Employers throughout the state are challenged by the lack of qualified labor. Companies are searching for the next generation of talent to fill open positions and positions soon-to-be vacated by baby boomers retiring. Compounding this situation is the fact that many high school and college students who enter NH’s workforce do so without the skills employers need for 21st century jobs.
The Business and Industry Association has long supported policies and programs that improve the quality of education and promote work-readiness. This includes support for full-day kindergarten and adoption of Common Core standards to help ensure kids are ready for college, career and life. Competency-based experiential education is one of the best ways to learn and experience real-world challenges. Recognizing the problem of exorbitant student loan debt, the BIA advocates for funding and policies that help lower higher education costs. And for nearly three years we’ve partnered with the NH Charitable Foundation to promote the state’s 65x25 initiative (the goal of ensuring 65% of NH’s adult workforce possesses a degree or meaningful credential by 2025). The initiative has brought together educators and business leaders in targeted school districts to ensure more high school students are exposed to job and career opportunities in their backyards.
Building on its engagement in education policy, the BIA recently announced its support for “Learn Everywhere,” an initiative to accommodate and reward learning outside of the classroom. This extended learning concept, introduced by NH Department of Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut and adopted by the State Board of Education, acknowledges that not all learning takes place in school. Learn Everywhere allows kids to take advantage of educational opportunities in non-school settings throughout the year.
Businesses, nonprofits or other enterprises that want to take part in Learn Everywhere must submit their proposed curriculum to the NH Department of Education to demonstrate how it advances the student’s academic goals. The department will vet each proposal to ensure it has merit and meets accreditation standards. It will also monitor the curriculum over time to ensure accountability and compliance.
While schools offer classes meant to round out kids’ education and prepare them for their future, there are some experiences that can’t be obtained in school. A student could, for example, build birdhouses in wood shop or instead, work with a builder to help frame a real house. They could read about the mechanics of robots or build one for the First Robotics competition. They could work with a lathe in a career and technical education class, or job shadow a CNC operator in a manufacturing facility. These are rich learning experiences that students will likely carry with them their entire life.
But it’s not enough to get experience. Learn Everywhere allows students to earn academic credit toward graduation. When the educational system places value on learning outside the classroom, students will be inspired in ways they currently are not.
When it was rolled out earlier this year, Learn Everywhere was met with consternation in some corners, despite stirring little controversy when it was taken up the previous year in the NH legislature. Lawmakers passed a bill instructing the State Board of Education to adopt rules for the approval of alternative programs that grant credit leading to graduation.
Democrats and Republicans approved the measure on voice votes.
Learn Everywhere doesn’t affect school funding, nor does it place new regulatory burdens on local school districts. It doesn’t take away any existing programs that schools already offer. Those are stated concerns from some. One unstated concern is that teachers and administrators would be pushed out of the educational process. However, state law already allows for educational credit to be accepted from non-certified instructors and this precedent seems to be working. Another unstated concern seems to be that students will be short-changed by participating in Learn Everywhere programs. This seems unlikely since the curriculum will be vetted by department professionals and approved by the State Board.
In July, the Joint Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules raised preliminary objections to the program and most recently, on a 6-4 vote, sidelined the program. The Department of Education is evaluating this decision to see if there are ways some parts of the initiative could still move forward despite the JLCAR ruling. Ultimately it seems likely the program’s fate will be decided in the 2020 legislative session. One thing remains clear: to ensure a healthy climate for job creation and a strong economy, NH must facilitate all efforts to train the next generation workforce.
Jim Roche is president of the Business and Industry Association. For more information, call 603-224-5388 or visit biaofnh.com.