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4 Ways to Provide Greater Access to Advanced Coursework

Katie Novak
Katie Novak
December 12, 2023

In our collective efforts to address persistent disparities in academic outcomes, it is crucial to recognize that our current systems were not designed to provide equal opportunities for every student to learn at high levels. Simply focusing on the achievement gap without addressing the underlying opportunity gap is akin to patching up a bridge's surface without considering its fundamental structural integrity. To truly narrow the gaps in achievement, we must strategically and purposefully tackle the core issue.

The opportunity gap represents the glaring disparities in resources, opportunities, and support that disproportionately affect marginalized students. The New Teacher Project's (TNTP) study, The Opportunity Myth, uncovered disheartening findings, revealing that many students are missing out on crucial resources needed for success. Despite students spending the majority of their time engaged in class-related activities, meeting assignment requirements, and receiving high grades, they only demonstrated mastery of grade-level standards 17 percent of the time. This disparity particularly impacts students of color, those from low-income families, those with mild to moderate disabilities, and English language learners (TNTP, 2018). These students spend more than 500 hours per school year on assignments that are not appropriate for their grade level, resulting in the equivalent of six months of wasted class time in each core subject.

One approach to tackle this opportunity gap is through the integration of Universal Design for Learning (UDL), particularly in advanced coursework. Inspired by Universal Design in architecture, UDL is focused on designing rigorous classroom environments that are accessible to all students. This inclusive approach ensures every student has the opportunity to excel beyond surface-level understanding, much like designing a bridge that supports a range of travelers. 

The opportunity gap becomes even more apparent when we examine access to advanced coursework, such as Advanced Placement (AP) classes and International Baccalaureate (IB) programs, despite existing guidance to promote inclusivity. The College Board’s Equity and Access statement emphasizes the importance of eliminating barriers that restrict access to AP courses for traditionally underserved ethnic, racial, and socioeconomic groups. Schools should make every effort to ensure that their AP classes reflect the diversity of their student population.

Similarly, the International Baccalaureate (IB) program asserts its commitment to inclusivity, providing equal opportunities for all learners to access learning pathways, experiences, and educational recognition. IB explicitly recognizes the significance of a universally designed curriculum that is fair, inclusive, and accessible to all learners.

"It is crucial to emphasize that expanding access to advanced coursework is not about taking opportunities away from certain students. Instead, it is about ensuring that all students, regardless of their backgrounds, have equal opportunities to excel academically."

To increase access to advanced coursework and address the opportunity gap, school districts can take several concrete steps, despite the potential pushback from parents whose children have traditionally been the exclusive beneficiaries of these offerings. While concerns about changes in the academic landscape and competition for limited resources may arise, it is crucial to emphasize that expanding access to advanced coursework is not about taking opportunities away from certain students. Instead, it is about ensuring that all students, regardless of their backgrounds, have equal opportunities to excel academically. By proactively addressing these concerns, districts can pave the way for meaningful change. The following steps can guide districts in their efforts to bridge the opportunity gap and provide greater access to advanced coursework:

1. Conduct a Comprehensive Needs Assessment

Districts should start by conducting a thorough review of their current policies, practices, and enrollment data related to advanced coursework. This analysis can help identify disparities in enrollment and highlight specific barriers that exist for underrepresented students.

2. Expand outreach and information

  1. Through transparent and effective communication, districts can bridge the gap between resistance and understanding, fostering a collaborative approach that benefits all students. By engaging families and caretakers in the conversation and highlighting the long-term benefits of expanded access, districts can build trust and support for these initiatives. This inclusive outreach and communication strategy will not only address the concerns of resistant parents but also ensure that underrepresented groups are well-informed and empowered to make informed decisions regarding advanced coursework opportunities.

  2. 3. Offer high-quality and ongoing professional development and support for teachers

  3. Provide ongoing opportunities for teachers to enhance their instructional practices and create inclusive classroom environments. This includes training on culturally responsive teaching, differentiated instruction, and strategies aligned with Universal Design for Learning (UDL) principles. Teachers should be equipped with the knowledge and tools to engage and challenge all students in rigorous coursework, regardless of their background or prior educational experiences.

  4. 4. Establish support systems and resources to assist students

  5. Students who may face additional challenges accessing advanced coursework benefit from strong systems of support. This can include mentorship programs, tutoring services, academic counseling, and partnerships with community organizations to provide additional academic support.

By purposefully dismantling systemic barriers and implementing a multi-tiered system of support, we can bridge the opportunity gap and offer more equitable opportunities for academic excellence. Just as a bridge connects different paths, integrating UDL principles and Multi-Tiered Systems of Support (MTSS) into rigorous courses ensures that diverse learners have the opportunities they rightfully deserve.


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