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Frank Edelblut: Setting students on a path for individual success

By Frank Edelblut
April 23. 2018 6:25PM




THE FEBRUARY tragedy of the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., has had a profound impact on all of us. This was not the first tragedy and there have been additional tragedies since, but this one has started a conversation that seems to have gripped the nation.

Much of the conversation is centered on gun violence. How the crime was committed is an important conversation to have, but is it not the only one. As the commissioner of education for New Hampshire, I feel an obligation to focus on an additional area — the question of why.

Why are students committing violence against their fellow students?

While a simple answer to this question would be convenient, the answer will not be simplistic. We know that students who are engaged in their learning and are actively working toward a brighter future do not get into trouble. Our first line of defense must be to engage all students — and all means all — in their learning, and help them envision and realize their own bright futures.

Unfortunately, the current education system was not built with this goal in mind. Although there have been decades of work to change this, progress is hard and slow. The current system was designed well over a century ago with the goal of sorting students based on standards of ability. That model may have been the right approach at that time, but is inadequate for today.

Students today face rigorous academic standards, but we get less than half to those goals while graduating 90 percent of students. You don’t have to be good at math to see a problem. We get only 21 percent of our students in poverty to those goals, 8 percent of students with Individual Education Plans, and just 5 percent of our African American population.

We tell students already struggling with poverty what they need to be successful and then put them in a system that gets only 21 percent to where we tell them they need to be. Daily for 12 or more years, we put them through a system in which 79 percent will not reach their goals.

I am not referring to teachers. I know that teachers daily are putting their arms around kids and trying to encourage them. But the system tells students they did not make the grade. On top of this, we know that kids will be kids. That is not an excuse, but a realization that students who perform poorly in the system are certainly at higher risk of being picked on, bullied, and ostracized.

One-in-five children and young adults struggle today with mental illness or a learning disorder. Students are spending more time in school and structured activities today, but to what end? Dr. Peter Gray, at Boston College, argues for a causal link between the decline in childhood play and the rise in psychopathology in young people.

The suicide rate for teen girls ages 15 to 19 doubled between 2007 and 2015, reaching a 40-year high in 2015. The suicide rate for teen boys jumped 31 percent during those eight years. Researchers at Vanderbilt University discovered children’s suicidal feelings and attempts decline in summer and spike at back-to-school time.

How long would you or I last in a job where we had a 21 percent, or 8 percent or 5 percent chance of succeeding? What might our response be if we felt trapped in these circumstances?

I am not making excuses for students who commit violence on other students and I support appropriate punishment for those that do. I am saying that it is time for more movement in the education system.

More than 10 years ago, New Hampshire embedded changes in education rules that recognize the individuality of our students and the importance of creating a system that allows students to craft individual pathways to success. Among other things, these education rules state that students should have options for learning “in and out of the classroom.” They require students to be able to place out of courses if they “demonstrate knowledge and skills” in an area. Credits are to be granted based on mastery of the material, “not on time spent achieving these competencies.” Most importantly, programs of study should “meet the needs of each student.”

New Hampshire recognizes that success need not look the same for every student. Let’s embrace education that allows every student to pursue his or her passion and pathway to success.

Frank Edelblut is commissioner of the New Hampshire Department of Education.


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