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Young lives. Old problems. New solutions.

One state asks: What if Girl Scouts, martial arts counted toward a diploma?

Why We Wrote This

Lots of learning occurs outside the classroom – but doesn’t appear on transcripts. Our education reporter saw a chance to listen in on New Hampshire’s debate about the best way to balance individual choice with the collective public good.

Stacy Teicher Khadaroo/The Christian Science Monitor
High school students Ian McCabe (l.) and Sahith Kaki share why they support the Learn Everywhere proposal during a public hearing held by the New Hampshire State Board of Education in Concord, N.H., on Feb. 14. The plan would allow non-school groups and businesses to apply for state approval to offer high school credits for educational experiences.

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New Hampshire’s education commissioner recalls a robotics club at a Manchester high school where students were so engaged, they asked him if he could get the school to stay open later at night.

“They are learning programming,... engineering.... Why doesn’t that count?” says Frank Edelblut. “Can we help change that whole culture … and move beyond the idea that learning happens from 7:30 to 2:30?”

The Granite State is recognized as a pioneer in competency-based education – pushing students to show mastery of skills instead of just earning credits with “seat time.” But a new idea by the New Hampshire Board of Education would push the state into uncharted territory. Under the Learn Everywhere proposal, students in an approved theater group or business-based program, for instance, could earn credit to be applied to their high school transcript.

At a packed Feb. 14 public-comment session, educators, parents, and school board members raised concerns that Learn Everywhere would undermine the value of diplomas, and may exacerbate inequities.

But longtime advocates for more flexible education pathways hope the details can get worked out. “Why aren’t we … working our tails off to ensure that every single kid in this state gets to experience these kinds of opportunities?” asked Fred Bramante, a former chair of the State Board.

Ninth-grader Rachel Chubb never thought much about lake pollution – until she witnessed a fascinating debate about fisheries at the New Hampshire State House. She’s spending one day a month there this semester, interning as part of the Girls Rock the Capitol program run by the Girl Scouts of the Green and White Mountains.

“It’s a lot more in depth and hands on, and you’re just thrown into a whole new world,” she says in a phone interview. “Even how people speak and act is different in classes or in textbooks [compared with] in real life.”

Students benefit greatly from rich opportunities to connect their learning to the “real world” of work, community involvement, or mentoring in disciplines ranging from the sciences to the arts. 

But how can that kind of outside learning be organized so that it counts toward a high school diploma?

New Hampshire is in the midst of this lively debate, one with undercurrents of some bigger questions playing out around the country: Does education need to be radically revolutionized, or is it best to innovate from within, with locally elected school boards acting as gatekeepers? What is the best way to balance individual choice with the collective public good?

The Granite State is widely recognized as a pioneer in competency-based education – pushing students to show mastery of skills instead of just earning credits with “seat time.” Many school districts here already partner with local businesses and nonprofits to offer internships and other extended learning opportunities (ELOs) that fulfill certain competency requirements.

But a new idea by the State Board of Education would push New Hampshire into uncharted territory yet again, allowing for-profit entities and nonprofits like the Girl Scouts to apply for accreditation to grant high school credits.

Under the Learn Everywhere proposal, students in an approved theater group or business-based program, for instance, could earn credit to be applied to their high school transcript. Such credits could potentially enable them to opt out of a class and take a study hall or a different elective, or even to graduate sooner.

“One thing that’s promising about this proposal is that it diversifies the people who could offer education, [including] … a lot of institutions that weren’t started as schools,” says Harvard professor Jal Mehta, coauthor with Sarah Fine of the forthcoming book “In Search of Deeper Learning: The Quest to Remake the American High School.”

They found that core classes often lack what extracurricular activities tend to boast – a sense of purpose and investment among students, and opportunities for more meaningful relationships with adults.

Learning in the off hours

Frank Edelblut, New Hampshire’s education commissioner, recalls a robotics club at a Manchester high school where students were so engaged, they asked him if he could get the school to stay open later at night.

“They are learning programming,... engineering. They’ve got budgets…. Why doesn’t that count?” he says in a phone interview. “Can we help change that whole culture … and move beyond the idea that learning happens from 7:30 to 2:30?”

Supporters of Learn Everywhere say it could help tailor more of the high school experience to individual needs and passions. It could tap community resources more efficiently, since a large company or nonprofit wouldn’t have to negotiate with multiple school districts to be able to offer credits.

Granting credit for extracurriculars is “an amazing idea, and it would keep a lot of [high-schoolers] in Girl Scouts,” says 11th-grader Clara Richman in a phone interview. She no longer has time for weekly troop meetings, but she has a part-time job at a day care, thanks to CPR training and people skills she developed in a Girl Scouts group that meets less frequently.

A concern: inequity

But at a packed Feb. 14 public-comment session at the Department of Education here, many educators, parents, and local school board members raised concerns that Learn Everywhere would undermine the value of local diplomas, and may exacerbate inequities.

“Is it going to be all-inclusive? When my student applies, are they going to be accepted if they have an emotional disability?” asked Esther Kennedy, director of student services in Gilford.

ELO coordinators sometimes have to send a nurse or paraprofessional to support students in their out-of-school experiences, Ms. Kennedy said. If the state authorizes other providers without the school district approving and coordinating participation, “Who is going to take care of that child that has an emotional breakdown [or] an epileptic seizure?”

Some educators also wondered why the State Board seems to want to reinvent the wheel instead of offering more support so districts can expand ELOs.

“Local control is as quintessential to New Hampshire as the unmovable granite on which our communities are founded,” said Bonnie Robinson, director of curriculum, instruction, and assessment at Lebanon High School, which boasts a thriving ELO program. “The ELO coordinator [is] the gatekeeper of experiences and credits. It is through this path that academic integrity is maintained,” she said.

Doris Hohensee, now a school board member in Nashua, appealed to the State Board in 2005 when the district denied her son’s request for credit for an online advanced physics course. Despite losing that appeal, she spoke in favor of allowing local school boards to set limits on outside credits, noting that it would be difficult to budget for teachers and textbooks if students might start opting out of courses partway through the year in favor of Learn Everywhere credits.

But some school districts here don’t yet offer extensive ELOs.

“Why aren’t we … working our tails off to ensure that every single kid in this state gets to experience these kinds of opportunities?” said Fred Bramante, a former chair of the State Board who helped set up a rule more than a decade ago directing school districts to harness community resources to engage each student.

With a refined version of the Learn Everywhere rules expected this spring, Mr. Bramante’s views suggest one way a compromise might be reached: “To me, the ultimate local control is parents and kids,” he said after the hearing. But he also hopes the State Board considers incorporating local coordinators akin to the ELO structure.

The overarching goal isn’t hard to get people to agree on: creating lifelong learners.

“Students who are engaged in their learning … they learn how to learn. So now they can be much more effective as adults when they do enter the workforce and are challenged with new technologies … new problems they have to solve,” says Mr. Edelblut, the commissioner. “And better learners will be better citizens in the long run.”

 

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