Q&A with Education Commissioner Frank Edelblut
Few, if any, previous commissioners of the New Hampshire Department of Education have drawn as much criticism and controversy as Commissioner Frank Edelblut.
From the time he was nominated by Gov. Chris Sununu in January 2017, opponents have seized on Edelblut’s lack of any previous executive experience in the field of education, his homeschooling of his own seven children, and his advocacy of charter school expansion to provide students and parents with greater educational choices. His most frequent and vocal critic in Concord appears to be Executive Councilor and 2020 Democratic gubernatorial hopeful Andru Volinsky, who has labeled the commissioner an “education detractor” seeking to “preside over the demise of public schools.”
Q. What is the extent of the challenge schools are facing from the coronavirus and the current school closings?
A. We are trying to shift our institutional model from an in-person delivery to a remote instructional and support model, because remote instruction and support results in remote learning for our students.
Q. What does the remote support involve?
A. We applied for and obtained a waiver from the federal government regarding a food distribution program and another [waiver] regarding students that have individual education plans, to call out a variety of services to support these students.
Q. Ever since the governor nominated you for the job, opponents have objected that you had no working experience in the field of education. Is that a valid objection?
A. What I would tell you is that I have been doing this job for three years effectively in support of our entire education system in New Hampshire.
Q. Before your confirmation in 2017, you said, “I think our education system is in a perfect storm moment, that it needs to shift gears and move into the 21st century.” What is the perfect storm?
A. The perfect storm I was referring to is the fact that over a period of 40 years, student achievement has remained flat and the educational disparity for students through economic disadvantage, for minority students and students with disabilities, has widened.
Q. So what do you mean by shifting gears and moving into the 21st century?
A. Moving into the 21st century means being willing to evaluate the efficacy of our institutional and our support model to make sure that equity gaps for disadvantaged students are closed. And it means a willingness to step outside our comfort zone and try alternative approaches in helping to reach all students.
Q. Critics of the Learn Everywhere program say it takes from the local school districts the authority to determine what out-of-school activities qualify for credits toward graduation and which do not. Why do you believe it’s better for those decisions to be made by the state?
A. Learn Everywhere is an excellent program that provides families and students the opportunity to capitalize on learning opportunities that happen throughout our communities. The decisions of families about education options for their children represents the most local control and decision-making about the education of children.
Q. May a student get physical education credits for, say, taking a karate course or art credits for taking a dance class?
A. In the Learn Everywhere program that is approved by the state, which includes evaluation by New Hampshire educators, students could have the opportunity to earn credit across the full spectrum of classes and areas of study that are required by the state’s minimum standards for graduation.
Q. But traditionally, education is meant to expose the student to a wide variety of physical education or art programs. Doesn’t allowing the student to focus only on one activity narrow the range of learning?
A. The Learn Everywhere programs are designed to incorporate all appropriate competencies that a student might be expected to attain in New Hampshire today. There are school districts that offer students credit for participation on high school athletic teams, for example, or maybe for a high school band program. The offering of these types of credits, however, is not consistent across the state. One high school may offer such opportunities to students whereas students in the neighboring town are not offered similar opportunities.
Q. How concerned are you about declining test scores of students generally in the New Hampshire Assessment Test or the National Assessment of Educational Progress test, in Math, Science and Language Arts?
A. Of course we are always concerned with assessment results that give us a point-in-time snapshot of how our students are performing. The New Hampshire student performance on the 2019 NAEP assessment showed a small decline, which was disappointing. But at the same time, it was a smaller decline than the results broadly across America.
Q. Four years ago, you came very close to winning the Republican nomination for governor. Do you have any thoughts or plans about running for elective office again?
A. My plans are to serve the students, families, communities and educators of New Hampshire during my term as commissioner and that is my sole focus. I often say I have the best commissioner job in state government.