Educators Raise Red Flag on Rules To Expand Out-of-School Credits

Jun 12, 2019

 

Credit Michael Brindley for NHPR

The State Board of Education will vote Thursday on a proposal championed by Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut. The plan - called Learn Everywhere - would allow students to get credit towards their high school diplomas for extracurriculars without approval from local districts. Supporters say it will expand opportunities and help close the equity gap. But educators warn it will do just the opposite.

 

Extended Learning Opportunities (ELOs)

At Winnacunnet High School in Hampton, students get credit towards graduation for activities like mapping climate change, interning with a firefighter, and learning how to sail. Donna Couture coordinates these programs. They’re called ELOs, or extended learning opportunities.

She runs a network of school ELO coordinators across the state. They meet monthly, and Couture remembers when Commissioner Edelblut visited them a few years ago.

“I think I remember him saying you guys are the tip of the spear - this is where education needs to go. This is the direction it needs to go in. You guys are doing everything right.”  

Hearing this was a relief - Couture and many educators had been nervous about Edelblut since he became the commissioner. None of his kids went to public school. He's a former Republican politician and isn’t friendly with teachers’ unions.

But Couture says there was still a spirit of collaboration. She saw more schools offering ELOs. And last fall, Edelblut hired her to develop a new rubric for them.

But then, Edelblut introduced a program that seemed to replace her work with something new. On December 13, 2018, Edelblut unveiled “Learn Everywhere” to the State Board of Education, which helps set the standards for public schools.

Learn Everywhere

This program would be similar to ELOs, but with a big difference - it would be run by the state, rather than local districts. Non-profits and businesses - anything from a local auto mechanic to a dance studio - could offer programs to high schoolers for school credit, with approval from the State Board of Education (SBOE).

Granting these academic credits was allowed by low-profile legislation passed in 2018 that let the SBOE adopt rules on alternative programs that would grant academic credits.

At the SBOE meeting, Edelblut assured the board he’d consulted with stakeholders on this plan.

I spoke to over a dozen leaders in public education - some who have been doing this work for years. They told me they were not consulted and that Learn Everywhere came out of left field.

Donna Couture coordinates ELO's at Winnacunnet High School and is the president of the NH ELO Network.
Credit Courtesy of Donna Couture

“It was a shocking blow,” says Couture.

Superintendents, school boards, teachers, and ELO coordinators started calling the DOE, sent letters of opposition, and showed up in droves at a public hearing in February, asking why they were left out of the process.

Couture says it’s a confusing battle because Learn Everywhere seems a lot like existing local ELO programs.

“Here’s a way for students to engage in learning outside in the community where real things are happening - real authentic learning. Everybody agrees that that is ideal," she says. "But what’s missing in the Learn Everywhere proposal is all of the work that goes into making sure that students are successful in those experiences.”

 

She says when local schools run these programs, there’s quality control and support for students. Edelblut’s plan would cut local districts and teachers out of the process. And that challenges a cherished New Hampshire ideal: local control.

 

“To make every district have to accept the credits - it’s horrible,” says Megan Tuttle, president of NEA-NH, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

 

“The stakes are huge for this for us.”

 

Tuttle says Learn Everywhere hits a nerve because it feels like it’s part of a larger campaign against public schools - a campaign that includes school vouchers, school choice, and cutting state aid.

Megan Tuttle, President of the NEA-New Hampshire, opposes Learn Everywhere.
Credit Courtesy of NEA-NH

And she says it will benefit kids whose parents can pay for extracurriculars, and leave special ed and poor students behind.

“According to the commissioner it’s for every child in New Hampshire to have an opportunity.” she says. “According to us, it’s for every child that can pay for it.”

Growing Opportunity, Closing the Equity Gap

Commissioner Edelblut declined to comment for this story, but when he pitches Learn Everywhere, he focuses on New Hampshire's growing educational equity gap, and the need to expand educational opportunities.

At a January meeting in Manchester of the School District Governance Association of NH (SDGANH), an education watchdog group, Edelblut told the origin story of Learn Everywhere.

 

Last year, he visited students at Central High School in Manchester, one of the state’s poorest and most racially diverse schools. He says it was past 8 p.m. and students were building robots through a free program called FIRST Robotics.

“But then as I’m reflecting on it - these kids are going to go home. And then they do their homework, right? Because all of this that they’ve been engaging in and learning up to this point and time doesn’t count because that’s not school that’s just fun,” he says.

Edelblut argues that schools should be giving credits for this kind of work. Learn Everywhere, he says, would help schools capture learning that’s already happening, including arts and sports programs in Manchester geared to low-income kids.

Frank Edelblut has served as the Commissioner of the Department of Education Commissioner since 2017.

 Innovation and Workforce Development 

Before politics, Edelblut was a venture capitalist. Innovation and risk-taking were prized, so it’s not surprising that many of his supporters are in business.

“In the private sector, if you don’t change you die,” says Jim Roche, the president of the Business and Industry Association.

At Edelblut’s request, Roche wrote a letter of support for Learn Everywhere. He says schools aren’t gearing up for the future or helping solve New Hampshire’s workforce shortages.

“Employers are very interested in new approaches that get kids ready for 21st century jobs,” he says. “And Learn Everywhere is one of those approaches.”

Jeff Rapsis, executive director the Aviation Museum of New Hampshire, also wrote in support of Learn Everywhere at Edelblut's request, with a concern about workforce shortages.

He works with public schools and retired engineers to get kids interested in aviation careers, and says Learn Everywhere could allow him to build a workforce training program that would provide high school credit and meet industry needs.

“Public education isn’t going to disappear because we’re trying some creative, alternative paths,” he says.

Many other businesses, non-profits, and educators who work outside of public schools also wrote in support of Learn Everywhere.

But hardly anyone affiliated with a public school wrote in support. One of the few who did was Dean Graziano, a former ELO coordinator in Rochester. He was subsequently hired by the DOE to serve as a Program Specialist with the Bureau of Career Development.

Compromise and an Ongoing Battle

Since unveiling Learn Everywhere, Edelblut has talked with his critics and incorporated some of their suggestions. He’s lowered the number of outside credits a school must accept from students; at the urging of attorneys, he's added some safeguards for special ed students. And he’s made space for a teacher and an ELO coordinator to join the group that will help review applications from potential Learn Everywhere programs.

But critics still say: If you want students to learn everywhere, why not help districts strengthen what they already have, rather than create something new?

A survey by the DOE in March found that there were about 7,000 students taking ELOs in about 60 highschools; the number of ELO participants may be higher, but approximately 30 other schools didn’t provide data in time.

Donna Couture says plenty of students are learning outside of school, for credit, and thriving. But Commissioner Edelblut says these opportunities aren’t reaching nearly enough students.

Couture is getting tired of this fight.

“We’re exhausted,” she says. “I think educators have had to make a choice in the last several months. Do we try to correct the misinformation that the Commissioner and Deputy Commissioner are spreading, or do we just put our heads down and do our job and let the chips fall where they may?”

On Tuesday, public education leaders made a last-ditch effort to convince state school board members to vote no. They wrote in a letter to the SBOE that the proposed rules “trample local control, are highly skewed toward wealthy families...and provide little oversight and limited protections to students with disabilities.”

The battle over Learn Everywhere could end up at Governor Sununu’s desk. SB 140, which has passed the House and Senate, is designed to challenge proposals like Learn Everywhere, by giving local school boards - rather than SBOE - the authority to grant high school credits for alternative programs.

Governor Sununu has not indicated whether he intends to sign the bill.