New Hampshire's education commissioner has decided to push a really terrible education idea. It's called "Learn Everywhere," and it looks like a new approach to replacing public education, a kind of true backdoor approach to vouchering. It comes dressed in pretty language, but it still smells like a recently fertilized field on a warm summer day.
Frank Edelblut was a businessman, venture capitalist, and one-term NH state representative before he decided to run for the governor's seat. He was beaten in the primary by Chris Sununu, son of former NH governor and Bush I White House Chief of Staff John Sununu (full disclosure: my grandmother was a NH GOP representative for decades, including under John Sununu, and she did not have a very high opinion of him). Edelblut gracefully conceded and publicly supported Sununu, who then appointed Edelblut to the top education job, despite Edelblut's complete lack of anything remotely resembling education experience.
All of Edelblut's children were home schooled. As a legislator, he backed vouchers and as a candidate he backed personalized [sic] learning. Sununu said that the homeschooling was a plus because it meant Edelblut understood alternative methods of education. The state board of education had misgivings about the appointment. Democrats had misgivings about the appointment, but Edelblut tried to be reassuring:
Edelblut says he has no intention of undermining schools, and will simply implement policies set by the Board of Education and lawmakers.
Well, not really. In an op-ed, Commissioner Edelblut talked about how "schooling gets in the way of education" and repeated the old "schools haven't changed in 100 years" baloney. The he went on to praise a cornucopia of privatizing ideas, including Learn Everywhere, which he says can create learning opportunities "at scale."
Learn Everywhere is a proposal to allow students to replace public school courses with coursework offered by private and nonprofit organizations. It is a mechanism for outsourcing public education.
Details are laid out on a Department of Education website. Here's the short form:
While for the most part, school takes place from 7:30am – 2:30pm inside a school building for 180 days a year, students are learning outside of that time frame and outside of that location. Some of this “outside the school” learning is formalized, such as after-school tutoring or dance lessons, and some is less formalized, such as an after-school job where a student is gaining valuable capacity across a number of domains. Learn Everywhere creates a vehicle to capture all students learning and give students credit for it.
The overall approach is similar to what we've seen with micro-credentials, but it keeps the framework of the public school credits. You attend a course or program that has been approved by the state DOE, and upon completion, you get a certificate that you present to your home school for course credit.
There are a variety of issues here, and the department, to its credit, anticipates most of them.
Time issues? You could duplicate classes, such as taking an outsourced drama class and also your school's drama class, but if the outside class is cutting into homework time, drop the school course and take a study hall. The site does not address what happens is you take so many outside courses that your day is mostly study halls. Can you just stop attending public school entirely?
Funding and Equity? Part of what makes this saleable is that it doesn't take a cent from public schools at this time; the families are responsible for paying for the outside courses. This in turn raises another question-- Edelblut is selling this, hard, on the notion that it will solve the equity problems of public schools and help raise up struggling students, but if the families have to pay for the courses, that would seem to lock poor students out of Learn Everywhere, which would seem to be the opposite of what Edelblut is advertising. The website addresses this issue with a resounding, "Well, we don't know." Some of these programs might be free. Businesses might want to pay to send students to programs that would be useful for that business. Families that can't afford full tuition at a Philips Exeter might be able to afford one course.
In other words, all of Edelblut's talk about how this program will close the opportunity gap and increase equity in New Hampshire is pretty much bullshit.
Credentials? Shouldn't the state make sure these outsourced courses are taught by qualified and credentialed educators. The answer on the suite is "Blah blah blah blah no. Also, credentials shmedentials."
What about teachers? If more coursework is outsourced, won't that screw over full employment opportunities for teachers? Why, no. They can jump on this gravy train and be freeeee!
Teachers interested in taking advantage of Learn Everywhere will have the ability to pursue teaching in its most pure form. A common refrain heard from teachers is frustration at an overly regulated and burdensome system that causes them to spend more time administrating students than instructing them. An inspired teacher may discover the entrepreneurial aspect of the program and can now set up their own learning program to instruct students. These teachers may teach at a traditional public school during the regular school day, but decide to add an independent program in the afternoon or on a weekend, to pursue teaching in a less restrictive form.
You could literally teach yourself right out of a job! "Drop this class and come learn the same material from me in the evening, kids, because having steady pay with benefits is unappealing to me!"
Also, some of these outsourced programs will probably look to hire real teachers, so all those teachers looking for a second job could get a second job teaching in a way that will undermine their first job.
Accountability? No problem-- students will have to keep taking the same old Big Standardized Tests, and what else do we need to know about what they're learning?
Doesn't this mess with local control? Blah blah blah blah blah, translated roughly as "We woiuld prefer not to actually answer that question." God, what happened to you, Republican party?
What about students with special needs? Their IEPs will follow them to the outsourced courses, which totally won't cause those programs to set limits because they don't want to deal with IEPs. Students with special needs will totally not be left behind by this program.
How will we know if students are safe in these programs? "That's a great and vitally important question."
Aren't administrators going to fight this program? No, dude, they'll totally love having the scheduling problems and the issues that come with giving credit for courses they have no input or control over. "Rather than losing control, administrators will see that they are gaining a valuable tool to help meet the goal that we share, bringing all students to strong outcomes and bright futures." They'll be delighted that this will solve the equity gap, somehow.
Not a word about how selective programs can be-- do they have to take any students who apply, or can they reject whoever they don't to bother with. Nor any real look at outside courses offered during the school day-- can I skip school to take this class? But lots of pretty words.
There is a heaping mountain of bovine fecal matter piled on top of this program. It's a bad deal for public education and for students, but handy for wealthy families that are already putting their kids in all sorts of extra enrichment, and of course it will mean a nice windfall for providers who create these kind of programs. And if it really takes off, it could gut that pesky public education system almost entirely (except of course for all those problem students).
Look down the road for the part where the administration comes back to say, "You know what this program really needs? Some kind of voucher system so that more students can afford to participate."
Most states that have tried to launch education savings account programs have tried to put that financial instrument in place first. New Hampshire is poised to take a back door approach-- set up the course delivery system first, and then later come back to set up the vouchery means of paying for it. This is all sorts of bad news.
The BOE votes on the "next step" for this program on June 13. If I were in New Hampshire and concerned about public education, I might give those board members a call or drop them a note.