Last month, Nat Malkus of the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) published a study on the trends in Advanced Placement course offerings in public schools from 2000 to 2012. The data shows that from 2008 to 2012, the percentage of public schools offering AP courses declined from 79 percent to 74 percent, a backslide from the eight percent increase in schools offering AP courses eight years prior. Malkus found that small, rural, and high-poverty schools—that had championed expanding AP offerings from 2000 to 2008—were the leading cause of the subsequent drop in those offerings from 2008 to 2012.
Given the economic climate in 2008, who can blame them? The recession left schools strapped for cash, so it’s hardly surprising to see small, rural, and high-poverty schools struggling to to finance AP classes—especially if too few students are academically prepared to justify hiring or training an AP teacher. It’s also worth noting that because many of these schools serve far smaller numbers of students, the decline in percentage of schools offering AP classes does not represent a proportionate decline in the number of overall students able to access AP coursework. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, AP’s may be losing marketshare to other channels to advanced coursework like MOOCs, dual enrollment college courses, or honors courses, all of which may be gaining traction as metrics of college readiness.
Still, the findings raise a much more fundamental question that states must grapple with: should the public school that a student attends dictate (and in this case, limit) the coursework that he can access?
As Malkus himself notes, online courses have long provided a solution to filling gaps in coursework that schools otherwise can’t afford. The upside for schools willing to invest in online courses to fill these gaps is threefold. First, students, regardless or where they go to school, have access to challenging coursework. Second, schools can benefit from economies of scale, which typically proves especially difficult for remote rural districts. Third, and perhaps most importantly, these courses mark a first step toward investing in new instructional models that stand to break from our traditional factory-based model.
Indeed, online AP courses marked the beginning of the disruptive trajectory that online learning has taken for over a decade. As my colleague Katherine Mackey has written, online courses have the potential to fill pockets of nonconsumption: situations in which the alternative to using a new method or product is nothing at all. From there, courses can improve over time to offer greater flexibility in pace, path, time, and place along which the course takes place. For example, some online and blended courses are reimagining how to combine online content and face-to-face adult supports. Other online courses actually expand the chance for students to do projects in their communities in ways that brick-and-mortar schools sometimes struggle to offer at scale. These new paradigms shift the metrics of quality and can ultimately lead to disruptive models of blended learning.
Some districts, of course, have embraced this potential. For example, the Poudre School District in Fort Collins, Colo., launched the Poudre School District Global Academy (PSDGA) to provide its students with more flexible course options—including AP courses. Since it opened in 2009, PSGDA has ranked in the top five percent of all schools in the state for elementary, middle, and high school education. Colorado does not offer a statewide Course Access program, but Poudre School District saw the opportunity to reach even its most rural students in the areas surrounding Fort Collins through online courses. These approaches, however, only work if a school is willing to hire online courses to fill in gaps. If we are concerned with equity—and if we agree that the school you attend should not determine the limits of the courses you can take—states, rather than individual schools, must step in to ensure that all students, regardless of the school they attend, can benefit from innovations in online learning to access coursework.
To this end, Course Access policies establish state-level programs that provide students with expanded course offerings across learning environments from diverse, accountable providers. These programs promise to offer students expanded curricular programs and alternatives that meet their individual learning needs. Participating students have the right to enroll in qualifying courses outside of their school, receive state funding, and earn full class credit for courses completed through the program. Numerous states–including Louisiana, Texas, and Florida—have already implemented Course Access policies. Although these are state-run programs, as a Foundation for Excellence in Education report last year noted, districts can also expand their business models by acting as providers in the Course Access marketplace. One such example is Guthrie Common School District, a very small, rural district in the Texas panhandle that touts a total of 91 students. After years of not having qualified staff members to teach required courses like world languages, the district launched the Guthrie Virtual School (GVS), part of the Texas Virtual Schools Network Course Access initiative.
For the 26 percent (and counting) of public schools across the country that don’t have the option of hiring or training teachers for AP classes, Course Access programs can ensure that their students have the opportunities they need to succeed. The growing gaps in AP access are one of many examples of disparities in coursework that students can take depending on their individual school’s resources and priorities. Course Access not only opens new funding channels to those students and families, but it can also lead the way in shifting to embrace new models of teaching and learning that disentangle the stubborn stronghold that geography and zip code have on opportunity.