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Thursday, May 3, 2012

Innovation award hits close to home

Telegraph Editorial

You don’t have to look too hard these days to be reminded that the U.S. education system doesn’t stack up well when compared to other developed countries in the world.

In its most recent study, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found that the United States ranked 17th in reading, 23rd in science and 31st in math – above average, average and below average, respectively – based on the knowledge and skills acquired by 15-year-olds in some 65 countries.

That’s one of the reasons why states and school districts across the nation are engaged in innovation and reform efforts, a topic The Telegraph addressed last spring in a four-part series that culminated with a two-hour public forum at Nashua High School South.

So you can understand why we took particular interest in the announcement Tuesday that New Hampshire has been named this year’s recipient of the Frank Newman Award for State Innovation, the first time only one state has been selected since the award was initiated in 1988. It will be presented this summer at the National Forum on Education Policy in Atlanta.

The Education Commission of the States, a national clearinghouse for education policy based in Denver, chose New Hampshire because of its advancements in competency-based learning in its public high schools in particular and broader K-12 innovations in general.

Under competency-based learning, which was introduced statewide at the start of the 2008-09 school year, high school students earn credits by demonstrating they are proficient in the subject regardless of how much or little time is spent in the classroom.

“We know students learn in different ways and at different paces,” said Roger Sampson, commission president, in a statement. “New Hampshire has boldly faced the challenges of individualizing education for students and is showing the rest of the country it can be done.”

Fittingly, at that same Concord news conference, state Education Commissioner Virginia Barry announced that Campbell High School was one of five New Hampshire schools named to the “League of Innovative Schools” for its own work with competency-based learning.

We say “fittingly” because the Litchfield high school pioneered this approach, becoming the first to introduce it 11 years ago – nearly a decade before the concept was adopted statewide.

“It ensures every student has the skills they need to be successful for their future plans,” said Justin Ballou, a social studies teacher at the school. “We can’t bank on a 75 average means they’re educated. We want to assess those separate skills. We really try to share these things with other schools as well.”

Apparently, with other states, too.

As reported in Wednesday’s Telegraph, Deputy Education Commissioner Paul Leather said the state’s selection for this prestigious award is drawing attention from across the country.

Leather said he has participated in webinars with school officials in Iowa and West Virginia, and he has another one coming up with educators in South Carolina.

None of this is intended to minimize the many challenges facing New Hampshire schools. Like most states, there is no shortage of obstacles that must be overcome to ensure the students of today have a real opportunity to become the leaders of tomorrow.

Still, national recognition as a leader in innovation shouldn’t be pooh-poohed, either. The fact that Campbell High also was acknowledged for blazing the trail in competency-based learning is just icing on the cake.