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Every Course for Every Student

• Nathan Martin

Schools should be conduits of opportunity. When a student walks into the 21st-century classroom, they should feel like they’ve stepped into a restaurant tailored to their needs and constructed around the goal of preparing them for success in a college or career. They should be greeted by a menu of course options, robust and as flavorful as the world we live in—courses in coding and foreign languages, Algebra 2 and Shakespeare. These courses should be high-quality, customized, and delivered in such a way—whether virtual, in-person, or blended—to best reflect the learning needs of the student.

Every course offered at every school. This is a promising vision and one which is critical to ensuring that each student can have the tools they need to be prepared for future success. One school can never individually offer every course to every student and, unfortunately, too many schools are failing to offer even basic ones. Between 10-25 percent of American high schools fail to offer one of the core courses (Algebra 1 & 2, geometry, biology and chemistry) and the US Department of Education found that “only 50% of high schools offer calculus, and only 63% offer physics”. Without expanding access to rigorous and robust courses—including growing innovative options for career and technical education—we starve eager learners and the future entrepreneurs of tomorrow.

If states are serious about strengthening schools and students, then they should look to a powerful policy innovation often described as “course access.” As we have written consistently for over a year, course access offers K-12 students access to a variety of quality courses offered outside the four walls of their school. Students largely have the right to enroll in qualifying courses, receive state funding, and earn full class credit for courses completed through the program. While there is diversity in how these programs are offered in states ranging from Minnesota to Virginia and Texas, there is a shared goal for expanded student access and tremendous opportunity.

We were encouraged to see this important reform included in the compelling governing agenda outlined in the YG Network’s Room to Grow. The book injects energy into crafting policies which expand opportunity and what David Brooks of The New York Times calls “the most coherent and compelling policy agenda the American right has produced this century.” Along thoughtful essays from such visionary thinkers as James Pethokoukis, Pete Wehner, and Yuval Levin, our good friend Rick Hess from the American Enterprise Institute highlighted course access as a vision of a flourishing K-12 education system.

David Brooks highlights this idea, noting that the policy offers, “the chance to not only choose their children’s school but to use a fraction of school funding to purchase access to specialized programs, in, say, math or science.”

The promise of course access extends past merely being able to access specialized programs, it is about expanding access to high quality providers in all subjects, enabling connected learning and truly reshaping schools around the needs of students.

Over the last year, we have worked closely with state legislators, education officials, and thought-leaders, trying to explore what is working and stalling with course access program and what are the best practices that states can utilize to expand equity of access for all students. Whether that’s collaborating with other states, instituting high authorization standards around quality, or enabling non-traditional providers (entrepreneurial teachers and CTE groups) to serve students—we have sought to listen and learn from the best that states have to offer. Working with a group of thoughtful students at Stanford, we helped facilitate the development of a new framework for selecting course providers, with an emphasis on balancing rational costs and high student quality. We will release a report of our findings and key policy issues shaping course access in each state.

We continue to work closely with any state who is committed to finding new ways to expand course options for all students and ensuring that schools are truly conduits of opportunity.

About the author

Nathan Martin

Nathan Martin serves as the State Policy Director of Online and Blended Learning for Digital Learning Now. Previously, he worked as the Director of Policy and Alliances for Scantron, an education technology company focusing on digital learning and assessment. Prior to that, he worked in journalism, producing a nationally-syndicated talk radio show, working for the Washington Post and writing for various newspapers in his home state of Mississippi. Nathan received his undergraduate degree from Patrick Henry College. Contact Nathan at