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April 28. 2012 6:41PM

An education revolution: That started here in NH

Almost a decade ago, the seeds of reform were planted inside New Hamsphire's Department of Education. Today, they are bearing fruit.

In September 2003, Gov. Craig Benson held a news conference that started a national revolution. “It is time to look at education from top to bottom,” he said. “We're going to realize the school doesn't have to be all things to all people, and all the content does not have to be within those four walls.”

With Benson's prodding, state Board of Education Chairman Fred Bramante and Education Commissioner Nicholas Donohue moved to change the way student progress was evaluated. One of the Benson-Bramante ideas was to change the rules so that students were judged by how competent they were at the end of the year, not by how many hours they sat at a desk in a classroom.

Back then, state graduation standards required kids to have 135 hours of classroom instruction. Even if they could ace the end-of-year test, students could not get credit for a subject if they did not sit in the classroom for the required number of hours. Bramante and Benson thought that was foolish. They pushed to have the state replace that requirement with what Bramante called “real-world learning.”

Students would be allowed to get course credit for outside work, provided they could demonstrate their competency. A varsity athlete could get P.E. credit for playing a team sport, or a budding guitarist could get music credit for taking private guitar lessons.

Despite initial hostility from teachers unions and new Gov. John Lynch, the “real-world learning” change was made and has stuck. Now it is called “competency-based learning,” and it has become a national model.

In February, Education Week profiled New Hampshire's approach, calling it “one of the most aggressive statewide efforts in the country to embrace competency-based learning.”

The U.S. Department of Education has highlighted the effort, noting that New Hampshire “is initiating high school redesign that replaces the time-based system (Carnegie unit) with a competency-based system focused on personalized learning, strong teacher-student relationships, flexible supports, and development of 21st century skills.”

New Hampshire is the only state in the nation that requires every school district to give students credit if they can demonstrate subject-matter proficiency — regardless of whether they spent any time learning the subject inside a classroom. Other states are beginning to follow New Hampshire's lead.

The newly expanded Manchester School of Technology will take the competency-based learning concept further. Students will be able to study numerous trades as well as core subjects.

They will advance through grade levels not at the end of each school year, but whenever they can pass the final exam, state education officials say.

These are exciting changes that will better serve our children and children all over the country. And to think, they were pioneered here in New Hampshire by a couple of guys who were dismissed as businessmen who couldn't possibly know anything about educating children.


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