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Edelblut Seeks to Personalize Education
Published Thursday, November 16, 2017

Commissioner Edelblut with students in Hinsdale. Courtesy of the NH Department of Education.

As commissioner of the NH Department of Education, Frank Edelblut has a plan to transform education as we know it. He says he wants schools to personalize education for students, measuring progress by mastery of a subject rather than time spent in the classroom.

While students are just beginning the school year, Edelblut is receiving his own crash course in the NH education system since taking the helm of the NH Department to Education in February.

His appointment has been a source of contention as critics have raised concerns about his lack of experience in education and the fact that he and his wife chose to homeschool their seven children. He has also received push back on a proposal to revisit the state’s science standards, which the State Board of Education voted to adopt just last year.  (The board rejected his proposal.)

Edelblut, who campaigned against Common Core (devised to establish a single set of educational expectations), came in second to Gov. Chris Sununu in last year’s Republican gubernatorial primary.  And Sununu raised eyebrows when he appointed his former opponent to the top state education position.  

Edelblut’s background includes working as a CPA for Pricewaterhouse-Coopers as well as CEO and founder of Control Solutions International (which he eventually sold) and as CFO for the Niagara Corporation. Since then he has been investing in early stage companies. Critics quickly drew comparisons between Edelblut and Betsy DeVos, the controversial U.S. Secretary of Education who, like Edelblut, has no formal career ties to education but advocates for a conservative approach to education and school choice funded by public dollars.

Asked to address the concerns raised by critics, Edelblut responds that the controversies have been laid to rest and he is ready to move forward.

“People were nervous. I was from outside the system,” he says. “People now recognize I am on the ground working to improve the education system for every student in New Hampshire.”

Edelblut sees his outsider standing as an advantage as he can challenge the system. “I have a lot of experience running complex organizations and solving complex problems. I can bring those capabilities and skills to benefit [education] in New Hampshire,” Edelblut says. “I can ask, ‘Is it getting us to the policy outcome we’re after?’”

Edelblut became the center of another controversy in April when a state senator proposed reorganizing the Department of Education to give the commissioner more power to define roles within the department, reassign employees and move funds. Some Democrats called the  move a “power grab” though Edelblut says it was simply an attempt to formalize what had been happening under previous commissioners.

More importantly, he says, he wants to move past those issues to focus on the future. He has been visiting public schools statewide and likes to highlight what he’s learned.

He remembers one public pre-school with limited slots. When he asked the director how they selected kids for those spots, he was told it is first come, first served. Edelblut worries the students at greatest risk could be missing the ability to participate.

But not everything he has seen has been troubling. He’s been impressed by how technology is shifting the approach of teachers.

“I was encouraged to see a lot of positive things taking place,” Edelblut says. “I saw levels of engagement and a focus on having students get the
best opportunities.”

He did notice how engagement varies from school to school and even between grade levels within a district. Edelblut says he wants to work on making transitions more seamless within school systems, from kindergarten through college.

Which brings Edelblut back to his mission. He says he will continue the work of former Board of Education member Fred Bramante to “set the stage for personalized learning, moving it from a system of time to one of mastering content.”

“We want to make sure we are bringing students though the system to meet academic requirements,” he says.

If a student is taking college level courses in high school, Edelblut wants the student to receive college credits. And, if a student has not mastered content by the time traditional graduation rolls around, then they should not be forced out. “We’ve embraced competency-based education. Where are the students graduating at 14 or 16 years old and why not have students who are 19 or 20?” Edelblut says.

He uses the Khan Academy, a non-profit educational organization in California, as a model for using objective measures of mastering content. The Khan Academy is an online education portal that offers practice exercises, instructional videos and a personalized learning dashboard so students can study at their own pace.

Finally, he says NH needs to empower schools to move in this direction and eliminate state policies that get in the way. “The goal is to move forward on personalized education,” Edelblut says. “I would hope we meet students where they are and advance them to their top end game.”

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