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Leading in an Era of Change: Course Access Whitepaper

• Nathan Martin

The needs of our country’s 130,000 schools are as diverse as the 50 million students who attend them. Whether in the struggling schools of Detroit or the yet-to-be-built classrooms in booming North Dakota, placing students at the center of the learning process means connecting them to the highest quality resources, instructors and courses.”

– Governor Jeb Bush 

To maximize every student’s potential for learning and prepare them for success in the 21st century, America needs an education system that is constructed around the needs of learners.

Course Access offers tremendous opportunities for students. Last week, ExcelinEd, through our Digital Learning Now initiative and in partnership with the EducationCounsel, released a new research paper and infographic on this exciting policy, “Leading in an Era of Change, Making the Most of State Course Access Opportunities.”

Course Access provides public school students with expanded course offerings across learning environments from diverse, accountable providers, both public and private. Students select from a broad range of courses, in various formats—including online, face-to-face, or blended. In order to place a strong focus on student outcomes, course providers only receive full funding upon a student’s successful completion of a state-approved Course Access course. By supplementing traditional school course offerings with options from partnering providers, Course Access programs can dramatically increase the learning opportunities available to students.

As many states begin to consider policy options to address Course Access (sometimes referred to as Course Choice), the paper is intended to build on the previous work of ExcelinEd and serve as a resource for states and districts in making decisions to help their programs succeed in creating new, meaningful educational opportunities for all students.

We know that promoting Course Access has to be a collaborative effort. It is an issue that unites leaders from both parties and can inspire real transformative action. Our paper reflects that Course Access is a truly bipartisan proposal, from the forewords by Governor Jeb Bush and Secretary Richard Riley, the nod from David Brooks in The New York Times, or its inclusion by Rick Hess in the visionary Room to Grow. We continue to work closely with partners in defining and promoting this transformative policy. This paper builds on growing momentum around the reform, including a strategy document released by the Fordham Institute in May and a pending paper by iNACOL that will be released in the coming months. We have worked with these partners and others, such as the Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation to craft a brief overview and statement of principles defining this policy.

The paper discusses the challenges facing Course Access programs, and offers concrete recommendations to help states identify, assess, and monitor clear indicators of program effectiveness. The paper also delves into how states can work together to address shared challenges and seize opportunities to support each other.

The paper highlights lessons learned and recent developments from states that have already adopted Course Access programs, including Louisiana, Texas, Michigan, Florida, and Utah. To bolster this new approach to education, the paper draws on lessons learned from existing programs and recommends state policymakers adopt Course Access programs that incorporate:

  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
  7. Clearly defined student eligibility

The paper also lays out a vision for how states can collaborate to ensure that rigor and quality are at the core of their programs and to share existing infrastructure where possible rather than creating new layers of bureaucracy. In addition, it explores the concept of reciprocity agreements to formally recognize approvals granted by other states.

This approach is the underpinning to reforms such as teacher certification. It is also represented in the State Authorization Reciprocity Agreement (SARA) which provides affordable, consistent, transparent ways for accredited, degree-granting institutions to achieve authorization to provide education beyond the state in which they are based.

Course Access is a developing and emerging policy. To ensure that the courses are high quality and that students are being served, it will require further leadership and effort from states, districts, parents and education leaders. We hope that “Leading in an Era of Change, Making the Most of State Course Access Opportunities” will provide a tool for leaders in all fifty states and that the months ahead will see a continued focus on truly centering education and opportunity around the needs of each learner.

About the author

Nathan Martin

Nathan Martin serves as the State Policy Director of Online and Blended Learning for Digital Learning Now. Previously, he worked as the Director of Policy and Alliances for Scantron, an education technology company focusing on digital learning and assessment. Prior to that, he worked in journalism, producing a nationally-syndicated talk radio show, working for the Washington Post and writing for various newspapers in his home state of Mississippi. Nathan received his undergraduate degree from Patrick Henry College. Contact Nathan at