March 2, 2012 05:02

State Superintendent of Education John White on education reform and the future of Louisiana's children.

Consider this: Nearly 80 percent of Louisianans were born and raised in Louisiana; in Florida, that figure is less than 40 percent. So it's doubly important to our future that we educate our children. Our choice is simple: we can prepare our kids for professional careers and become an economic leader, stocked with growth-industry jobs, or we can do just enough for them to graduate high school, leading to a stagnant economy, offering low-wage work.

Currently, for every 100 students entering Louisiana high schools, 71 graduate in four years; 49 of those graduates pursue some form of post-secondary education, and 19 of those 49 earn a bachelor or associate degree within six years. The 21st century economy will require workers educated beyond 12th grade, so we've got a lot to do to become a 21st century state.

The good news: no state is embracing this charge with greater vigor than Louisiana. Governor Bobby Jindal has proposed changes to ensure quality early childhood education, to honor great teachers and to empower families to choose the education best for their child. New Orleans schools, once the lowest performing in Louisiana and the nation, are proving children facing even the greatest challenges can learn at high levels.

Likewise, the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education has adopted national "Common Core" standards. Beginning in 2014-2015, these standards will demand students attain deeper critical-thinking skills and greater ability to read complex texts. These reading, writing and math standards align with 21st century workforce demands: graduates who can read, think, and clearly express themselves. Since dozens of states have adopted the exact same standards, success won't be about outperforming the parish next door; success will mean outperforming 49 other states.

We need to get ready now. Monday the Louisiana Department of Education announced a proposal to the federal government that would align our school accountability system with the new standards. The proposal positions Louisiana to get ahead by focusing teachers on the new standards, even before full implementation, and by letting principals, not bureaucrats, determine how money is spent.

The proposal achieves four critical objectives.

First, while our letter-grade system clearly defines what communities expect of schools, scores can be confusing. In the existing system, a score of 120 is an A, while 75 is an F. Under the proposal, a 100 would be an A, below 50 an F.

Next, the proposal focuses teachers on rigorous student work, aligned with the new standards. The ACT is the best measure of whether students are ready for education and careers after high school. Under this proposal, all 9th-11th grade students would participate in the series of ACT tests, and schools would be measured based on student performance. The system would also award points when students enroll in industry-based preparation or college-level classes. But more points would be awarded when students demonstrate mastery of tough courses by passing Advanced Placement tests -- a clear indication they're ready for academic work after high school.

Not all students arrive with the same level of preparation. Most of the 230,000 students below grade-level in Louisiana have been behind throughout their time in school. To honor schools for "beating the odds," our proposal would give a bonus to schools that make progress with struggling students.

Finally, we cannot ask district and school leaders to achieve greatness while tying their hands. Required spending for Washington-mandated programs is senseless when our principals and local superintendents know what's best for their students. Louisiana is requesting flexibility for after-school funds, professional development funds and academic tutoring funds, so principals and superintendents can preserve programs they know are most important to student achievement.

Our future relies on our ability to attract and retain growth-industry jobs. Our education system is tasked with preparing graduates who can meet the expectations of those jobs. New standards for learning identify what our future economy will demand of graduates. Louisiana can start preparing for those 21st century standards today.

John White's op-ed first appeared in the Feb. 28 edition of The Times-Picayune.

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