My Open Letter to Frank Edelblut
Pasted below is an open letter I composed for newly appointed NH Commissioner of Education Frank Edelblut. I submitted it to the local newspaper who indicated they might find space for it when I emailed it last week. As of today it had not been published… and so I am prospectively posting it for tomorrow. If it doesn’t find its way into print I will mail it to Mr. Edelblut when I return from a weekend trip.
Dear Commissioner Edelblut-
Congratulations on your appointment to Commissioner of Education in New Hampshire. Earlier this month when the Governor nominated you, I wrote to the Executive Council during their deliberations to express my concern about your appointment as Commissioner. As a retired public school superintendent I felt that your lack of experience as a teacher, administrator, board member, or public school parent would place you at a decided disadvantage given the complex challenges facing the New Hampshire Department of Education. Now that you are appointed, I want to offer some thoughts on how you might proceed in your new assignment.
Until a few months ago No Child Left Behind (NCLB) and Race to the Top (RTTT) effectively dictated state educational practices. With the passage of Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), however, states have the responsibility for curriculum design, for the development of student assessments, and for setting the parameters for school accountability. This provides the State Department of Education with an opportunity to transform public schools in New Hampshire in a way that has not been possible for over a decade.
Given this opportunity to replace the top-down system that was imposed by the Federal government in years past, I would encourage you to use a grassroots approach. I urge you to spend as much time as possible in face-to-face meetings with educators, School Board members, and parents to get their views on how to improve public schools. I know that your predecessors made a point of attending Superintendents’ regional meetings and visiting schools that had had exemplary programs, and I know their presence was always appreciated. In those meetings and local visitations we learned from each other and developed a mutual respect and understanding. I am certain the School Boards Association would welcome an opportunity to meet with you to describe the challenges they face governing schools, meeting existing standards, and managing their budgets. I am also confident the NEA and AFT leaders would welcome an opportunity to share their views on how the State department might help teachers succeed in the classroom.
After meeting with those working in the field, I recommend that you draw on the expertise of the State Department staff and a team of practitioners to help develop an accountability system that is less reliant on standardized tests. This revised accountability system will help you define the direction for public schools in the coming years and help school boards and administrators develop long and short term goals accordingly. Under NCLB and RTTT, scores on standardized achievement tests linked to the Common Core were the primary measure of student and school success. These scores determined if school was “in need of improvement” or “failing”. As the scores required for a passing grade rose, almost every school in the state fell short of the mark. Your predecessor, Dr. Virginia Barry and her staff resisted this over-reliance on tests and worked with educators across the state to develop alternatives to these one-size-fits-all assessments mandated by NCLB and RTTT. By capitalizing on their earlier efforts, you can expedite the development of a new accountability plan, one that will not require a complete change in direction or philosophy.
As I am sure you realize from your experience as a legislator, the provision of equitable state funding for schools is an ongoing problem in New Hampshire. The reliance on property tax means that school districts with a strong tax base can raise adequate funds for schools without overburdening homeowners. At the same time, school districts in less affluent communities struggle to hire and retain qualified teachers and maintain their facilities, which in some cases are in dire need of improvement. Should the State be willing to raise more funds for public education or should federal funds become more flexible, I urge you to advocate for full funding of the formula designed to provide equity for those communities who cannot raise sufficient funds through property taxes. This would not only address a longstanding disparity in educational opportunities for children in the state, but also ensure that small rural schools and schools in poverty stricken communities can survive.
I read with great interest that you wanted to move toward a more “personalized” education system where students “could earn credits in traditional classroom settings, through online courses or vocational settings”. As I trust you learned in your recent meetings with members of the State Board, those opportunities already exist for New Hampshire students. Since 2005 high schools have been able to grant credits based on the fulfillment of competencies. By 2008-09, every high school in the state had created their own sets of competencies and they were authorized to award credits outside the traditional classroom based on the mastery of those competencies. Two years ago, EdNext, a publication of the conservative Hoover Foundation, rightfully hailed New Hampshire as a “trailblazer” in the development of this competency based education program, which is the prerequisite for developing an effective personalized learning system. If you haven’t done so, I recommend you read the article by Julia Freeland. It explains the remarkable accomplishments of the State Department of Education to date and provides a good description of the challenges they are facing in scaling up their personalized learning initiative. Drawing on the information in that article and feedback from administrators and teachers in the field, you should be able to build on the foundation Dr. Barry and her staff and fulfill the promise of a wholly personalized education system.
I know that you are an advocate for charter schools. When you visit with school board members, administrators, teachers and parents, you will discover that many who are affiliated with public education also support charter schools. The Department of Education webpage lists 26 charter schools that are governed by publicly elected boards or authorized by the State Board. I believe local school districts and the State Board would support the expansion of charter schools to meet the needs of students who are currently struggling in school. However, I do not believe School Boards, educators, or taxpayers want to see funds directed to for-profit, sectarian, or un-regulated charter schools. They expect all publicly funded schools to be held to the same levels of academic and financial accountability as their local public schools.
In closing, the Commissioner of Education does not “offer a product” or “run a business”. The Commissioner is responsible for overseeing a government agency that delivers a public good, a government agency that develops and implements policies and regulations designed to ensure that the state provides all children in the state with an equal opportunity to receive a high quality education. You are fortunate to have a State Department staff that is committed to this mission and fortunate to be working with School Boards, administrators and teachers who want children to succeed in school and in life. I think you will find that leading schools is as rewarding as it is difficult. I wish you well!