The LEAP Challenge Blog

Homework for Baton Rouge Legislators—or why we need new mental models of 21st century education and work

In the category of "most ill-conceived legislation passed this year," Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal signed a bill earlier this month that creates a new track for high school students that allows them to opt out of the standard high school curriculum and, instead, pursue a "career diploma" with much lower required standards in math and reading, but with seven added vocational courses. This option will be offered to students who can't pass the 8th grade level Louisiana Educational Assessment of Progress exam currently required to enroll in high school. A "career diploma?" Skills below the 8th grade level? As a New Orleans Times-Picayune columnist, Jarvis DeBerry notes, this bizarrely named "career diploma" is really "shorthand for 'no career will be had with this pretend diploma'."

Apparently, neither Jindal nor members of the Louisiana legislature have done their homework on what is really required to succeed in today's global economy. All the way back in 2006, ACT definitively showed (pdf) that the level of reading and math skills needed to be ready to enter today's workforce training programs are no different than the skills needed to succeed in entry-level college courses. What options are really open to Louisiana students who get this substandard credential for "seat-time" and a few vocational courses?

Don't get me wrong, there are a lot of kids getting both high school and college degrees for "seat time" and not really getting a rigorous education. But is this something we really should just accept? Or are we accepting this current reality just for "some kids?" Which kids do you suppose will end up in this track?

Jobs in the new global economy actually demand a much higher level of skills and abilities than ever before—even jobs that sound "blue-collar." The skill and knowledge deficit, in fact, exists both for high school drop-outs and for too many high school and even college graduates. AAC&U, in its own surveys of employers found that even college educated workers are lacking the level of skills and abilities they need to succeed and compete effectively in the new global economy. In fact, employers want to hire college graduates with the broad outcomes of a good liberal education—and they are having trouble finding them.

Why, then, are lawmakers in Louisiana moving in the opposite direction from what employers recommend? Instead of figuring out how to keep kids in school and raise their skill levels, are they creating an easier option just to make their graduation rates higher and pretend they are making progress? Is it the "other people's kids" syndrome where people are willing to sell a kidney to get their own kids to college, but go on and on about how other kids are just not "college material?"

I think this kind of policy emerges from two misunderstandings. First, many people believe that there just aren't enough jobs on the horizon for all the kids aspiring to a college education. The economic data disprove this pretty definitively—even in this recession. Some economists estimate that our economy will actually be about 16 million college-educated workers short to meet demand by the year 2015. So, even if, as the sponsor of the Louisiana bill noted, some kids drop out because they don't see the relevance of school, we can't just give up on raising their aspirations and their abilities. Our economic future actually depends on figuring out ways to make high school "relevant" and keep kids engaged. The Louisiana approach seems particularly cruel since it deceives kids into thinking they really can make it with the alternative diploma when the odds are stacked against them. At least if a kid actually drops out of high school, he probably knows he isn't going to hit the jackpot in the job market.

Americans can't seem to get beyond another misconception—a very 20th century mindset about both college and work. The world isn't divided any more into blue-collar jobs that require only mechanical skills or physical ability and white-collar jobs that require smarts. Technology has changed nearly every job in our economy and even crane operators now need advanced math skills. Maybe not the skills and knowledge gained in a full-fledged four-year BA degree, but certainly more than 6th or 7th grade math and reading skills.

Maybe the important question isn't why didn't the Louisiana legislature do its homework, but how can we paint a more accurate picture of the new economy and the kind of education it really requires to change the public's mental models of high school, college, and work?