ExcelinEd on the dos and don'ts of course access

Back in May, Fordham published Expanding the Education Universe: A Fifty-State Strategy for Course Choice, where we explained the idea of “course access,” a system that greatly expands learning options by allowing students to take courses from a number of organizations at once. The brief also provided options for policymakers to consider, including funding, provider and student eligibility, and accountability.

ExcelinEd has now released a white paper, Leading in an Era of Change, which discusses the recent development of these policies in a number of states and summarizes key design principles for future expansion. Where Fordham’s brief laid out the various specific paths a state might take in policy creation, ExcelinEd’s paper functions as a list of essential dos and don’ts, answering questions about how to ensure quality providers, engagement with stakeholders, and more. Still, the brief rightly leavers the specific design up to states and districts themselves. Taken together, these two reports act as a guidebook for expanding course availability and student choice in local schools.

As Jeb Bush writes in his foreword to the report, “having a high-quality education must no longer depend on location…the international stakes are too high to restrict access to great courses based on ZIP code.” Indeed, the flexibility of course access eliminates, or at least diminishes, limitations of individual schools and enables students to take classes in new subjects and with potentially better teachers. Of course, implementation of any real reform comes with a plethora of challenges that this new report aims to address.

While pointing out that the quality of some digital-learning programs has been lacking, the authors maintain, “[T]hese programs leverage dramatic advancements in technology not historically available in traditional classrooms and likely to be important preparation for college and careers in the 21st century.” Asserting that there is no one-size-fits-all method for implementing digital learning, the authors outline different types of programs, including state course-access programs, single-district digital-learning programs, multi-district consortium for digital-learning programs, state virtual schools, multi-district online schools, and blended schools. Programs worthy of the name course access in the eyes of the authors already exist in twelve states, and are summarized nicely by author Nathan Martin.

Despite the potential upside of course access, the authors admit that there are difficulties to be overcome, including establishing appropriate systems of oversight and review, the efficient forms of resource allocation, and promoting interagency cooperation. The report offers recommendations on how to avoid or tackle these tough problems and provides “Seven Recommended Core Components of Effective State Course Access Programs:”

  1. Meaningful and rigorous state review of prospective providers and/or courses;
  2. Strong monitoring systems;
  3. Flexible and sustainable funding models;
  4. Alignment with the state’s broader education systems;
  5. Deliberate and sustained engagement with districts and schools;
  6. Effective communication with students and parents; and
  7. Clearly defined student eligibility

Finally, the authors suggest a multistate network that states could join to both share and validate the very best courses from across the country. A multistate network, they say, would make individual course-access programs more efficient by streamlining quality-control methods and expanding the number of courses available to students. The paper concludes with a discussion of next steps and a call to action, reiterating the need for a multistate network in support of state course-access programs.

This new guide is sure to provide lawmakers and their staff with a valuable resource to guide them as they write legislation and to educators who ultimately implement it. Course access is an idea likely to be expanded and adopted in more states. And this guide can help leaders design and implement programs that work for the betterment of children in all states.

Let’s move full speed ahead in offering more courses to more students while taking heed of the lessons learned from course-access early adopters.