Editor's note: This is the sixth post in Fordham's 2016 Wonkathon. We've asked assorted education policy experts to answer this question: What are the "sleeper provisions" of ESSA that might encourage the further expansion of parental choice, at least if advocates seize the opportunity? Prior entries can be found here, here, here, here, and here.
What course would you have wanted to take in high school if you’d had the chance?
For me, it’s economics. I’ve started many meetings about course access with that question as an icebreaker. The first few times, I even had the “brilliant” idea to drop the responses into a word cloud. But that ended up being a dud when everyone gave different answers and astronomy, law and policy, psychology, photography, geometry, Japanese, physics, and accounting were all the same size.
Cool story, but what’s course access?
It is a policy under which kids get access to a range of supplemental courses approved by their states that may not otherwise be available in the schools they attend full-time. Think of it as an evolution from states solely being providers of supplemental courses through virtual programs. The state’s role in course access is one of quality assurance (on the front end and back end) and promoting opportunities to students, families, and schools. Courses can be delivered online, in blended formats, or in person; they can span Advanced Placement, career and technical, world languages and other electives, credit recovery, and dual enrollment. Providers could include state virtual schools, other school districts, institutions of higher education, employers, nonprofits, and companies that provide online courses.
Wait, I thought we were talking about ESSA?
Good point. ESSA includes a provision that allows states to set aside 3 percent of Title I funding to provide direct student services. These services could include public school choice, tutoring, and—wait for it—access to courses not otherwise available to students. We’ll have to wait for the Education Department to release regulations and guidance to know how services will be selected. But at a minimum, states will be able to use administrative funds to authorize providers and include priorities to create incentives for particular activities like supplemental courses.
But here’s the best part: Once a state goes through the process of evaluating and approving providers through direct student services, they can use those same providers to make courses available to everyone.
If you want more than this taste of wonkery on direct student services, check out the tapas-sized portion in ExcelinEd’s ESSA summary; or you can go for the Old ‘96er-sized treatment with this deep dive from Chiefs for Change.
But wait, there’s even more. States (and districts) can also use funding from the Title IV Student Support and Academic Enrichment Grants for activities related to course access. It’s a fantastic strategy to increase access to the range of courses in a well-rounded education (Section 4107) and an ingenious plan to effectively use technology (Section 4109). And setting up a catalog and provider approval processes are other worldly prospects for state activities funding (Section 4104).
Why should I care about this course access thing?
The Education Department’s most recent Civil Rights Data Collection included a snapshot of college and career readiness statistics. It showed that only half of the country’s high schools offer calculus, and less than two-thirds offer physics (access gaps get even more stark in the schools with the highest percentages of black and Latino students). Sorry, kids, if you want all the necessary courses to be ready for credit-bearing STEM programs when you get to college.
In addition, data from Gallup on student engagement looks like a descending staircase from fifth grade through high school: Prompts like “In the last seven days, I have learned something interesting at school” show drops of nearly three-quarters of a point on a five-point scale. Constraints borne out of tradeoffs between limited staff, classroom space, and schedule blocks mean that too many kids don’t get the courses they want or need. Course access allows leaders to make a different range of decisions when deciding what courses and supports they’re able to offer students. No longer does the decision about AP courses need to fall between paying very high per-student, per-course costs and not offering the opportunity at all.
Who’s already doing this course access thing, and what does it look like?
This is a relatively new policy concept, and it looks somewhat different across the early adopter states. We have many resources on ExcelinEd’s site that help explain the concept—including how leading districts are making the most of course access—as well as videos profiling leaders and students in Ascension Parish, Louisiana and Guthrie, Texas. You can also find information about course access from iNACOL and the Christensen Institute.
Neil Campbell is the director of next-generation reforms at the Foundation for Excellence in Education.