Advancing New Hampshire Public Education

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For the new school year: Thanks to New Hampshire’s teachers. You’re a precious asset to the State.

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Today I heard one teacher observing to another – not complaining, just observing – that “teacher appreciation days” in the local stores aren’t what they used to be.  There are 15% discounts for teachers buying supplies but not “composition books for a penny” as it used to be.

So this is teacher appreciation day here at ANHPE.  There’s no real purpose for this post other than to say thank you to New Hampshire teachers as you prepare for the new school year.  There’s a lot of debate swirling about schools and teachers and you could come to think that there are no teacher appreciation days anymore.  But New Hampshire does appreciate you and it’s a great place to do great teaching.

Teachers’ voices need to be part of the public debate about our schools.  You’ve got great stories to tell.  Your every-day work in overcoming learning challenges with your kids, implementing the Common Core, reaching out to parents, helping each other become better educators….this is all a view of our schools and teachers that most people don’t get.  And they need it.  They need to know how hard you work every day.

A long-time teacher and principal in Manchester said to me:

“People have no idea how much effort goes into these students.  And it’s because you want to do it.  I believe that the best that we can do for our students is to have them leave here so that they are able to handle sixth grade curriculum and then hopefully ninth grade curriculum because by the doing that we are giving them a choice. They may choose to go to a trade school, go to a college – or they may choose to go directly into the workplace. If we don’t do that for them – prepare them – we haven’t given them a choice.  What they choose to do beyond that is out of our control but the driving goal day-to-day is to get them there.”

People need to know that you are investing in their kids that way every day. We’ll try to tell more of those stories over the next while.

And, as you get down to business preparing for this school year, it’s worth looking at how your work in educating our kids every day fits into the national education reform debate raging today.

It’s hard to feel like society’s precious asset when you read the paper and watch the news.  It feels more like you’re on the front lines.  With rockets landing all around you.  Maybe you’ve got political advocates, parents and school board members telling you what you’re doing wrong.   Critics use everything from international comparisons to personal anecdotes to bash public education.

You see the national education reform debate and it looks like an existential threat to public education.  Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan…Rhode Island, Pennsylvania, Maine…200 years of public education is being plowed under.  And teachers are the targets.

You could be teaching in Maine, where the governor said, “If you want a good education, go to private schools. If you can’t afford it, tough luck. You can go to the public school.”

Or just look at Philadelphia.  It’s a school district about the size of all New Hampshire districts put together. And it represents the future of the education reform strategies we see in some states.  The State of Pennsylvania has defunded the Philadelphia school district and closed two dozen schools, so far, in order to hurt the teachers’ union. They have used their money instead to fund vouchers and charters, which now educate over 30% of the kids.

So now they’ve got 3 school systems to support – tradition public schools, charters and private schools – instead of just one.

Is that the future we have to look forward to?

But here’s something you might not know.

You are lucky to be teaching in New Hampshire.  You have an engaged and constructive union leadership, supportive political leadership, astute educational leadership … AND you have real local control.

New Hampshire is an island of sanity in the maelstrom of the national education reform debate.

This isn’t to say that everything is perfect.  It never is.  But just look at other states: charters, private school vouchers, A-F school scoring, punitive teacher evaluation driven by high stakes testing, draconian pay policies set at the state level – these are all used as bludgeons to beat on public schools and educators.

Obviously, this kind of reform strategy does not improve schools.  It merely penalizes schools with the most at-risk kids and, therefore, the lowest scores.  And it replaces public schools with a privatized form of education.

But in NH, just the opposite is happening.  Charters are under control.  Vouchers are just about extinguished.  We are moving in the opposite direction from A_F school ratings.  Evaluation of teaching and schools is about creating an environment that supports improvement.  And pay is still negotiated locally.

Here’s why I think that, in spite of the destruction you see going on around you, you’re in a great place that allows you to do great teaching.

Charters: Public charter schools are used throughout the country to undercut teachers’ unions. Cities like Chicago, Philadelphia, New York, Washington, DC, are shutting down traditional public schools and replacing them with charters.  And what’s the result?  There are good and bad charters as there are all other kinds of schools but over-all charters achieve no improvement in educational outcomes.

In New Hampshire, just over 1% of our kids go to charters and those schools are mostly targeted to special situations, particularly at-risk kids.  There’s wide consensus among the Governor, legislative committee chairs, unions and educators that charters in New Hampshire play a niche role.  They’re for special situations.

So far, then, charters play a small role in the New Hampshire education reform debate.  What about vouchers, the other major tool for reformers who want to privatize our public education system?

