N.H. Educators voice overwhelming concerns over State Board of Education’s proposals on minimum standards for public schools

Concord NH State House

Concord NH State House

By RHIANWEN WATKINS

Granite State News Collaborative

Published: 04-22-2024 10:43 AM

Teachers, school superintendents and members of the public are criticizing the State Board of Education’s proposal for updating minimum standards for public schools, saying it would weaken education and reduce state funding, forcing taxpayers to finance further school costs. 

Since the board’s proposal was released Feb. 15, educators have been analyzing it during review sessions led by Christine Downing, director of curriculum, instruction and assessment for the Cornish, Grantham and Plainfield school districts. Many of their concerns were raised at the state board’s listening sessions on April 3 and 11.

At the meeting April 3, only two people spoke in support of the board’s update, one being Fred Bramante, a consultant hired by the N.H. Department of Education to draft updated standards for the state board to consider. 

Bramante worked with several New Hampshire educators to produce his draft, but the board’s Feb. 15 version made significant changes that altered its wording and removed certain sections. 

More than 15 educators and residents criticized the department’s document during the hearings April 3 and 11.

School Board concerns

Micaela Demeter, a Dover School Board member, said April 3 that the proposed changes would “walk back the state’s responsibility to define an adequate education, which then absolves the state of its future responsibility to pay for that adequate education.” 

“If this responsibility is largely left to local school boards, an adequate education may look different in each district, thereby exacerbating the deep inequities we know exist in our state at this time,” she said. 

This “absolution of responsibility” puts more burden on property taxpayers who are already funding more than 70 percent of local school costs, she said. 

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Among objections from the Dover School Board, Demeter said, is shifting language from “teaching students” to “facilitating learning,” which she said is vague and could remove the expectation that qualified teachers must be the ones orchestrating classroom content. 

Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut, in an opinion column published April 15 in the N.H. Union Leader, wrote, “These types of changes are important since they shift the focus to the ultimate objective — learning. This does not take away from the important work of teaching and instruction, but rather acknowledges that those are not the only way that our students are learning the essential knowledge and skills needed for success.”

Educators argue that the wording change would water down what it means to provide an adequate education.

Class size debate

Demeter said the Dover board also opposes eliminating caps on class sizes — a concern that educators across the state have echoed.

In Section 306.14 of the document, the words “class size,” along with a list of maximum class sizes for each grade level, have been struck from the standards. Instead, the document states local school boards shall establish “student-educator ratios” that are appropriate for each “learning opportunity and learning level.”

Edelblut responded to that criticism in an interview after the hearings.

“If you're teaching reading to a cohort of second-graders that are struggling readers, you're going to have a different class size than you are if you're teaching reading to fifth-graders who are proficient in reading,” Edelblut said.

“If you think about it, when you are embarking on an endeavor to teach students, the first question that you ask is not, ‘How many kids should I put in the class?’ The first question you ask is, ‘What am I teaching?’” he said. “The last question you should be asking yourself is, what is the cohort of students that I'm going to be working with?”

Educators across New Hampshire have raised concerns that removing the specific limits on class sizes, and asking local school boards to determine “teacher-student ratios,” could result in less state funding. In reality, they say, that means districts in relatively wealthy school districts could afford to keep class sizes low, while others that can’t afford an adequate number of teachers would be left with much bigger class sizes, and a less desirable learning environment.

“If it means that we have to go back to class sizes, that may be the case,” said Edelblut. “The board will make the ultimate determination.”

“Shall” to “May”

Greg Leonard, social studies teacher at ConVal Regional High School in Peterborough, said April 3 he worries the revised standards could cause “irreparable harm” to New Hampshire’s children, and said the state board hasn’t produced evidence that its proposals are built on solid research.

“Where is that research-based evidence that eliminating class size requirements improves student learning?” Leonard said. “Where is the research-based evidence that removing educator certification requirements improves student learning?” 

Brian Balke, superintendent of School Administrative Unit 19 in Goffstown, raised multiple concerns, including a wording change from “provides” to “may include” in reference to a list of components in the of Holocaust and genocide curriculum. 

“I don’t understand why that is,” said Balke, who chairs the N.H. Commission on Holocaust and Genocide Education.

The wording change from “shall” to “may” runs throughout the document, which worries educators, who say that, in legislative language, “shall” implies the program element is a requirement and “may” makes it an option.

Effects of past budget cuts

Chris Prost, a Croydon Planning Board member, testified April 11 to discuss the effects of their town’s past budget cuts. 

“I think for a lot of people the impact of these changes is very undefined, but our town got a glimpse into what they may mean for smaller communities,” he said.

In March 2022, Croydon’s state education funding dropped by more than 50 percent, a huge budget cut that resulted in elementary school curriculums and teachers being replaced by Prenda Pod Learning, which Prost as “online learning overseen by unlicensed guides under the direction of a licensed teacher who was maybe not going to be on-site.” 

That pod learning model was recommended by the N.H. Department of Education, despite it not having been used as the default education model in any town before, Prost said.

In an interview after the listening session, Prost said that, as a father of children soon to be heading into the public school system, he worries what the future of their education may look like.

Robert Malay, the school superintendent of Keene-based School Administrative Unit 29, told the state board April 3 that revising the education minimum standards is “perhaps the most important thing that you will do during your time on the board.”

School districts around the state are waiting to see if the State Board of Education will amend the proposal for state minimum standards, or forward it as is to the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules for final approval.