NH Public Policy
New Hampshire Center for Public Policy Studies

Student-Centered Learning in NH: An Overview and Analysis

Executive Summary

Date: February 6th, 2013

New Hampshire is no stranger to heated debates over public education. For nearly two decades, the state’s school finance laws have been a contentious subject in the State House and in the state court system. But a very different facet of New Hampshire’s education system is being reconsidered in schools across the state. Rather than funding formulas and tax rates, this effort centers on what happens inside the classroom: how teachers and students relate, how student achievement is measured, and how to best prepare New Hampshire students for life beyond high school.

This reform effort goes by several names – next-generation learning, personalized learning, inquiry-based education, real-world learning, and 21st-Century learning, among others. Throughout this paper, we use the term “student-centered learning,” as it succinctly describes the most commonly expressed goal of these various efforts: to boost student outcomes, especially their preparedness for college and careers, by placing students at the center of the learning process.

In New Hampshire, several recent state-level policy changes have fostered shifts in classroom practice along these lines, by encouraging districts to measure a student’s progress by his or her ability to show mastery of certain skills and concepts, rather than by how much time he or she has spent in a classroom. Changes are also being spurred by a handful of pilot programs in the state, most funded by private grants or one-time federal awards and with a wide array of methods and goals. This paper is an effort to define “student-centered learning” as it is now being implemented in New Hampshire high schools; describe some of the major innovation efforts included in this state-defined reform agenda; review the successes and challenges of those efforts; and outline some of the questions that policymakers and educators must address if they wish to expand these initiatives statewide.

Among our findings:

A common language should be adopted. The discussion of the various reform efforts now underway in New Hampshire is often shrouded by a lack of clarity in the terms used. Part of this stems from the difficulty in describing a system in flux. But policymakers and educators should attempt to work out a common language that clearly expresses the innovations they are advancing and the goals to which they aspire.

The reform conversation has largely taken place outside of the context of education “adequacy.” Many of the reform initiatives in New Hampshire discussed in this paper have been initiated through short-term grants from outside foundations. While this “seed money” has helped schools experiment with new ways of teaching and learning, it raises questions about districts’ ability to sustain these efforts once the original funding expires.

Improving data systems remains a necessary priority. New Hampshire currently collects multiple measures of student outcomes, including test scores, graduation rates, and students’ self-reported graduation plans. Individual districts can often analyze the relationship of instructional changes and student achievement. But the state lacks the necessary data to understand the impact of the types of reform efforts now underway. To date, the success of these efforts is difficult to measure given the data tools now available to policymakers.

Strong leadership and teacher support are critical to initiative success. The support and engagement of teachers is a central element in sustaining the innovations in New Hampshire’s education system. Similarly, the success or failure of a school’s reform efforts rest on strong leadership from district and school officials who can ensure the investments in these efforts are fulfilled.

Access remains an obstacle for some students. One of the core assumptions of student-centered education is that students will benefit from out-of-classroom learning opportunities: internships, independent studies and similar initiatives. In New Hampshire, these programs are often grouped under the term “Extended Learning Opportunities.” But students in rural districts or in communities with few businesses may face challenges taking part in some of these initiatives.