Louisiana education leaders have been on a mission to upgrade our high school curriculum for at least ten years now. The revelation by the Board of Regents several years ago that only 23% of our students were achieving a 4 year college degree, was shocking and considered to be an indictment of Louisiana's high school curriculum. Statistics were produced that showed that workers who had achieved at least a Bachelor's degree would have much greater lifetime earnings than students who entered the job force with only a high school diploma. Everyone agreed that something must be done immediately to better prepare our students for college. State education leaders concluded that the high school curriculum must be upgraded to align with college prep requirements. The DOE and BESE responded by creating the Core 4 diploma which included all the high school courses recommended by the Board of Regents as necessary for students to succeed in college. Guidance counselors and high school principals were encouraged to get as many students enrolled in core 4 as possible. The idea was that students must be forced to do what we as adults knew "was good for them." You know, kind of like years ago when mothers forced their kids to take Castor oil as a cure for most childhood ailments.
Also, 4 years ago, the legislature adopted a goal of improving the high school graduation rate to at least 80% by the year 2014. Our DOE responded by basing the school performance scores and the school letter grades partly on the high school graduation rate and the high school graduation index which rewarded schools for students taking advanced college prep courses. Additional SPS points were awarded for students who graduated as TOPS recipients. More recently Superintendent White has added a requirement that all students take the ACT and that 25% of a high school's rating be based on the average ACT scores of its students. This change continues the push of college prep for all.
Right in the middle of all this effort to prepare more students for college, the legislature approved the Career Diploma law (2009). This law was intended to provide an alternative to students who did not intend to or who were not qualified to attend a four year college. The career diploma was intended to help reduce the dropout rate by giving non-college bound students a more relevant curriculum that would prepare them to enter the job market soon after graduation, usually after completing technical or career training.
But BESE at the urging of many of the college prep boosters and the DOE adopted a curriculum for the career diploma that was not very different from the regular diploma. The argument was that career diploma students also needed certain academic courses to prepare them in the event they decided to attend a 4 year college after all. In addition, before a student could enroll in the career diploma program, parents were required to sign a form that indicated that their child would be less likely to be prepared for college if he/she chose the career diploma pathway. Basically the career diploma was portrayed as an undesirable, second rate option for students who were settling for less. Also there was very little support for adding career and technical courses to the high school curriculum. Technical courses are generally more expensive. In addition, the new school rating system that assigned letter grades to all high schools was designed to reward schools that had more students in the college prep (Core 4) curriculum. Sure enough, very few students signed up for the career diploma program.
So what has been the result of all this emphasis on college prep for most students?
The most recent results according to White, are that now 19% of our students are getting a 4 year degree! That's down from the 23% rate of 4 years ago. There has been a small increase in ACT average scores, but generally the college prep for all push has done nothing to improve college completion in Louisiana. What is more surprising is that statistics now tell us that in Louisiana a student can earn a higher average income with a high quality 2 year Associate degree than he/she can earn with a Bachelor's degree!What kind of progress is that? I guess now some will say we just need to redouble our efforts to get more students into the college prep pathway whether they want it or not. Force them to take that Castor oil because we know it's good for them. To me this fits Einstein's definition of insanity. You know, "doing more of the same and expecting a different result."
The fact is that even in the most advanced education systems such as in Finland, only 40% of the students are expected to attend 4 year colleges. Finland does not stigmatize students who want to enter technical and career fields instead of college. The Finland educational system has high quality technical and career training for the majority of students starting as early as 10th grade. Louisiana's high schools now provide very few high quality technical courses. This is a by product of our college prep for all push.
Some of us had warned at the time of the adoption of the Core 4 program that trying to force high schools to prepare most students for college may end up actually watering down our true college prep courses so that the average and low academic achievers could pass those courses. That would be especially true if we rewarded schools for having a high graduation rate. Reports have been coming to me lately that teachers are now being pressured to pass students who have not really demonstrated proficiency in courses that are required for graduation. Also, for those courses that require students to pass end of course tests to graduate many teachers have started teaching strictly to the test. All this results in the teaching of less higher level learning just at the time we are told that our students need higher level learning. It seems like Louisiana's reforms always produce undesirable unintended consequences! When you try to hammer a square peg into a round hole, you may end up with damaged and broken pegs.
So after all this effort, Louisiana is now only preparing 19% of its students for college and the other 81% for almost nothing. That's what I have been calling Louisiana's college prep and jail prep system. According to Representative Fannin and Senator Kostelka, (the authors of the Career Diploma legislation) this is exactly what the career diploma was intended to address. Rep. Fannin pointed out in one of the recent forums that it costs Louisiana taxpayers only a fraction as much to provide an education than to incarcerate young people who go astray because they have no salable skills.
So when Superintendent White announced that he would soon launch a program to revitalize the career diploma or career pathway program, many educators (myself included) were elated. Forums are now being held in each workforce region of the state by the DOE to gather recommendations about how to boost enrollment in solid career diploma programs that will lead to jobs in high demand and high salary careers that require no more than a 2 year Associate or equivalent degree.
But as with every complex undertaking, the devil is in the details. One important point that was made in one of the forums was that as long as the high school rating system is based mostly on college prep standards such as the ACT, very few schools will embrace the career pathway program. Also, it is clear that most good career courses require expensive specialized equipment. Some require hard to find and more expensive instructors. These courses are just more expensive, period. It will be tough to convince school systems to put in a program that is more costly and that may result in a school getting a lower letter grade. Also, many believe that the Common Core curriculum which is in the process of being implemented in Louisiana is basically a college prep curriculum. Many educators see a poor fit between the common core and non-academic career training programs.
I think that Louisiana has gotten itself into a real dilemma by continuing to push purely academic standards as requirements for high school graduation. It comes down to questions like this: Will we deny a student a chance to train as a welder for a job where he/she can make an annual salary of $150,000 because he/she can't pass the new common core math standards? Superintendent White has suggested that many students should start transitioning to community and technical colleges as early as the start of their junior year. But will that allow the waiver of some of the academic requirements Louisiana has added to the curriculum? Personally I am tired of hearing this c_ _ _ about how raising the bar (which always seems to be a pure academic bar) will help all students!
Almost everything that has been done in recent education reform is based on the idea that all students can somehow be forced to meet the exact same standards in order to receive a high school diploma. When the reformers use one of their favorite slogans: "All children can learn", what they really mean is: "all children can learn the exact same academic concepts at the exact same rate" with no regard to non-academic abilities and interests. When will we start recognizing the needs and interests of students who have abilities and interests in art, music, and mechanical skills? Will we ever give credit toward graduation to students who have such abilities and interests?
Implementation of a viable career diploma program is long overdue. Business and industry is finally getting upset that we have such a pitiful job training program in Louisiana. Bobby Jindal may be shocked to learn that many industries are not coming to Louisiana, mainly because we have a weak technical and career training program that produces few young workers with real skills.
Superintendent White has taken the step of asking the educators in the field to provide input about how to best implement a strong career diploma program. I intend to be heard on this important issue and I hope that many other educators will get involved in making solid recommendations to White and his staff.