Last week at a meeting where local school superintendents were reviewing proposed new state K-12 education policies about high schools, there was an interesting discussion about what high schools should be expected to do to help kids who are academically struggling. The question came up after data showed that only 37 percent of Louisiana high school students (based primarily on ninth- and 10th-grade LEAP tests) are performing at proficient levels or “on grade level.” A Louisiana Department of Education representative described the measurement as a key indicator of how well students have learned basic literacy and numeracy skills that are not only important in school but also in college and the workplace. Literacy involves not only reading and writing; it also involves speaking, listening, and comprehension in ways that support effective communication throughout one’s life. Numeracy is the ability to understand, reason with, and apply simple mathematical concepts in everyday situations, using addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division.

Given that sobering statistic, one might expect the meeting to include a discussion of how schools can better help kids learn in middle school so they arrive in high school better prepared. Or maybe even a sharing of best practices on how tutoring and other academic interventions during students’ remaining years in high school can help them graduate with higher levels of readiness.

But no, there was very little, if any, of this. Instead, much of the discussion centered on the types of career training and credentials young people can pursue in high school to prepare for jobs. That sounds great, but most Louisiana students are not pursuing training or earning credentials in fields where there is high employer demand or where jobs pay a living wage with opportunities to advance in a career. Only six percent of students not on a university-prep pathway in high school are being prepared for jobs that will allow them to thrive and grow.

Why aren’t more students enrolled in those programs? There are a few reasons. One, these programs often involve a lot of coordination with local technical colleges and employers to get instructors and equipment and can be expensive, although schools have access to state and federal funding to pay many costs. Two, they require that schools engage, inform, and advise students and their families on the full array of career options, employment forecasts, wages and benefits, and growth potential. And three, as you might expect, many strong career training programs require students to be just as literate and numerate as those headed into careers requiring a four-year university degree.

Lots of research and feedback from employers reveal that most young hires just do not have the reading, writing, and verbal communication skills that are required to get and keep a good job. We talk a lot about literacy in the early elementary school grades so kids have a solid foundation on which to learn, but what about the many young people who make it all the way to high school and are still struggling? Is putting them in a low-level career training program and transitioning them to a minimum wage job the only option? Surely not.

As Louisiana education leaders prioritize basic literacy and numeracy as key initiatives, they should remember that the needs exist throughout the continuum of kindergarteners through 12th graders. As we focus on the needs of our youngest learners, let’s not forget about our teens who will soon be entering the increasingly demanding workplace where essential literacy and numeracy skills are not a plus, but they are essential. If schools have not gotten them to a basic level of proficiency by the time they leave middle school, then the four years they spend in high school must be used to address those critical learning needs before enrolling them in any other type of program. Nothing matters more than leaving high school literate and numerate, and anything less is an inexcusable failure by our public education system to meet the most minimal expectations.