Above: Watch a conversation with Granite State News Collaborative Reporter Kelly Burch, former state Board of Education member Fred Bramante, who is leading the task force reviewing these standards and serves as president of the nonprofit National Center for Competency-Based Learning in Durham; educator Brian Stack, who is also part of the task force; and Nicole Heimarck, executive director of Reaching Higher New Hampshire, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on providing public policy resources around K-12 education in the state.]
New Hampshire is nearing the end of a more than three-year effort to revamp the state’s core educational standards. When approved early next year, these new rules will steer the course of public education for at least the next decade. In this continuing series of stories, the Granite State New Collaborative will explore what those changes are, how they came about and what they mean for the future of public education in the Granite State.
Over decades as a teacher, administrator and educational consultant, Rose Colby has seen first-hand the difference between traditional teaching and competency-based education, an approach that encourages students to apply their learning to real-world situations.
For example, rather than passing a test after learning about solar energy, students following a competency-based model might be asked to build their own solar-powered cooker, she said.
“That’s a much deeper assessment of a student,” said Colby, who was a teacher and administrator in Goffstown and worked as the Competency Education Consultant for the N.H. Department of Education from 2007-2014, but is no longer associated with the department.
Although competency-based education (CBE) may be a new term to many Granite Staters, there has been a slow transition to this model in the state since 2004. But that pace is likely to increase as the Department of Education is preparing a broad set of administrative rule reforms aimed at pushing more schools to adopt CBE standards. These “Minimum Standards for Public Schools Approval,” better known as the 306s, are undergoing their 10-year update and are expected to be finalized by early next year.
The 306s are part of the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules established in 1983 by the state legislature to provide legislative oversight in the area of administrative rulemaking by the agencies of the executive branch.
These rules define the minimum standards for public school approval. The document is how the state defines its education system, according to Fred Bramante, president of the National Center for Competency-Based Learning, a non-profit that has been contracted by the state Department of Education to update the rules.
School approval is a mandatory process required by state law (RSA 21-N:9). All children residing in the State of New Hampshire between the ages of 6 and 18 are required to attend an approved public school, approved private school, or an approved home school program.
“The nuts and bolts of public education are defined in this document,” Bramante said. “It’s a big deal.”
Many educators, including Colby, say that CBE is a good thing. Yet they worry that the proposed changes to the 306 rules could dilute the rigor of education, put unfunded and unsupported burdens on teachers and school districts, and even be used as a backdoor approach to defund public schools, all without educator input.
“When you look at the substance of the proposed overhaul, it’s problematic,” said Nicole Heimarck, executive director of Reaching Higher New Hampshire, a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on providing public policy resources around K-12 education in the state. “With this proposal, the department is moving away from evidence-based practices… and really weakening the standards for public school approval.”
The changes—which could be adopted as soon as next year—“will have a consequential impact on how New Hampshire does schooling tomorrow and well into the future,” Heimarck said.
A revision with limited public oversight
In the past, these every decade updates have been drafted internally by the department. Yet for this update, the DOE, led by Commissioner Frank Edelblut, signed a $50,000 contract to “facilitate a revision” of the 306s with the Durham-based National Center for Competency-Based Learning (NCCBL).
That organization was founded by Bramante, a two-time former Republican candidate for governor who has been involved with educational policy-making in New Hampshire for more than 30 years, most visibly as the Chairman of the New Hampshire State Board of Education from 2003-2005.
Bramante, who is the only person the NCCBL compensated in 2022 according to the nonprofit’s tax filings, appointed a 13-member task force, composed of school administrators, educational consultants, state Board of Education policymakers and members of the state’s business community, which has long promoted CBE an opportunity to foster graduates better prepared to enter the workforce. The task force does not include any current teachers.
Including Bramante, five members sit on the NCCBL’s Board of Directors.
The task force began working on the revisions in January 2021, but many educators and educational advocates in the state did not know the work had started until the task force sent out a letter in June of 2022, inviting stakeholder leaders to share their input. In 2023 the task force held more than a dozen listening sessions around the state.
None of that public input was required, Bramante said and because the revisions are currently happening as part of a state contract, the 306 task force meets outside the public purview.
The task force doesn’t publish its meeting schedule or its agenda, he said.
“It’s a private process,” task force member Val Zanchuk said at a Sept. 12 listening session held at Concord High School.
The DOE and the state Board of Education then have the last call on what new educational standards will be submitted to the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules for final approval, Bramante said.
The task force aims to submit its final reform recommendations to the Department of Education by October. That will kickstart a 180-day period of feedback, including at least one public hearing–the only point during the process where the department is legally obligated to bring the revision to the public, Bramante said.
The content of the 306s
Like many government documents, the 306s can be arduous to digest.
