February 13, 2011

Click here to view and here to listen to Dr. Terry Stoops discussing this Spotlight report.

RALEIGH — North Carolina needs a thorough review of the number and types of courses offered in its public schools, especially during tight budget times. The John Locke Foundation’s top education expert reaches that conclusion in a new Spotlight report.

“There is no evidence that school districts or the state has conducted an audit of the costs and outcomes of elective courses,” said report author Dr. Terry Stoops, JLF Director of Education Studies. “A statewide curriculum audit would be a sound way to reduce costs and refocus our curriculum on the core skills that many of our public school students so desperately need.”

The state’s public schools offered nearly 540 different courses in 2009-10, according to Stoops’ report. “The list runs the gamut from Algebra I to Zoology, and it includes such titles as Folk Arts, Geography in Action, and Handbells,” he said. “We’ve been raising questions about the usefulness of some of these course offerings since 2007, when we issued our first curriculum review.”

Even as public school officials have complained in recent years about tightening their belts, the number of available courses has increased, Stoops said. “Ten years ago, North Carolina public schools offered about 450 courses,” he said. “By 2005, that number had jumped to 500. Now at nearly 540, the number of different courses has increased by 20 percent in just a decade.”

Though the number of available courses has grown, enrollment lags in many of them, Stoops said. “No formal definition exists, but I would label a course undersubscribed if it had 50 or fewer classes offered statewide,” he said. “By this standard, North Carolina public schools had 208 undersubscribed high school courses in 2009-10, along with 65 undersubscribed middle school courses and 12 undersubscribed elementary school courses.”

Few people have focused attention on course offerings, Stoops said. “While class size, administrative personnel, and teacher compensation have dominated discussions about potential cuts to North Carolina’s K-12 budget, course offerings and electives have not been part of the discussion.”

“Little has been done to examine the claims from public school advocates and elected officials that elective courses have been in decline in an era of increasing accountability and testing mandates,” Stoops added. “Additionally, the public often takes the purported education benefits of elective courses for granted. Many North Carolinians believe multiple course offerings help reduce the number of school dropouts, and they trust that electives reinforce and enhance content taught in core subjects.”

The link between electives and dropouts “ultimately falls short,” Stoops said. “Graduation rates and test scores were not necessarily lower during periods when schools offered fewer electives,” he explained. “Likewise, student performance has not increased in concert with the dramatic rise in electives over the last decade.”

Stoops cautions against targeting all elective courses for possible cutbacks. “A wholesale rejection of electives is not educationally sound,” he said. “Nevertheless, there must be close collaboration between core and elective teachers. In schools where such collaboration does not exist, electives may do little to enhance basic skills.”

Recent court cases tied to education funding suggest that the statewide growth in elective courses has been linked to efforts to keep bright students from fleeing public schools, Stoops said.

“Put simply, the courts have concluded that state and local leaders rushed to provide electives in an attempt to maintain their client base at the expense of at-risk students.,” he said. “Unfortunately, the Wake County judge overseeing the school funding case has yet to question state officials about the vast expansion of courses and electives offered to public school students.”

North Carolina’s Basic Education Program sets out a list of courses that should be available to every student, Stoops said. “The last update of that program from 1994 recommended that high schools offer 56 electives,” he said. “While some are no longer consistent with the needs of North Carolina’s economy, those listed in areas such as math, science, and social studies provide a reasonable starting point for developing electives that meet the academic needs of students.”

Now is the time to tackle a statewide course audit, Stoops said. “When the need to save tax dollars is critical, it makes no sense to waste those dollars on courses that offer little educational benefit.”

Dr. Terry Stoops’ Spotlight report, “Elective Surgery: Budget deficits require elected officials to reassess course offerings,” is available at the JLF Web site. For more information, please contact Stoops at (919) 828-3876 or [email protected]. To arrange an interview, contact Mitch Kokai at (919) 306-8736 or [email protected].