At State Board Meeting, Outpouring from Public in Support of State Standards and Public Schools

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The State Board of Education meeting room was filled to capacity on May 11, as were the hallways outside, with parents, students, teachers, and administrators waiting to testify in support of New Hampshire’s public schools and the state’s current standards. Many were there to express concern over legislative efforts to allow public taxpayer money to go towards private school tuition, and reversing the work that districts have done with academic standards.

A common theme ran throughout: New Hampshire’s schools are inspiring, inclusive, and engaging and the state’s Math and English Language Arts standards provide a strong foundation for learning.

Parents talked about how their children are thriving with challenging assignments. Administrators praised teachers for working together and engaging students. Business leader and BIA Chair, Val Zanchuk, highlighted the growing number of school-business partnerships that help students develop the soft skills they need to be successful after high school. And, students spoke in favor of the learning culture to which they have become accustomed.

See video of testimony here. 

New leadership

Recently appointed chairman, Drew Cline, who replaces former Chair Tom Raffio, was welcomed by the Board. Cline thanked Raffio and the Board for their dedication to New Hampshire kids.

“It’s very important to have public education. It’s the most important task that the state does. It’s a serious responsibility, and I approach it in a way that I think public service ought to be approached, which is with an open heart, an open mind, and open ears,” said Cline. “We have deliberative bodies in the state because no one person has all the answers,” he continued.

“The [PACE] assessments are so fun, we forget that we’re being tested”

Emily, a fourth grader from Parker Varney Elementary School in Manchester, gave a brief overview of what’s going on in her school, which is using the alternative assessment program known as PACE:

“What I want to talk about is project-based learning and our PACE assignments. Our teachers have been working on performance assessments for project-based learning. These are our favorites because we’re allowed to make choices and decisions with our projects.

“Did you know that Parker Varney students chose the school lunch? Third graders surveyed every elementary student about school lunch. They analyzed over 3,000 surveys & graphed the data, researched other school lunch programs in the country, and presented to the mayor and school board. And guess what? Now we have the best school lunch.

“Every student participated in this project. It was so fun and we even forgot we were being tested.

“Ms. Allen asked me what I want to be when I graduated college. My first response is a gymnast, and then after that, a principal. I want to build a school where students help design their tests, where students are challenged every day, and I really want to make everyone happy about learning.”

New Hampshire’s 2012 Teacher of the Year, Bethany Bernasconi, said that PACE has already had lasting impacts on her school in Amherst. Her district is working towards Tier 1 status, which allows schools to replace some of the standardized testing with performance assessments. But they still have access to many of the resources of Tier 1 schools, which she says has transformed the culture in her classrooms.

“Bringing that work back has created avenues for teacher leadership in our school, has created professional learning communities, and has created venues where teachers are talking about calibrating student learning. Talking about grading, talking about what the purpose of grades are and how do we communicate and partner better with our local community to really help move all students forward,” said Bernasconi.

“We won’t let our education system be dismantled”

Many parents spoke out in praise of their public schools, but voiced deep dissatisfaction with controversial bills this legislative session. Parents specifically addressed SB 193, the universal voucher bill that was recently tabled by the House, and Senator John Reagan’s amendment that would have given DOE Commissioner Frank Edelblut broad power over the budget and the ability to restructure the Department of Education, which was defeated in committee.

Maura Fey, a parent from Exeter, tearfully praised New Hampshire’s schools and their inclusiveness. “When I stop to think about the wonderful opportunities my child has, it blows my mind,” she said. “All over the state, people like me and kids like mine are given opportunities that families could not afford to purchase out of pocket. We as a state, are incredibly fortunate because our communities recognize how important public education is, regardless of their family’s economic status.”

She went on to explain her concern with proposals that would undermine public schools, specifically mentioning the voucher bill that was tabled this session: “I’m gravely concerned at some of the challenges thrown at our system… Be assured that the people of New Hampshire are watching, and will not allow our public education system to be dismantled.”

Strong support for NH’s current academic standards

The flood of testimony from members of the public, educators, business leaders and district-level leadership from across the state, including the New Hampshire School Administrators Association, had another focus too: expressing support for the state’s current Math and English Language Arts (ELA) standards – and imploring the Board not to move forward with the DOE’s proposed review and revision process. The call to review and revise the standards has come from Commissioner Edelblut and has sparked debate.

During the public comment period, administrators from across the state explained that the standards provide a strong foundation for learning, and how since their adoption in 2010, schools have been using them to create engaging, rigorous, and locally-developed curriculum. Many feared the uncertainty that would come from changing or altering them and questioned the necessity of doing so – particularly at this time.

Business and Industry Association (BIA) Chair, Val Zanchuk, called revision “unnecessary,” noting that, “We need the full engagement of the educational community in completing the implementation of a competency-based education system. We believe that an attempt to refine, amend, or rewrite educational standards  the educational standards is unnecessary, of marginal value, and a poorly timed diversion of that limited bandwidth. it would reduce the educational community’s ability to engage the more pressing issue of workforce development.”

“The existing math and language arts standards are sufficiently rigorous and when mastered, will prepare students for college and career success,” Zanchuk continued.

Representing some 17,000 members across the state, NEA-NH President, Megan Tuttle, urged the Board to “reconsider” moving forward with the process to revise.

