RHNH Exec. Dir., Evelyn Aissa, speaks on skills that matter at Tom Tom Founders Festival

Aissa presents at the Tom Tom Founders Festival in 2018.

Reaching Higher NH’s Executive Director, Evelyn Aissa, spoke at the seventh Annual Tom Tom Founders Festival last Thursday. The Festival, attended by over 25,000 people, is a cross-discipline convening of innovators, visionaries, and artists dedicated to inclusive innovation and advancement of a hopeful vision for how American communities can thrive in the digital age.

Aissa joined a panel of nonprofit education leaders to discuss ways to teach “skills that matter” in an economy that is changing faster than the time students are in school to prepare for it.

As the discussion turned to K-12, post-secondary and businesses collaborating around workforce development and skills, Aissa stated that “Success in the workforce is less about having discrete bodies of knowledge, and more about the ability to adapt to the new demands of the place where you’re working.” She pointed out that today’s high school graduates will hold jobs in many different workplaces and industries over the course of their careers.

New Hampshire public schools are addressing this kind of skills development through initiatives like project-based learning, competency education and a shift in the way student knowledge and skills are evaluated.

New Hampshire received a flexibility waiver from the U.S. Department of Education nearly five years ago that allowed the state to reduce standardized testing and pilot the PACE program. PACE assessments are integrated into students’ day-to-day work. Students in PACE districts have shared that they don’t even know they are taking a test, it feels like regular classroom work, thus eliminating extensive test prep.

“Our students are thriving, and our educators love it because they get to design their own assessments,” Aissa said of the PACE program. “Our students are becoming the creative, risk-taking thinkers we want them to be.”

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Jared Bigham, Executive Director of Chattanooga 2.0 and former public school principal, said he hoped Tennessee and other states would also see a reduction in standardized testing.

Panelists also spoke to the different paths students are taking after high school based on current market demands. Bigham said, “In Chattanooga, an industry certificate has more earning power than a bachelor’s degree right now,” said Bigham. “Skilled labor is what the market is demanding; that’s why a plumber can charge $100 per hour.”

Aissa predicted that future generations of students would refuse to make the same sacrifices for higher education that their parents had. “Having a higher degree is valuable if it prepares you for a field that is useful and in demand, where you can add value. But it doesn’t have to be a degree from Harvard that leaves you in debt for 15 years,” Aissa said.

Bigham acknowledged that he and other parents still feel pressure to help their children prepare for standardized tests and “play the game” to gain admission to selective colleges.
“The parent in me wants to say, ‘let’s make [our children] great learners,’” Bigham said. “But I think at the end of the day until the system changes around the way we assess kids and how we use those assessment results, it’s going to be a little bit of both. You can’t get away from it.”

See additional coverage of this national panel discussion here.