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Let’s Grow Colorado K-12 Course Access But NOT Reinvent the Wheel

Give me Legos, Play-doh, or just a pile of rocks and sticks, and I’ll create something. If you want to know what some of my crazy inventions have been, just ask my poor mom. But let me tell you one thing I haven’t tried to do, and that’s reinvent the wheel.

I’m sure the members of the new online education task force are well aware of that wise maxim. One of the tasks they’re charged to do is authorize pilot programs for digital learning that can and ought to include course-level funding. A couple months ago I pointed them to a quick Fordham Institute manual about the different policy dimensions to consider.

Now I’m hoping even more that they’ll see the lessons gleaned from other states, lessons reported reported last week by Digital Learning Now. The report highlights not only the advantages of Course Access, but also key challenges that need to be addressed, such as “Creating meaningful foundations for system performance review and assessment.”

What I didn’t realize was that there are already a dozen states operating, or preparing to operate, programs allowing elementary and secondary students to direct funds to purchase individual courses. Wow! One of the states getting ready to join the Course Access club is Florida, which we learn just today has launched the first version of its K-12 online course catalog.

If Colorado truly doesn’t want to be left in the dust, maybe we’ll have our own similar virtual catalog up soon. For now, the pilot program approach is designed to get local school districts to break important ground that will provide more options in this realm for students. To that end, the insightful Michael Horn has offered up five reasons districts should love course access:

  1. Many districts currently can’t provide all students with access to all the courses that match their “needs, interests, and abilities”
  2. Though to some extent districts can enter this arena now, heading toward the Course Access goal means a richer and more diverse set of courses from which students can choose
  3. Getting on the Course Access bandwagon can empower school boards and district leaders to be more “strategic about what educational services they offer within the district versus what they leverage from outside the district”
  4. For the districts who don’t want to be out front, a full statewide program provides incentive to pursue innovative approaches without necessarily sacrificing resources
  5. It will encourage districts to help play a role in guiding students through the “emerging, unbundled world” that awaits them in 21st century higher education, career, and life in general

One final note Horn makes is worth the consideration of the task force, as well as local and state policymakers more generally:

…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.

Believe it or not, that’s an entirely reasonable and practical concession, one that fits with the course-level funding model my Education Policy Center friends proposed way back in 2012. We’ll get there eventually, hopefully sooner.

But as Colorado moves forward, like I said, let’s not reinvent the wheel.