Lack of courses still a problem, but course access is not yet a viable solution

by John Watson

ExcelinEd’s analysis of course equity and access in its report College and Career Pathways: Equity and Access, contributes very valuable data points regarding a problem but stumbles in its proposed solution.

Using data from the U.S. Department of Education’s Civil Rights Data Collection (CRDC), ExcelinEd finds that:

  • “nearly 1.4 million students attend public high schools that do not offer Algebra I or the subsequent progression of math courses expected by many colleges and universities for enrollment.”

  • “1.5 million students “attend public high schools that do not offer Biology or higher.”

  • “not a single state offers Algebra I or Biology in all high schools.”

The study goes into much more detail and notes that this is not a problem limited to rural areas but also afflicts many urban schools and students. In fact, “as the percentage of minority populations in schools increases, access to courses decreases.” In addition, “as the percentage of low-income populations in schools increases, access to courses decreases.”

This is a serious problem. Credit to ExcelinEd for highlighting it and proposing three steps that state leaders should take to address this problem:

  1. “Evaluate: Conduct a statewide audit of course offerings and access.

  2. Communicate: Inform families of courses necessary for college and career readiness and options to access those courses.

  3. Improve: Identify policy solutions to improve access for students.”

The first policy solution proposed, and by far the most specific, is developing course access policies or programs. The report defines course access as “a state-level program that provides students with expanded course offerings from diverse, accountable providers across the country” and lists Indiana, Rhode Island, and Louisiana as example states. The study explains that the courses may be online, blended, or entirely face-to-face.

We agree that online courses are a useful option for addressing inequities in the learning opportunities available to students. Our concern, however, is that this and other ExcelinEd reports suggest that course access policies and programs are 1) active in more states than they in fact are; and 2) are reaching more students than they are, even in the states that have such policies.

We are working on a Digital Learning Collaborative course access policy brief now that will flesh out the following points, which we believe to be true based on our initial data analysis.

  • Course access policies and programs can be a valuable approach to providing a range of courses to students who otherwise cannot access them, but very few states (probably three or four) have created new course access policies that have reached a significant number of enrollments.

  • At least three states highlighted in the ExcelinEd reports, and in past Keeping Pace reports, have course access policies that are built on a prior record of support for a state virtual school. The success of online course access in these states (Florida, Georgia, and Michigan) arguably are due more to the support of their state virtual schools than for course access.

  • Course access policies and programs in most other states thus far have grown very slowly, and none have reached the enrollment numbers that some of the largest state virtual schools have reached.

In our experience researching course access over several years, we have found that course access policy suffers from sounding conceptually easy but being hard to execute. This is because the funding reality is challenging but tends to be treated as an afterthought. The ExcelinEd course access model policy paper follows this approach by discussing funding in its very last section.

When thinking about the reality of funding online courses for students, policymakers have two choices,[1] neither of which is easy:

  1. They can put new funding into a combination of acquiring, supporting, and promoting online courses, whether by funding a state virtual school or paying a range of course providers. This approach has an advantage in that it doesn’t create opposition from any entities that would lose money that is re-purposed. The disadvantage (from a state financial perspective) is it increases state spending on education.

  2. They can re-purpose existing funding that is going to districts. This approach has the advantage that it doesn’t increase overall state spending on education, but it means that district traditional schools, which will lose funds, either oppose the policy or often discourage their students from taking advantage of the online courses.

One could make the reasonable point in response that all policies have drawbacks and tradeoffs. But the problem is that reports like College and Career Pathways gloss over the realities because there simply aren’t enough successful course access states to point to. The report suggests that “State leaders can look to states employing course access policies like Louisiana, Indiana and Rhode Island.” But of those three states, only Louisiana provides a potentially useful example. Indiana and Rhode Island have fledgling policies and programs, at best, that are reaching extremely few students.

We will have more to say on this topic when we publish our course access policy brief.

[1] This discussion ignores foundation and federal funding because neither would likely ever pay for a large-scale online course program that would reach a substantial percentage of students in any state for an extended time period.