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Former La. Labor Sec.: Since School Grades Aren’t Working, Let’s Keep ‘Em.

October 31, 2021

On October 27, 2021, former Louisiana secretary of labor, Garey Forster, wrote a ramble of an opinion piece entitled, “If Education is the Future, Louisiana is Headed for the Deep Ditch.” Forster begins with the flawed assumption that postsecondary outcomes, such as median salary, can be purchased by those postsecondary institutions and ends with wanting to preserve school letter grades. Here’s his opener:

A state that can afford to pay LSU’s football coach $9 million a year — and then $17 million to get rid of him — ought to be able to afford to have LSU make the top 500 in 2022 Best College and University Rankings by WalletHub. But it doesn’t.

To determine the top-performing schools at the lowest possible costs to undergraduates, WalletHub compared more than 1,000 higher-education institutions in the US across 30 key measures. The metrics range from student-faculty ratio to graduation rate to post-attendance median salary.

Now, it is true that it takes money to reduce the student-faculty ratios, but “graduation rate” is a bit dicier; also included in those 30 Wallethub metrics are “student loan default rate to former students outearning high school graduates.” What Forster rushed to not consider is whether students who would otherwise not steep themselves in student loans are being forced to do so, say, by a test-centric, ed-reform system that forces all Louisiana juniors to take the ACT— as in American COLLEGE Testingrequires all Louisiana seniors to either complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or opt for a waiver in order to graduate– thereby luring students into debt by showing how much “money” they can get to go to college (and that without a full tutorial on student loan default and indebtedness and what percentage of a starting salary in a given field must be devoted to paying off those debts).

And Louisiana does have jobs that pay well and require no college degree, as the February 05, 2021, WWLTV.com reports:

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (2018), these are the median annual wages for some of the highest paying jobs that don’t require a college degree:

Captains, Mates, and Pilots of Water Vessels: $93,010 

Power Plant Operators, Distributors, and Dispatchers: $83,020 

Supervisors of Construction and Extraction workers: $65,230 

Police Supervisors and Detectives: $89,030

Commercial Pilots (excluding airline pilots): $82,240

Elevator Installers and Repairers: $79,780

Postmasters and Mail Superintendents: $75,970

So, you see, interpreting those 30 Wallethub college ranking criteria is complicated– but not if your endgame is place responsibility for Louisiana’s economy on its K12 schools.

Forster jumps from his college-ranking chagrin to Louisiana’s ACT scores, which began a decline prior to the pandemic:

If the overall competitive performance of Louisiana’s colleges doesn’t bother your thinking about the state’s economic future, consider how underperforming Louisiana’s high schools are on a national test of college readiness. The exam is called ACT and measured 2021 skills in English, reading, math, and science.

As reported by Will Sentell in this newspaper, Louisiana’s score fell for the fourth year in a row. The state’s composite score is 18.4, down from 18.7 last year out of a possible 36. Only Mississippi, Nevada, and Hawaii scored lower. The average nationally is 20.3, which dropped from 20.6 last year and is the lowest score in more than a decade.

In Louisiana, 98% of high school seniors took the ACT, which is among the highest participation rates in the nation. Relatively few states require all students to take the ACT. But only 20% of our children met national benchmarks in math, 23% in science, 31% in reading, and 48% in English.

Let’s begin with what is practical but has been pushed aside in our era of test-score-idolization: If the test, ACT, is intended to provide information about college aptitude, and if the entire population of Louisiana high school juniors is required to complete it whether college-bound or not all because overtesting/misuse of testing is what we do now in the name of Accountability, then one can reasonbly expect that the state ACT average will not be what is expected in order for the average Louisiana ACT test taker to attend a flagship university free and clear (in LSU’s case, an ACT composite of 22 is required for unconditional admission).

Moreover, Forster does not acknowledge that an ACT composite of 17 is sufficient for a Louisiana high school graduate to qualify for a two-year scholarship for technical training. Surely there are corporations who value employees with associate degrees or other one- or two-year certification.

However, there is another, more crucial piece here that Forster fails to consider:

Perhaps the dropping of Louisiana’s ACT composite to its lowest in a decade is actually an accurate measure of the failure of test-centered accountability. Perhaps that dropping score is a relfection of, say, a generation of K12 public school students losing roughly a quarter of the school year in authentic learning to an anemic substitute– testing and more testing– along with fiscal stress directly related to school systems channeling millions in revenue to pay for all of that testing and requisite test prep.

Time for some testing severance. If it costs millions, it’s not like it would be a new expense.

Still another thought: Perhaps what we are wtinessing is a phenomenon known as “diminishing returns”– at some point, the cost of pumping time and enegy into all of this testing and retesting far outweighs the results; Louisiana has reached a scoring peak, and in order to continue with a test score rise, officials need to resort to more drastic measures– say removal of children from their parents at the age of three and placing those toddlers into test-preppery boarding schools so that One Day, all Louisiana juniors will max out with ACT composites of 36, at which time we can set our sights upon future complaints that Scores Remain Flat at 36.

You can tell I’ve had enough of this test worship by the likes of legislators and economists.