After 18 years of teaching, I can confidently say that I have seen these standards in use, and that they are indeed effective in their current state. The use of standards helps streamline instruction, ensuring that teaching practices deliberately focus on agreed upon learning targets.  This is only possible if the standards are a manageable list of broad goals, rather than an exhaustive list of bits of learning. Standards serve as guideposts for our schools. Teachers, parents and students use them as a tool to focus on what students are expected to learn,” Tuttle said.

She went on to highlight that, “(o)ur current Math and ELA standards contain the breadth to allow our districts and teachers to exercise professional judgment in developing curriculum and instruction that promotes student success, validating New Hampshire’s long-standing tradition of local control; where parents, elected officials and educators work together to unlock each student’s potential…NEA-NH has been fully supportive of these standards…”

“The standards themselves provide wide flexibility for varying approaches to curriculum, lesson plans and styles of classroom instruction.  Our teachers feel empowered to make changes that might be a better fit with the students in their classrooms. New Hampshire’s ELA and math standards have stood the test of time in our classrooms. We urge the state board to leave them in place,” Tuttle continued.

Five administrators from across the state, including curriculum directors and Superintendents, echoed the importance of the standards as a foundation for learning as part of a presentation by the New Hampshire School Administrators Association. Brendan Minnihan, Superintendent of Laconia schools, implored the Board to keep the standards. He invited Board members to visit schools in different districts, since they adapt them to their local needs. “I ask you to celebrate the positives,” he said.

Debate over standards review

In a lively discussion following the public comment and presentations portions of the agenda, members Chagnon, Groleau, Honorow, and Duncan, and Cassady, expressed varying degrees of concern about moving forward with the review process (click here to review the Department’s review and revision process proposal).

New Board Chair, Drew Cline, wanted to hear more from those in the field who are interested in revision.

“We’ve heard from folks that are on the agenda, and heard from folks who were invited to be on the agenda to come out and speak against changing the standards,” said Cline. “We haven’t heard from anyone invited to speak about changes, or tweaks, or suggestions about how to make it better, and that might be doing our due diligence to say let’s seek that out…”

Cline recommended carrying the the debate over to the June 8 meeting, inviting “a couple more people to discuss this, and have some conversation about it and take some more time to think about it. and seems to be the appropriate thing to do instead of just shutting it down based on testimony we knew we were going to get.”

A number of Board members pushed back, noting that public comment is open to anyone, and in fact, there were several people who had testified against the Common Core during that meeting.

“I understand we’ve had certain political activists express their concern with Common Core. We hear a lot of teachers who have problems with the standards and administrators that have problems, and that’s the perspective I’m interested in hearing. Maybe that’s not representative…. I would just be interested in learning more on hearing perspectives that aren’t cheerleading,” said Cline.

Board member, Cindy Chagnon, was concerned that other states have reviewed their standards, costing a quarter of a million dollars in some cases, only to keep the Common Core. Referring to research captured in the May 8, 2017 memo that she and member Bill Duncan issued to the board (click here to read the full memo), Chagnon noted, “If you look at all these other states, they looked at it standard by standard, and this whole group of stakeholders came out, and concluded that the Common Core was good,” she said.

“I know it’s a political battle at the moment, but I’d like to look at the potential aspects–all of these people that were here today say that it’s working and they’ve worked so hard these past 7 years to really make it work,” said Chagnon.

“I don’t know if we want to go there, and if we do, we should put every standard out there and ask everyone–ask the parents, teachers, principals, superintendents–just say you have a month or 6 weeks or something to say, which of these standards–NOT do you want to do away with Common Core–but which of these specific standards do you think needs tweaking or changing? Is there another standard you want to add?”

Chagnon went on to say that changing the standards could hurt the momentum that educators have gained. “They’re really so positive about the Common Core and what they’ve done, and to change it I think would really discourage a lot of people when they’re just getting accustomed to it,” she said.

Board member Helen Honorow said: “Today’s presentation certainly had a great deal of impact on me and my view of what we should and shouldn’t be doing in respect to NH’s college and career ready standards. They may not be perfect, but we’ve heard from people throughout the state and I’m not sure we should be doing big, wholesale changes.”

“I’m very concerned about moving forward with revisions when things seem to be working well, that the competencies that we’ve been moving towards are really at a place…We’re not done, we have to keep working, but I read this as throwing things out and starting again…Do we want to revise these standards? I’m not sure that we do, and I’ve heard a lot today that we don’t want to revise. Maybe review-it’s good to always make sure you’re not staying stagnant. I’ve heard that the foundation is good.”

Members also debated whether the Commissioner has the statutory authority to run the review, with Bill Duncan questioning whether that authority does indeed rest with the Commissioner, and Cline asserting that, “It [the statute] clearly says he does have to review any standards. It’s a statutory requirement. We have the ability to adopt standards, which he does not have.”

Members expressed strong interest in hearing directly from the Commissioner about his vision for the review process (was his intent comprehensive revision, or, the gathering of more targeted feedback?), and the need for further clarity on the Commissioner’s statutory authority.

At the June 8 meeting, the Board will take up each of these issues, and invite further feedback from the public and stakeholders on the standards.

Here are links to both the documents referenced above:
 “NEW HAMPSHIRE ACADEMIC STANDARDS: Mathematics and English Language Arts Revision Process” from the DOE, and the May 8 memo, “Standards for Standards Review” from members Duncan and Chagnon. Next week, Reaching Higher will take a deeper look at both – stay tuned.