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Want to Become an Education 'Reformer'? There Are Online Courses for That

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If bringing about change to the traditional public school system—what many call "reform"—is a New Year's resolution of yours, or you just want to learn more about some of the policy issues that animate our current U.S. secretary of education, you're in luck.

Learning how to become an "education reformer" can be done for free, from the comfort of your home.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education, the advocacy group founded by Jeb Bush, Florida's former governor and one-time GOP presidential candidate, is one of a few organizations that offer primers on the status of education in the U.S. and the history and policy components that it defines as being central to the education reform movement. 

Among ExcelinEd's offerings: a five-part communications boot camp that promises to help enrollees "win the education reform conversation." 

"Education reform" is an umbrella term for a range of policy issues that include expanding school choice such as charters, stricter accountability measures and assessments, teacher merit pay, and, appropriately in this instance, digital or online education. 

Other free online courses covering similar topics—albeit not so much from an advocacy-oriented standpoint—are available from Harvard on EdX, a website that offers MOOCs (massive open online course) from elite universities, and from The University of Chicago via Coursera, another MOOC website. 

But ExcelinEd's goal in offering the courses—the first of which were launched a couple of years ago—is to train local advocates and lawmakers. 

 "Most policymakers come to elected office potentially not having a background in education," says ExcelinEd's CEO Patricia Levesque in a video promoting the courses. "Since education is, in my opinion, one of the most important policy areas you'll be dealing with, you need to get a grounding in the most important research and the reasons why education reform is important so that you're equipped to do your job and adopt the best policies possible in your state."

Although ExcelinEd's courses may not be "massive" enough to technically qualify as a MOOC, more than 7,000 people have accessed the courses from 85 countries, according to the organization. 

Let's Get Political 

ExcelinEd's initiative is a logical step in advocacy strategy for groups promoting things like charter schools, vouchers, and increased accountability for schools and teachers, said Jeffrey Henig, a professor of political science and education at Teachers College Columbia University. 

For a while, a lot of the foundations and donors that supported that work operated on the belief that the hearts and minds of lawmakers and their constituencies would be won over by improved results these new education policies produced. (Assuming, of course, that they actually delivered, which is the source of much debate.) 

"I think they've come to realize that relying on grassroots sentiments to bubble up and organize and be effective ... in a laissez-faire way, doesn't cut the mustard," said Henig. "They need to cultivate this, they need to arm these spokespeople, they need to provide them with models and templates and train them." 

This strategy isn't new, and one group that's been very effective on that front is teachers' unions, said Henig.  

"What's newer is that some of the quote-unquote reform organizations are kind of self-consciously deciding that they need to emulate that and fight fire with fire," he said. "I think there's been some very serious thinking in the reform, foundation, and education venture philanthropy world about what lessons they can learn from the fact that some of their favored reforms have run into so much resistance."

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