Vouchers: New Hampshire’s education tax credit bill was 2012 legislation that funds vouchers by granting tax credits to repay businesses almost dollar-for-dollar for donations to the voucher program.  The voucher bill was the most important piece of legislation passed last year.  The primary author in the House described his goal this way: “We want as many students as possible out of the “system”.  You are the “system” he was talking about.  This is hard to believe coming from a state representative – a member of the Education Committee no less!  But the bill passed over the governor’s veto.

But the program sends kids primarily to religious schools and a lower court here in New Hampshire has ruled that unconstitutional.  There’s now an injunction against using vouchers for religious schools.  That’s being appealed to our Supreme Court, of course, but in the meantime, neither public school parents nor businesses have shown much interest in vouchers.  They are happy with what you are doing for them.  The program will fund just 21 scholarships this year and, if it survives at all, will not become a significant factor in New Hampshire public education.

Evaluation: But what about the core issues of how teaching and schools are evaluated, the issue that’s most entwined with current federal education policy?

To my eye, New Hampshire got the best Race to the Top deal in the country.  Your commissioner’s negotiation of the No Child Left Behind waiver was a virtuoso performance.

This appeared to be a 10-month process that ended a few weeks ago, but the waiver was really the culmination of an effort that extended over several years.  It required a long-term vision by the department of education and the support of a bewildering number of players, including two governors, the Legislature, teachers, superintendents and school board leadership throughout the state.

But by 2010, the department had the groundwork laid for the move to Common Core State Standards that you are now implementing and for the new Smarter Balanced assessments.  And the new evaluation model, the product of two large task forces over 18 months, was done this spring.

So when it came down to negotiating with the U.S. Department of Education, the commissioner knew what she needed to get.  And she got it.  She got a waiver that did not sacrifice local control of our school systems to the federal government.  What did happen is that New Hampshire replaced No Child Left Behind with its own education strategy.

If we were in New Jersey or Indiana or Arkansas – or Maine – we’d be basing up to 50% of teacher evaluations on student test scores.  We’d be trying to embarrass schools with A-F ratings using loaded formulas.  And we’d be using all that to fire teachers, close schools and replace them with charters and vouchers.  Just like Philadelphia.

What do we have instead?  We certainly have no A-F school rating system.  Schools get an adequacy score constructed using realistic parameters.  It is not used to embarrass schools and make news.  And we get “priority” and “focus” schools, a new, regionally-based, system for working with schools that need help, either because they have low student achievement or some groups of students are falling behind.  They will get targeted support to make improvements that fit their realistic situations.

And we have an evaluation model that is our own and a model for the country.  DOE didn’t bring in “education reformer” Jeb Bush to tell us how to do it, as Maine did.  All over the country these documents are being created as political statements.  But the New Hampshire model is all about the kids.

The task force minutes summarized what one leader said this way:

“….the district has to show evidence that the teacher was given the support necessary to be successful….Those are the kinds of policies that need to go into the contract ….If a district cannot submit evidence that they provided support to a teacher that is having difficulty, then whose responsibility is it? We have to provide a level of protection for teachers that are giving it their best. Other states…are putting policies in place with no interaction from the educators. We do not want that to happen to us.”

That was the commissioner, not a union president.

And, because she had developed a broad consensus on a balanced plan, what she came out with from the waiver negotiation was pretty close to what she went in with.

You will see this supportive approach in your own district teaching evaluation plans.  But it would not have been possible without the flexibility provided by the New Hampshire waiver.

There’s a lot left to do.  There always is.  You will continue rolling out the Common Core standards.  And you’ll continue to hear debate about that.  But I think we see at this point that teachers who have implemented the Common Core standards become strong supporters.

A 5th grade teacher at Portsmouth’s New Franklin Elementary School, talking about the Language Arts standards, said to me:

“It’s overwhelming, of course, because it’s a big shift,” she said matter-of-factly.  ”It’s been interesting, though, to watch the kids step up to the level of deeper thinking that we’re asking them to do.  We’ve done persuasive writing in the past but this is the first time it’s been research based.

“In this particular project, we started with debating, on two different teams.  After that it just progressed.  I didn’t have to say, ‘Now let’s do a research-based writing project.’  The kids said, ‘Let’s research something,’ and decided on ‘Do fast food restaurants cause obesity?’  They’re writing this essay together as teams.  The next one they’ll do alone.”

So I look forward to this next school year with great anticipation – traveling further down New Hampshire’s own path for public education. I hope you’re excited too.  You are ground zero for showing what our American public schools can do in a constructive, supportive atmosphere.

And thank you for what you do.


2 Comments

  1. George Manos says:

    A fine tribute to New Hampshire is teachers. Working as a substitute teacher, I see, firsthand, the professionalism, dedication, and commitment the teachers have towards their students.

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