N.H. Board Seeks Broader High School Credit Options

By Debra Viadero — September 21, 2004 4 min read
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High school students could earn academic credits for studying French in Paris, playing on their school football team, or strumming guitar in a rock band, under rules the New Hampshire’s state school board is drafting.

The changes are part of a move in the Granite State to loosen up state standards so that students can apply “real world” learning experiences toward their diplomas and use assessments to bypass more of their traditional coursework.

Although lawmakers will eventually have to sign off on the changes, the uncompleted plan is already getting strong backing from Gov. Craig R. Benson. The Republican governor, who is up for re-election this year, made the concept a centerpiece of a program for improving education that he outlined for voters in a speech late last month.

Teachers’ union officials are eyeing the proposals more skeptically, wondering how the state will ensure academic quality and children’s safety when students leave school buildings to pursue their studies elsewhere.

Though the alternatives being contemplated in New Hampshire come as most states are ratcheting up core-subject requirements, the state is not the first to propose allowing students to earn academic credits for out-of-school activities. New Jersey made similar changes in its graduation requirements earlier this year. (“New Jersey Expands Routes to Graduation,” Jan. 21, 2004.)

According to the Denver-based Education Commission of the States, West Virginia also requires local boards to establish “work-based learning” requirements for high schoolers, while Maryland students must complete 75 hours of community service in order to graduate.

In New Hampshire, the concept of real-world learning is broadly defined in the blueprint to include work-based internships, distance-learning programs, team sports, study-abroad programs, and other opportunities. The proposed changes grew out of state board efforts, beginning in May 2003, to overhaul the rules determining whether schools get state accreditation.

Pursuing Passions

Proponents of the board’s plan said their aim is to spur more authentic learning opportunities for students and to find a hook for those who do not learn in traditional ways.

“We are transforming the rules for all of this to happen for students to pursue their passions, to have an opportunity to be the main driver in their education,” said Fred Bramante, the chairman of the state school board.

“Why is it OK to give credit toward graduation if someone has passed gym class, but if they’re on the gymnastics team, they don’t get credit?” added Mr. Bramante, who is also a music retailer and a five-time Republican gubernatorial candidate. “I was a P.E. [physical education] minor, and I still don’t understand that.”

Though the draft plans are aimed chiefly at high school students, Mr. Bramante said the alternative experiences could apply to students in all grades. The proposal also calls for educators to prepare personal learning plans for every student in grades K-8, partly so that schools can help direct students’ learning choices.

Carol B. Backus, the communications coordinator for National Education Association-New Hampshire, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said her organization is concerned that the outside endeavors could expose students to workplace exploitation or provide them with lower-quality instruction than they might get in school.

“Any time we’re putting children in a situation, we want to know who’s supervising them,” she said. “We want to know if the people providing the real-world learning have education credentials, and we want to know if the workplace where the child is learning is also a safe place.”

“We’re also concerned,” she added, “that it not become a program where rich kids could buy their way to credit.”

Flexibility and Resources

Some critics also wonder whether such measures, coming as they are in a state beset by perpetual battles over public funding of education, could also be a way to save New Hampshire money—a charge that Mr. Bramante denies. He said state officials do not yet know whether the changes would result in a net savings or added costs for the state.

Mr. Bramante said the state board does not expect to finalize the standards until later this year.

Some colleges and univer sities have already expressed interest in establishing study centers or doctoral programs on real-world learning, he added.

A few schools and districts around the state already allow students to earn credit for out-of-school learning experiences.

In the Newfound Area School District in the state’s lakes region, students can earn academic credit for overseas language study or for working in the bicycle shop that the district maintains for students.

John Graziano, the superintendent of the 1,743-student district, said the initiative has proved popular since its inception three years ago. The district also prepares personal learning plans for students in every K-12 grade.

“Districts need to be told this is an OK thing,” Mr. Graziano said, “and then be given the flexibility and the resources to do it.”

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