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December 05. 2013 6:56PM

Fergus Cullen: Baines and Bramante modernize education for the iTunes era

The factory model of public education — every kid sits on a one-speed conveyor belt for a 12-year ride through an assembly line — is crumbling fast. Rather than cling to the old system built in a time of mimeographs and film strips, Bob Baines and Fred Bramante are building a new model for kids who never knew a world without the Internet and mobile phones.

Baines invested 20 years in Manchester's West High School as principal before leaving to serve as mayor in 2000. West was the crown jewel of the Queen City's public schools then, before Bedford built its own high school and a third of West's students left. It's been hard for Baines to watch West decline.

With financial support from one of his last students — Dyn CEO Jeremy Hitchcock is a member of the West Class of 2000 — Baines is leading STEAM Ahead NH, which hopes to have West students earning a year of college credit at no cost to themselves starting next fall.

"There is no need to continue the traditional factory model high school any longer," Baines told me. "There's no need for students to be in classrooms five days a week."

Those are striking words from a leading member of the public education establishment. "I was inside the system for so long. Sometimes you're constrained by that. Now I'm outside and can do something creative and innovative," Baines said.

STEAM would blur, if not erase, the lines between high school, college and work. It addresses a gaping shortfall of traditional schools: a lack of exposure to careers and the practical application of classroom learning to the real world.

West students will earn credit for classes they take at community colleges and the state university system, and through internships at employers, while in high school. Going beyond the science, technology, engineering and math programs that are in high demand, the "A" in STEAM stands for the the arts. Creativity is a prerequistite for innovation.

Upon graduation, students will be ready to step into quality jobs at local companies in computer technology or health care, or continue to higher education with a big head start. The most effective way to make college more affordable is to cut the number of years needed to complete a degree. Getting a year of college out of the same money already spent on four years of high school gives taxpayers better value, too.

Durham resident Fred Bramante served a dozen years as a member of the state Board of Education. The entrepreneur behind Daddy's Junkie Music calls education reform "the driving passion of my life." Now he's launching a new nonprofit called the National Center for Competency-Based Learning.

Bramante says it makes no sense to measure students by how many hours they sit in a traditional classroom. The question that matters is, "What did they learn?"

Karate instruction has it right. You don't move to your yellow belt until you've mastered your white belt, whether you're six years old or 60. But in school, students advance based on age, no matter when — or whether — competency in the subject matter is achieved. A student can get an A in addition and a D in division and still pass math class. In the real world, that would be like a flying instructor giving a license to someone who mastered take offs and flying, but failed at landings.

People should move on when they've proven competency. For some students, that might take four years of high school. For others, it could take less than two. Online classes have huge potential to let students learn at their own speed, which may be considerably faster or slower than the average student who sets the pace for the typical class.

Nor is a classroom the only place where learning takes place. He'll pitch New Hampshire superintendents next week on a plan to recruit 10,000 mentors to work with students outside the school walls to help them earn credits in the real world.

Public education is getting disrupted by technology and shifting skills needed by employers. The sooner districts recognize this, and embrace it, the better off their kids will be.

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Fergus Cullen, a freelance columnist, can be reached at fergus@ferguscullen.com and followed @FergusCullen. Learn more at steamaheadnh.com and nccbl.org.


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