“It’s very difficult to follow, which makes it difficult for people to respond to,” said Sarah Robinson, a Concord School Board member and education justice campaign director at Granite State Progress, a progressive advocacy organization.
The DOE has published a side-by-side document outlining the proposed changes. At the September Concord High School listening session, Bramante outlined what he and his committee deemed “noteworthy elements” of the proposed changes.
Most notably, requirements that students be present in a classroom for a specific amount of time are removed. High school credits are redefined as a set of related competencies, rather than time in a certain class. To advance in school, students need to show they can apply a concept. Grade levels are replaced by learning levels, with students only advancing when they’ve shown they can meet the required competencies.
That means students learn with other children at their same competency level regardless of class distinction. A third-grader with advanced math skills could be assigned to a fifth-grade math class, for example.
“We don’t care where or how you get [learning] done,” Bramante said of high school students.
There’s also a strengthening of support for extended learning opportunities (ELOs), or learning that happens outside the classroom via internships, mentorships and other experiences. Although ELOs are part of the existing 306 rules, schools often put limitations on them, Bramante said. The proposed changes would stop high schools from restricting ELOs, such as limiting the number of credits that can earned outside the classroom and allowing more ELO opportunities for middle school students, according to Bramante.
Concerns about the 306 draft changes
Educators around the state have voiced concern not only about what’s been added to the 306 rules, but about what has been taken out.
“There is vague language in some spots, and then very specific language that’s not in the definition section,” said Christine Downing, director of curriculum and instruction in SAUs 32 (Plainfield), 75 (Grantham), and 100 (Cornish).
For example, the proposed changes replace “grade level” with “learning level,” and “instruction” with “learning” or “opportunity.” The word “local” has been stricken in all references to “local school board(s)”. In the section on ELOs, the word “certified” was removed from reference to “certified educator,” prompting concerns about who would be qualified to approve learning that happens outside the classroom. References to equitable discipline were removed.
“The lack of equity in this draft was noticed by everybody,” Zanchuk said.
The changes to the language were significant enough that eleven state organizations, including the state’s largest teacher’s union, published an open letter last December voicing their concerns and asking for the revision process to be halted until more community input could be collected.
At the Concord listening session, Bramante said that many of the language changes were made by the DOE as the document went back and forth between Bramante’s committee and the department.
“Ultimately, [Commissioner Edelblut] has more say than we do,” Bramante said. The recommendations of the task force are not legally binding and do not need to be adopted by the DOE.
Task force member and former principal of Sanborn Regional High School in Kingston Brian Stack said he was concerned “that there were a lot of changes being made at the department level. I’m not sure I always had the background of why.”
He was told that words were removed by the DOE to simplify the document, he said, but he worries the DOE went too far.
“If it’s oversimplification, now you’ve created something that’s so gray you can interpret it lots of different ways,” he said.
The 306s help define what is an “adequate education”—a standard that the state must fund according to law. Whether the state is meeting that obligation is the subject of a lawsuit brought by the ConVal school district in 2019. The trial in the lawsuit concluded in May, but the judge’s ruling has not been released. However, some community members are concerned the current revision of the 306s could lead to loopholes that allow the state to remove funding for items that are not outlined in the 306s.
“Whatever is not in this document, I am very concerned about it not being seen as fundable,” one public commentator at the Concord listening session said.
There’s also concern that changes could open the door to for-profit entities getting state funding in order to provide an “adequate education,” Heimarck said.
Challenges in implementing the proposed changes
Stack said the 306 committee’s primary directive “… was to look for opportunities to refine and deepen the role that CBE plays in the 306s.”
However, educators are concerned the push to expand CBE requirements will be difficult for districts to implement because teachers will need additional training and school schedules will need to be adapted. For example, in Epping, which follows CBE, all elementary students must take reading class at the same time, so that children can be matched with the other learners who are closest to their level, even if those students are in a different grade.
Speaking during the public comment section at the Concord listening session Tina Philibotte, the chief equity officer in Manchester School District, compared the changes to “unfunded mandates.”
“Competency-based education, when done really well and well funded, I’m here for it,” she said. But without money and resources, “you’re going to get a really watered down, poorly funded version.”
Philibotte pointed out that the Parker-Varney School in Manchester is “no longer using that (CBE), because they cannot fund it.”
William Furbush, superintendent of Epping School District – an early adopter of CBE – worries that the committee and ultimately DOE are making changes to the minimum standards with “no idea” about the day-to-day operation of schools and districts.
“The implementation piece is completely missing,” he said.
Bramante has pointed out that funding is not part of the scope of the revision process for the 306s. Yet educators say there must be an awareness of the money and resources that districts will need to put the required changes into place.
“It was a big dodge on Fred [Bramante]’s part to say it’s not a conversation about funding,” said Robinson, the Concord School Board member. “You can’t unlink it to funding in the state.”
These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.