A review of Digital Learning Now’s new Course Access Report

Digital Learning Now (DLN) and EducationCounsel recently released Leading in an Era of Change: Making the Most of State Course Access Programs, which provides a strong overview of what Keeping Pace has called “course choice” programs—state policies that allow students to select one or more online courses from a provider other than the student’s enrolling district. With course choice, funding follows the student to the course provider. The report is worth reading for anyone who is involved in education policy and, in particular, in expanding options for students. One section stands out—the discussion of “Core components of effective state Course Access programs.”  Specifically, the report says that effective state Course Access programs “likely include” the following:

  1.  “Meaningful and rigorous state review of prospective providers and/or courses
  2.  Strong monitoring systems
  3.  Flexible and sustainable funding models
  4.  Alignment with the state’s broader education systems
  5.  Deliberate and sustained engagement with districts and schools
  6.  Effective communication with students and parents
  7.  Clearly defined student eligibility”

The list seems right to me, based on Keeping Pace reviews of course choice/access programs in the states that offer such programs.

Another section that I found particularly helpful is “Learning from Past Efforts: Charter School Authorization and the Supplementation Educational Services Program,” which provides an honest review of lessons from previous reform efforts. “Other innovative programs in recent years have faced many of the same obstacles, and have not always succeeded in surmounting them.” Speaking of charter school efforts, the report notes “elements of quality in charter authorizing have emerged and been embraced in states throughout the country”—but only relatively recently.

Two other thoughts generally related to policy come to mind when reviewing the DLN report.

First, even though DLN and Keeping Pace are run by highly experienced digital education policy researchers, the DLN and KP lists of states with course choice programs aren’t exactly aligned. There is quite a bit of overlap, but the complexity of interpreting state policies leads the two reports to different conclusions for some states. These are not simple categorizations and reasonable people can disagree at the margins.

Second, the ways in which policy is implemented are particularly important to topics related to school or course choice for students. There are few areas in which I have some disagreement with the DLN report.  Among them, the report glosses over issues of how districts can refuse students’ selection of online courses from outside their district of enrollment. Some course choice/access states are putting in strong measures to ensure that students will truly benefit from choice. Others are not. In yet other cases the situation is unclear, and we won’t fully understand the situation until we know how many students are choosing online courses after the program has been in place for at least a couple of years.

In Florida, students have had the option to choose an online course from the Florida Virtual School (FLVS) for just over a decade, and FLVS has recorded nearly two million successful course completions in its history. Any state that is wondering if its students are choosing online courses at expected rates therefore can find a baseline comparison by looking at the course completion history of FLVS and adjusting for population size. FLVS exceeded 50,000 course completions within a few years after course choice was implemented, then doubled and doubled again in the next four years. Other states that are implementing course choice should expect enrollments in the tens of thousands quickly, moving close to or into hundreds of thousands of online course completions within a few years.