last year over 90 urban public high school students in New Orleans took advantage of Louisiana’s new Supplemental Course Academy (SCA) to complete credits for their first year of college through Bard Early College Campus, a satellite campus of Bard College in New York. Bard provides students in the 11th and 12th grades with the opportunity to spend half of their school day on the Bard campus as Bard College students. At Bard, these students take introductory liberal arts and science courses on topics such as Brain Science and Conscientiousness, Environmental Science and Ethics, and Modern Social Criticism. Bard plays an important role in helping them make it to and through college by engaging them in rigorous courses that develop their writing and critical thinking skills to the levels expected of college undergraduates. Bard’s courses also enable them to complete college more quickly and affordably by giving them college-transferable credits while in high school.

In addition to providing face-to-face courses such as those offered through Bard, the Louisiana SCA gives students access to some of the best teachers and courses throughout the state and across the nation through its many online-learning options. For example, some of the most sought-after SCA courses are online courses offered by the Louisiana School for Math, Science, and the Arts (LSMSA). LSMSA has operated one of the best brick-and mortar public schools in the state for almost three decades, but because many interested students are unable to enroll at LSMSA’s physical campus, the school has been providing high-quality distance learning courses since 1989. Through the SCA, students from anywhere in Louisiana can enroll in LSMSA’s online math, science, Advanced Placement, foreign language, and elective courses to meet requirements for graduation, prepare for college, or explore their academic interests.

Last school year, over 2,000 Louisiana students discovered new learning opportunities through the Louisiana SCA. The SCA online portal lists hundreds of courses from over 30 different state-vetted course providers on subjects ranging from Algebra to Welding and from Digital Arts to ACT Test Prep. The SCA makes it possible for schools and districts across Louisiana to give their students access to learning experiences that the schools themselves lack the resources to provide.

As more states consider creating course access programs, there is a growing need for guidance on how to fund and operate them and ensure their quality. A new report out this week from Digital Learning Now, a national initiative advancing state policies that create high-quality learning environments, profiles 12 states that have introduced elements of such legislation so far. The report recommends how states considering such policies can ensure that high-quality courses reach as many students as possible.

In this day and age, a student’s education need not be limited to the four walls of the classroom nor the lines drawn around his school district. Course access is a valuable new policy that helps states meet the individual learning needs of their students.


  • Thomas Arnett
    Thomas Arnett

    Thomas Arnett is a senior research fellow for the Clayton Christensen Institute. His work focuses on using the Theory of Disruptive Innovation to study innovative instructional models and their potential to scale student-centered learning in K–12 education. He also studies demand for innovative resources and practices across the K–12 education system using the Jobs to Be Done Theory.