Thursday, February 4, 2010

Providing School Choice

Allowing parents to choose the school to be attended for their child's education is gaining popularity among parents and voters. Each year we see efforts to allow vouchers aimed at providing public funding for children who attend private schools. The biggest push today is for establishing privately run Charter schools that receive per pupil allotments from the state MFP and local school system funds.

An important question is: Does the current movement for “Choice” in Louisiana really provide students and their parents with appropriate choices for the education of all students?

An analysis of recent trends in education policy decisions in Louisiana reveals that instead of allowing parents more choice, the State Government is increasingly mandating what all children should learn in minute detail. Parents can expect less choice and fewer varied opportunities for their child’s education in the foreseeable future. The fact is that the school curriculum and even specific teaching approaches are becoming more standardized whether the student attends a traditional public school or a public Charter school. The Louisiana Comprehensive Curriculum now mandates almost every single concept (GLE) to be taught at each grade. But if that’s not enough Government control, Louisiana is set to participate in a Common Core Standards effort led by the National Governor’s Association to implement a standard curriculum in all public schools in participating states within the next few years. The stated goal is to insure that all students completing an elementary/secondary education graduate “College and Career” ready. As we have seen from the January 29 posting on this blog, this amounts to an attempt to provide College prep training for all.

The assumption has been made, even though contradicted by many years of education experience, that every student can and should master all the same concepts of language arts, math and science at the same rate and with the same proficiency. Basically the State and National Governments are in the business of deciding exactly what each child needs to know. And it’s the same for every child at every step of the education ladder. Also, in Louisiana every public school is mandated by the state to produce its quota of “proficient” students as measured by the School Performance Scores (SPS). Every public school in Louisiana was mandated by BESE to reach an SPS of 100 by the end of the 2009 school year (it didn’t happen) and all schools are expected to reach an SPS of 120 by the end of the 2014 school year (it won’t happen).

Government mandates and quotas are not new. When Communism in the Soviet Union was in its heyday, every factory had quotas of standardized products to produce. The Government set all the rules and quotas for industrial production and for education. It turned out that Government was not successful in dictating a productive economy, and the poorly organized Russian economy helped bring down the Communist system along with the breakup of the Soviet Union. Socialism could not match the free markets in industrial production or in education.

Yet today Louisiana and many other states seem intent on applying the concepts of Socialism to our public education system. Louisiana’s state-set goals and quotas are producing the same disappointing results as did the Socialist quotas. As we discussed in last week’s blog, Louisiana is trying to churn out more 4 year college grads at a time when we should be concentrating on skilled trades, technical and service careers. Instead of letting market forces and individual students and parents decide what careers are appropriate, Louisiana has instituted a quota system for public education. 72% of our students are expected to master the Core IV curriculum. Every student is expected to master Algebra even if he/she will never again work an Algebra problem after leaving High School. (If he can’t do Algebra, he can’t get a high school diploma even if he has marketable talents in other areas). Even after the overwhelming “yes” vote in the legislature for the Career Diploma law, our state Dept. of Education refuses to allow students a real opportunity to begin learning a skill or trade before leaving high school. As a result, over 20,000 students each year leave our public education system with no high school diploma and with no useful job training. Yet our education bureaucracy seems to never tire of setting new quotas (72% Core 4, 120 SPS for all schools) even while rolling back some of the biggest failures such as the mandate requiring retention of 4th graders who did not measure up on LEAP.

By contrast, the nation of Finland is recognized as a world leader in the education of all its students.. (Click on the highlighted link to see a description of the Finland education system in Wikipedia). Finland has close to the top world ranking in math, language and science, yet a large proportion of students are allowed to begin vocational training at age 15. Most Finnish students who enter vocational education in high school are career ready within 3 or 4 years. Louisiana students by contrast, if they are not academically inclined, are required to continue struggling with the state mandated college prep curriculum until they flunk out or drop out of high school. (click on the link for a more detailed critique of Louisiana’s Accountability System) As a result Louisiana consistently has 42% of its students getting almost no marketable skills. I’ve come to the conclusion that Louisiana does have a two track system. I call it College Prep and Jail Prep! Unfortunately, we’re doing too good job with the Jail Prep. Just look at the educational attainment of young offenders in our correctional institutions. By contrast almost all students in Finland are either fully prepared for a career or college upon leaving high school.

I believe the proper role of state government in education should be to facilitate (not mandate) a system where all local schools provide a solid college prep program and an equally effective vocational or career program starting at the 9th grade level. That’s because once students pass the age of 14 or 15 without a career or college goal in mind, they lose interest in school. Different students should be allowed to meet standards and goals appropriate to their aptitudes and interests. School systems should seek to identify each student’s strengths and develop these rather than insist on a single government mandated curriculum. After many years of struggle with false standards and quotas Louisiana has proven that one size does not fit all!