NH Public Policy
New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies

Business NH Magazine: The Quiet Debate over NH Education Reform

The Quiet Debate Over Education Reform

Business NH Magazine

Published Wednesday, April 3, 2013

by DANIEL BARRICK and STEVE NORTON

New Hampshire is no stranger to heated debates over public education. For nearly two decades, the state’s school finance laws were center stage in Statehouse debates and in the courts. A very different aspect of education policy is now being considered in NH schools. Rather than funding formulas and tax rates, this effort centers on the classroom: how teachers and students communicate, how student achievement is measured, and how to best prepare NH students for life after high school.

And while this reform movement has gone largely unnoticed outside of education circles, NH businesses should pay attention. The quality of NH’s education system, and of its graduates, has big implications for the strength of our economy and our desirability as a destination for newcomers.

These reform efforts go by several names: next-generation learning, 21st-Century learning, and student-centered learning, among others. They seek to allow students greater flexibility in demonstrating proficiency and mastery of certain skills. Rather than require students to sit through an entire semester before moving on to the next course, student-centered learning lets students move on when they prove their readiness. It encourages students and teachers to incorporate alternative methods—out-of-classroom study, internships, online courses, and self-directed study—into the typical high school experience. And it uses assessments that allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and skills through a more “hands-on” method, such as a performance, a portfolio, an oral presentation, or an experiment.

Why Reform?

Several recent state-level policy changes have fostered shifts in classroom practices. They include encouraging districts to measure student progress by showing mastery of a subject rather than the amount of time spent in a classroom. Changes are also being spurred by a handful of pilot programs, most funded by private grants or one-time federal awards and with an array of methods and goals. Some are seeking to implement new ways of assessing students. Others are integrating more flexible learning methods into the school day, encouraging outside learning to supplement class time.

Why this push for reform? Many proponents of reform in NH and elsewhere, though not all, argue that America’s education system fails to prepare students to compete in the global economy. They say that the focus on standardized tests, which has been at the center of national education reform policy for the past decade, diverts attention from students’ ability to acquire key skills. As a result, the current system leaves the majority of students disengaged, bored or unchallenged.

One of the challenges that student-centered learning is intended to address is how the education system can better engage those students who are uninspired by the traditional classroom structure.

A Role for Business

The quality of our high school graduates will have a significant effect on our economic health in the coming years. Anecdotal evidence suggests that many businesses have trouble finding qualified workers, especially for jobs in areas like high-tech manufacturing. And with its emphasis on hands-on learning and performance assessment, the student-centered learning effort may have particular relevance to courses in the STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) fields. These are the disciplines, analysts say, where the U.S. economy will likely see the greatest growth in coming years.

While NH’s drive for more student-centered approaches to learning is well underway, policymakers, the private sector and educators need to work together to keep them going. Many of the most ambitious reform initiatives in NH have been funded by short-term grants from foundations. New Hampshire policymakers should review other states’ ideas for sustaining school reform efforts, including creating innovation funds—either publicly or privately financed—that encourage districts to experiment.

In addition, these efforts should be assessed in the context of other education policy questions, including declining student populations and debates about higher education funding. Businesses need to be part of this conversation.

Steve Norton is executive director and Daniel Barrick is deputy director of the New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies, an independent, nonprofit, non-partisan organization that pursues data-driven research on public policy. For more information, visit www.nhpolicy.org.

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