OCPA: Course Options for Rural Schools

By OCPA President Jonathan Small

Scan the academic results of Oklahoma schools, especially such indicators as average ACT scores, and you’ll notice a worrying trend: the graduates of smaller, rural schools often (not always) rank poorly when compared to their peers in larger, urban and suburban schools.

Does this mean city kids are smarter? Absolutely not. What it does point to is a truth that education researchers have long known: the more challenging high school courses we can offer our students, the better they’ll do.

The American College Testing (ACT) program, which evaluates most college-bound Oklahoma students, has studied this for decades and their findings are conclusive. Students who take a challenging curriculum of core courses in high school will score on average from 2.1 to 2.8 points higher than those who don’t take such a program.

That’s a dramatic difference, one reflected in lower ACT scores, lower college attendance rates, and higher remediation rates. When you look at the typical number of course offerings at many smaller Oklahoma high schools, you’ll find that most are barely offering beyond the minimum of 20-25 different courses. Check a larger school’s offerings, and they may have 50 or more courses.

Of course, few small schools can justify offering calculus, advanced placement science or history, or even a full range of core courses every semester. And, no amount of extra money would solve that problem. For a student body of, say, 75 seniors or fewer, it’s just not economical to hire a calculus teacher or one who can teach Latin, astronomy, or Mandarin Chinese should eager students express an interest in such courses.

The good news is that every high school student in Oklahoma already has access to all these courses. The Oklahoma Supplemental Online Course Program allows individual students or a small group of them in any school to access a catalog of approved online classes.

Those courses are available through an in-school class setting or 24/7 from home, even in a combination of the two. So, ten seniors at a smaller, rural high school might all be taking English from an on-site teacher, then each choose from Latin, advanced placement physics or history, chemistry, and other courses online.

It’s easy to see how such a broad course availability could begin to erase that academic gap between smaller and larger schools and the students they serve. It’s also a clear answer to teacher shortages, even for larger schools, where students wanting to take an advanced science course could be referred to the online program.

If your school isn’t offering a strong college prep curriculum, this course-choice program could be an answer.

Jonathan Small serves as president of the Oklahoma Council of Public Affairs (www.ocpathink.org).

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