As Course Access programs, in which students have access to publicly funded courses of their choice across a range of providers held accountable for results, proliferate across the country, gauging the success of these statewide programs will be difficult because of how districts are likely to respond, as I wrote a few weeks back.
Few entities like to lose money even if it means their students will be better served, just as few companies like to lose money when customers choose another option in search of a better fit.
But Course Access presents a number of opportunities for districts, if they leverage it appropriately.
First, given the wide variety of students schools serve, it is challenging, if not impossible, for most school districts to provide access to all of the courses and academic content necessary to meet each student’s needs, interests, and abilities. The story is bleaker than many realize. Across the country, less than two-thirds of high schools–63%–offer physics. Only about half of high schools offer calculus. Among high schools that serve large percentages of African-American and Latino students, one in four don’t offer Algebra II, and one in three don’t offer chemistry.
Districts can use Course Access to extend options to students that they would not have otherwise. It can allow schools to offer students an unparalleled course catalog that they couldn’t access within the four walls of any school anywhere. And for students who might otherwise seek other schooling options, this can help keep them enrolled within the district’s schools.
Second, although districts can already enlarge their course catalogs by signing agreements with outside providers—be they online providers or nearby community colleges, for example—the advantage of Course Access for districts is that it can gain them instant access to a much wider and more diverse range of providers than they would likely be able to cobble together themselves given the challenge of negotiating and managing contracts with a large number of vendors. And it does so without the hassle of hoping a salesperson from a company comes knocking (and in many small, rural school districts, it just won’t make sense for the salespeople to come).
Third, if districts are able to view courses offered through Course Access as part of their own offerings, then it could enable them to be strategic about what educational services they offer within the district versus what they leverage from outside the district. For many, this could free up resources. They could decide, for example, that given the talent of their teachers in the arts, they are going to specialize there, but still give students access to foreign language experiences through Course Access, even though they don’t directly have the teachers on staff.
This benefit presupposes that districts are able to use their budgeting processes in a strategic manner. Unfortunately, all too often that’s not the case, which is admittedly a problem—and one of the reasons districts may struggle to embrace Course Access. In her book Educational Economics: Where Do School Funds Go?, Marguerite Roza does a terrific job of explaining why districts struggle to allocate resources in strategic ways to match their priorities, but there are two significant reasons worth highlighting. First, because federal and state funds are often distributed through a variety of formula and restricted grant programs, schools are limited in how they can spend certain pots of money. In other words, because policy determines their allocation of their resources, their strategies are to some extent out of their control. The solution is to have dollars follow students and free up individual schools to spend dollars in the way that they decide makes the most sense and to hold them accountable for student outcomes, but this requires significant changes in policy and regulation. Second, many costs that businesses might view as variable are in essence fixed within schools and districts because of regulations and teacher contracts. Schools can’t easily redeploy resources to focus on one area at the expense of another, even if only a tiny percentage of a school is benefiting from a certain program.
The fourth benefit of Course Access programs for districts is that it provides cover for them within their community to innovate because competition from outside providers might otherwise strip away funds. This can be a big opportunity. In Utah, prior to the passage of their Course Access bill, only a couple school districts provided online courses. Now, at least 29 of the state’s 41 districts offer online coursework—and many innovative blended-learning schools have emerged, such as Innovations Early College High School in Salt Lake City.
Fifth, as I wrote a couple weeks ago, as online learning unbundles higher education, a need will emerge for entities to come along that help students make sense of and navigate this emerging, unbundled world and integrate the modular pieces together in ways that help them carve out a coherent and sensible life path. This is critical because it appears that in a personalized learning future, every single learner will have a custom fit educational pathway. The same could be true for high school students in K–12 schools, and district schools have a big opportunity to be the arbiter of coherence and the integrator of an array of pathways for learners.
To accomplish this, of course, school districts will need appropriate funds. What this means is that as dollars follow students to the course of their course in Course Access programs, some appropriate amount—at least 10 percent—should remain with the home school district to help them with this and other tasks. Too often states have constructed Course Access programs that don’t keep in mind the other services school districts likely need to provide students outside of academics alone.
A new report out this month from Digital Learning Now, a national initiative advancing state policies that create high-quality learning environments, profiles 12 states that have introduced elements of Course Access legislation so far. The report recommends how states considering such policies can ensure that high-quality courses reach as many students as possible and how to stage the implementation of Course Access in smart ways over time to achieve desirable outcomes for all students.
Course Access is still a new policy, but for many students, no matter where they live or what school they attend, it will give them a significantly greater chance to fulfill their potential.