Nevertheless, since Forster continues, so will I. I give you Forster’s *education will attract jobs*:

Louisiana has to be competitive for employers to want to come here or decide to expand here rather than at another of their locations. A significant component of that decision-making formula is education. The better the education, the better our chances to attract jobs.

Major job losses in the fossil fuel industry mean education is more important than ever to diversify the economy in Louisiana. But when colleges aren’t top-tier, and high school seniors are weak in math, science, and reading, many businesses just may not be interested.

Again, Forster totally disregards TOPS Tech with an ACT composite of 17. Also, those fossil fuel job losses are directly related to plummeting oil prices, not to Louisiana education, but Louisiana education is expected to save the day. But let’s move on.

Here’s a truth nugget: Employers make decisions based upon the ability to turn a profit. They are interested in low overhead and high revenue. So, if corporate America really wants an educated workforce, well, that involves taxing those corporations and investing the resulting revenue into the Louisiana economy in order to improve infrastructure such as a state’s education system. In Louisiana, it means restructuring corporate taxes to yield greater revenue for the state.

Even so, I repeat, the issue is complicated. We haven’t even discussed the corporations that move to Louisiana and primarily offer Louisianans minimum-wage or otherwise low-paying jobs, like this deal that former governor Bobby Jindal made with Smoothie King, to “create 60 jobs over the next five years.” An averge of 12 new jobs a year, you say.

Smoothie King employees are often high school or college students working for a nonlivible, hourly wage.

This is the same Bobby Jindal who cut state revenue to hospitals and universities. In the name of privatizing the hospitals, Jindal– not Louisiana education– forced the legislature into a corner to pony up the money needed– or to put the private hospitals in the position to leave the state or cut their services. (See more here.)

Forster would have done better to *ditch* his own test-score focus and instead consider the impact of Jindal’s cut to higher education on the costs currently passed on to Louisiana’s college students– and how Jindal’s decisions might be directly impacting that student loan default component of that Wallethub finding that LSU did not make its top 100.

But what does Forster want? What is the point of his piece?

He wants to keep Louisiana’s test-based ed reform in place:

When LEAP test scores took a nosedive earlier this year in math, English, science, and social studies that affected every school district in the state, some administrators and teachers wanted to scrap letter grades for public schools. November is the time letter grades are announced to show taxpayers how schools are performing.

The state’s budget surplus and the extra billions in federal funding for education offer an excellent opportunity to develop a plan to reward better performing schools and remediate the under performing ones. It shouldn’t be a one-size-fits-all funding formula for new money.

You must have accountability and school performance grades in public education in order to identify the successes and shortcomings in the system. Otherwise, once the ACT scores are in, it’s too late to go back and fix the math, science, and reading programs which shortchanged the students’ chances for whatever future they want to pursue.

Rewarding better performing schools and develop a plan for remediating underperforming ones? America has been instituting varied takes on this since the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001.

It hasn’t worked.

Moreover, test-centered school grading has not lived up to its improve-the-system hype. We’ve had school letter grades since 2011. We’ve changed the formula (2013) and changed the criteria (2018). But the moment of triumph in Louisiana test scores has not arrived.

Grading schools is misguided, and thinking that grading schools will boost test scores and, in turn, save the Louisiana economy is simplistic. But back to *jobs*:

Louisiana’s jobs situation is further complicated by what we have learned during the pandemic. Right now, employers across the nation are having difficulty filling jobs. Like that declining ACT national average, employee scarcity is not just a Louisiana phenomenon. In fact, in many cases, it is now the potential employees themselves who hold leverage over corporate America. Meanwhile, here I sit, a college-educated, K12 teacher, one who holds advanced degress and has an established work history and who is weary of a job that expects be to be excellent in ever doing more with less.

According to Indeed.com, Louisiana’s entry-level truck driver income rivals my veteran teacher salary. No college required. ACT score irrelevant.

Teachers are tired, Mr. Forster, and they are leaving the classroom at a faster rate than they are being replaced. Instead of continuing to burden us with test-based reforms that had a decade or more to work but are clearly not working, you might consider that such faithful adherance to failure is actually worsening Louisiana’s labor market by exacerbating a teacher exodus.

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4 Comments
  1. Linda permalink

    worth a read
    “An insider’s look at the evolution of the choice scholarship program”, 4-22-2021, Southwestern Indiana Catholic Community Newspaper.

  2. Linda permalink

    The resume of Patricia B. McMurray- Baton Rouge, posted at Baker Donelson (the Daschle Group was founded as “an advisory to the law firm”) includes the following, “Assisting with the opening and operation of many charter schools in Louisiana…” “Served as speaker for the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools.” Daschle is on the Board of the Center for American Progress.
    Mary Landrieu serves on the Board of NAPCS.

    • Linda permalink

      Reed Hastings who called for an elimination of local school boards serves on the Board with Landrieu.

    • Linda permalink

      ProPublica posts about “lobbying engagement”. At the site’s page for Stride Inc. (F/K/A K12 Inc.), an entry lists the Daschle Group. The page identifies the date “Aug. 15, 2020, to present”, “agencies lobbied, U.S. Senate, House of Reps, Executive Office of the President.”
      A separate document from LegiStorm identifies, under the heading, “Revolving door lobbyists”, a Daschle Group employee, “Most recent congressional employment- Senate Democratic Committee.”

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