Opinion: NH schools need more than the illusion of change

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Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut is pictured at the recent Joint Legislative Fiscal Committee meeting.

By Frank Edelblut

Stan Lee, the legendary Marvel Comics writer and publisher, used to describe the secret to keeping readers interested without killing off best-sellers as “the illusion of change.”

Cities may fall and worlds may end, but in the comics, there’s always a clone, or a parallel universe, or a time-travel reboot that puts Peter Parker back in high school, or young Bruce Wayne back in a dark alley with his parents.

DC Comics even killed off Superman in 1992, then brought him back in 1993. Readers want there to be life-and-death stakes in these adventures, but no one wants to lose their favorite character.

I see a similar phenomenon in New Hampshire education.

Many would have us believe – POW – that things are happening. WHAM, we are making progress! KAZAM – we have completely transformed how we do things.

The problem is, and most any educator will agree, fundamentally we still educate the way we have for the last 100-years. There is only an illusion of change.

I came to the Department of Education from the outside. I knew I’d have a lot to learn, so I became a student of our education system. I traveled all over New Hampshire visiting schools, listening to families, teachers, students and administrators. I read everything I could get my hands on to better understand the education system I was tasked with leading. And through that listening and learning, I came up with ideas for change.

I heard from educators that students, particularly at-risk students, do better with out-of-school learning experiences. We have some of these scattered across the state, but many parents still lack access to Extended Learning Opportunities. To fill this gap, the department came up with Learn Everywhere, to make out-of-school learning experiences available to every student in New Hampshire by allowing programs to draw from students across school district lines.

How did the education system respond? “Well, we want more out-of-school learning experiences for our students, but not THAT kind of out-of-school learning experience.”

Many people told me they wanted affordable post-secondary opportunities for students. The department worked with the Community College System of New Hampshire to create the New Hampshire Career Academy, through which students can earn a high school diploma, an associates degree, an industry credential, and a job interview with a New Hampshire company – at no cost to the student and no additional cost to the state.

How did the education system respond? “Well, we want affordable post-secondary opportunities for students, but not THAT kind of affordable post-secondary opportunity.”

I heard all across the state that the schools felt constrained by rules that prevent creativity and innovation, and strapped for funding to put new ideas in action.

So our team at the Department of Education applied for and won a record $46 million charter school grant to invest in education innovation across the state. This is a grant would be available to every school district in New Hampshire to invest in innovative ideas under the successful charter school framework.

How did the education system respond? “Well, we want funding to invest in education innovation, but not THAT kind of funding.”

These and other experiences I have had over the last two years seem to say that the education system has fully embraced Stan Lee’s mantra of creating the illusion of change, not real change. For all the POW and ZANG and BAM, there is really little appetite from within the education establishment to do anything different.

If we are to improve our education system, we need to actually change our education system. New Hampshire students deserve more than the illusion of change. That doesn’t mean tearing down schools that still serve many students very well. It means embracing new approaches for those students who are not getting what they need from the education we provide them.

Our children get only one chance at an education. We should be outraged that only about half of our students reach proficiency, yet we graduate 90% of them. We reject the very things we know would help them because that would mean real change, not just the illusion of change. We have lots of BOOM and ZAP, but in the end, little change for our children.

Frank Edelblut is Commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Education.

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