Expanded access to high quality learning opportunities can help close the achievement gap

The achievement gap in the United States has been studied and examined by academics, politicians, and the media for over a century. Low-income, minority students are performing at significantly lower rates than white, middle-class students. African American students, for instance, are scoring 25% lower on standardized tests than their white peers. 12th grade African American students’ scores on standardized literacy tests are equivalent to those of 8th grade white students. Morally, this societal imbalance must be corrected immediately before another generation of children receive a second rate education. Leaders need to promote creative options for low-income, minority students whose educational needs are not being met adequately by their schools.

Louisiana’s Course Choice is an innovative solution that has the potential to place underperforming students in high-quality courses and programs that can help them improve their academic skills. Under this program, the Louisiana State Department of Education has approved 41 Course Choice Providers through a rigorous four-step process. Course Choice Providers range from commercial companies, non-profit organizations, local educational entrepreneurs, schools districts, community colleges, and virtual schools. Students can choose a range of courses from vocational classes like pipe fitting and barbering to Advanced Placement, to foreign language, to test prep, to core academics. Some providers offer college and career training.

The state is developing a strong accountability system to ensure effective implementation for the 2013-14 school year, and providers are paid for results. They receive 50% of the tuition payment after a student has stayed in a course past the add/drop period, and they only receive the remaining 50% when a student finishes the course.

Course Choice is designed to supplement the school system by creating courses that will help schools achieve their mission of delivering quality programs that build students’ academic foundation and prepare students for college and careers. Parents of students enrolled in the program see Course Choice as an academic lifeline for their children, and students are excited for new opportunities that they do not currently have. At the end of each school year, courses’ success can readily be evaluated through LEAP scores, End of Course Exams, and student participation rates.

In order for Course Choice to be most effective, providers, schools, and community-centers should work together to ensure that students are receiving the maximum benefit from the program. Course Choice Providers must work to deliver the highest quality curriculum by creative means in order to ensure that all students stay engaged and learn. They must be able to meet the needs of students who may have special needs and/or lack the basic skills required for some of the courses. Schools should notify students of all of their options and ensure that the courses are accessible to interested students and well-integrated into the school day. Schools and Course Choice Providers must communicate effectively about student learning plans and academic progress. Community centers should reinforce Course Choice by informing the community about it and potentially incorporating Course Choice into an after-school program or weekend academy.

Like any new policy, strong and courageous leaders need to ensure that the program is effective. State Department of Education, District, School, Community, and Course Choice Provider leadership must put students first and work together to deliver Course Choice effectively to all qualifying students. Collectively, educational stakeholders can have a strong impact on student academic achievement, which will help this generation of students have immediate access to quality courses and educational programs beginning in the 2013-14 school year.

Isaak Aronson is President/CEO of SmartStart Education, LLC, which operates SmartStart Virtual Academy, an approved Louisiana Course Choice Provider