A Race to the Bottom
As Louisiana nears the end of another school year, as the legislative session nears the halfway mark, and as election season heats up with candidates beginning to differentiate themselves, questions have emerged about the best way to improve student achievement and expand opportunities for them.
Some have called for a renewed focus on the basics – the teaching of literacy, numeracy, STEM, and financial literacy. Those things are certainly warranted, given Louisiana’s continued low student achievement that trails most other states and its high percentage of individuals living in poverty. Louisiana public schools average just 31% of students performing at proficient levels in core academic subjects, and the state has the distinction of being the fourth highest in the nation for the percentage of 16–24-year-olds who are neither in school nor employed.
Others have called for expanding school choice and educational freedom, giving families the legal right, and in some cases, also the state funds, to place their child in the school or educational environment that best meets his or her individual needs or aligns with their family’s values. This is a powerful option for all Louisiana students, but even more so for those in low-income families and the 41% of Black students attending D or F rated public schools compared to 8% of White children.
These are moves in the right direction, and if implemented well, could be game changers for our kids and our state.
And then there are those who simply want to maintain or even water down already low educational standards – allowing kids who can’t read to be socially promoted, no longer requiring students to take certain assessments that measure their learning, waiving minimal requirements to earn a high school diploma, and lowering academic achievement requirements for state merit-based scholarships. One proposal calls for awarding TOPS Tech awards to students earning a mere 15 on the ACT, signaling that performance at that level is some sort of accomplishment to which kids should aspire.
How do these things help kids? How do they help our state become more competitive? They don’t. They simply reinforce the status quo.
In all of these cases involving lowering expectations, there are few, if any, benefits to students. But in some cases, there are benefits to the systems that have failed to prepare them. Kids who struggle to learn don’t get the help they need and continue being pushed through the system to become someone else’s problem. Schools don’t have to face the public accountability of low test scores of kids who end up in high school not being able to read or do basic math. And schools get to celebrate higher graduation rates (and accountability ratings) by allowing more kids to walk across the stage and receive a diploma – even though it’s one that no longer signifies readiness for success in college or the workplace.
Racing to the top has been hard enough; we don’t need incentives in the system to cause a race to the bottom. Louisiana is already too close to win if that’s the bar.
It’s time to get back to the tried-and-true test: How does what is being proposed help kids learn and enable them and our state to thrive?
If the question is difficult to answer and benefits to kids aren’t obvious, give it the firm rejection it deserves and send a strong message that Louisiana deserves better.