Education holds the lofty aspiration of being the great equalizer in our society. Knowledge and learning are essential to the preservation of a free state and education spreads opportunity and advantages, according to the New Hampshire Constitution.
Implied in this statement is that education will help students from all socio-economic and diverse backgrounds achieve that aspiration. When considering this goal, it is important not to conflate school and education. Mark Twain, paraphrased, said, “I never let my schooling get in the way of my education,” the point being that education is the goal, not school.
What does it look like when schooling gets in the way of education? We do not have to look very far to understand Mr. Twain’s caution.
New Hampshire has one of the top performing school systems in the country. We regularly rank in the top 5 on various measures of success. Even in our top performing system, however, there are cracks forming that jeopardize our aspirations for education.
There is growing disparity in student performance. Students who come from economically advantaged homes regularly outperform economically disadvantaged students. This is not a new development. It has been persistent for decades. What is alarming is that the disparity is growing. The very education system that is supposed to be the great equalizer is, in fact, becoming the great divider.
Students coming from economically disadvantaged homes are going to the same schools as economically advantaged students, but they are not achieving the same education.
Fortunately for New Hampshire, this trend has not caught us by surprise. Not only were education leaders aware of this growing trend, but they also put in place policies to help solve the problem. These education policy leaders recognized that school, designed over 100 years ago based on an agrarian calendar, would actually prevent all students from getting an education. In particular, they saw that students from economically disadvantaged homes needed learning opportunities that reached beyond the walls of the school and into the community. They recognized that these students needed a diverse group of educators from varied backgrounds.
In 2005, the State Board of Education implemented rules that required schools to expand education opportunities:
“Schools shall strive to harness all available community resources, including but not limited to organizations, businesses, talented individuals, natural resources, and technology, to engage each student in achieving necessary skills and knowledge” ED 306.04 (k) (6)
In 2011, the State Board of Education commissioned a comprehensive study that emphasized the importance of all students experiencing extended learning opportunities outside of school.
These education leaders, with a deep passion for economically disadvantaged and diverse students, knew that school as it was configured over 100-years ago would not be good enough.
In spite of these rules and outside studies calling for changes to make sure school did not get in the way of education for vulnerable populations, the implementation has been spotty, at best. It is not spotty because of the people in the system, who are working hard every day to help students, but the system itself. It is hard to move a system
That is where New Hampshire’s culture of innovation works best. The Department of Education has launched three important initiatives in the last couple of months that embody the innovative spirit of New Hampshire.
- iPlatform for Education taps into the vast amount of data available at the department to help stimulate community conversations about education. That resource can be found here.
- LearnEverywhereNH establishes the means to create quality “outside the building” learning opportunities at scale so that all students can attain the aspiration of education being that great equalizer. A Q&A on that program can be found here.
- New Hampshire Career Academy is an inspired program that allows students at no cost to them and no additional cost to the state to graduate after a “super-senior” (extended 12th) year with a high school diploma, an associates degree, an industry recognized credential and a job interview with a New Hampshire company. A Q&A on that program can be found here.
Two of our legislative representatives penned an op ed the other day critical of these programs. Their approach is, “It’s time to hit the pause button.” With all due respect, haven’t we been waiting long enough?
Economically disadvantaged students don’t have the option of waiting. Teachers in our schools have been waiting a long time. Today, economically disadvantaged students perform 10-20% below the state average. Isn’t that enough to take action? Are we supposed to wait until they perform 30-40 or 50% below state average before we implement the policies that we have known for more than 10-years will work?
No. This is not the time to pause. I know these two legislators. I know that we share the same goal: Bright futures for all students.
Again, with all due respect, it is not time to pause, it is time to move.
Frank Edelblut is the Commissioner of the NH Department of Education