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Lower standards may play to overbuilt technical schools

One wonders whether the driving force behind relaxed standards in Louisiana secondary education does not have something to do with trying to justify the surplus of community colleges and technical schools in the state.

Last week, Gov. Bobby Jindal signed into law a measure that would allow a third option for those wishing to graduate with high school diplomas in Louisiana. Created as a response to a stubbornly-high dropout rate from high school, the guiding philosophy was this “career” track would pump up these rates by changing the rules thereby making it easier to graduate. Rather than elevate students and changing structures to help accomplish this, such as merit pay for teachers and regular subject area testing of teachers for competence, the move makes it easier for politicians to declare victory while less becomes demanded of students in an evolving economy that relentlessly demands more conceptual skills. Even if children were, no politician was left behind on the notions behind this backwards attempt.

But it’s possible that another motive played a part in the disturbingly-easy acquiescence policy-makers had to lowering standards. The budget crunch evident in this year’s state budget highlighted spending on higher education as the constitutional and legal structure of state fiscal procedures forced it to bear disproportionately cuts made to the budget. Along with that came questions about whether the structuring of higher education in the state, from doctoral programs all the way to vocational training, could be made more efficient.

There are some disturbing questions about the conduct of higher education in Louisiana, especially in the area of community and technical colleges, where there seem to be too many of them. The state has more of these than all but five others of which all have significantly higher populations. It’s likely the greatest efficiency savings would come from closing a number of technical schools and realigning their programs. However, perhaps not coincidentally, the new diploma track would prepare students in it only to attend community colleges and technical schools.

The hopeful way to look at this would be the new law’s political backers recognize the necessity of these changes to the two-year and technical schools and in a sense are transferring their function to a lower but more efficient level. If almost every parish no longer will have a technical school, then the training task in those that will lose one can be devolved to beefed-up programs in the high schools. Then there’s the cynical, and perhaps more realistic way of viewing the alteration, that perhaps the creation of this track would act as a diversionary element to those who in the regular track would do poorly enough in high school that they otherwise could not go on to higher education now to get a form of it, artificially creating more demand – and the necessity of state dollars – for attendance in the overbuilt two-year and technical system.

Problematic here is that it is an even less efficient way of using resources. Why not simply transfer efforts from higher to secondary education through the new track and realize economies of scale instead of creating more duplication? Vocational kinds of education for first-time workers need to have just one home, higher or secondary, and if 13-year-olds are going to be rigidly segmented into different tracks that will make it difficult for the rest of their lives for the ones choosing (at an age where many have little idea of real understanding or the implications of their decision) the vocational track ever to move beyond that, there’s no reason to have such a vast network of technical schools to serve them (a smaller one can serve adults who want to change vocational careers).

Let’s hope the latter in fact was not a motive for this change which threatens to prepare a larger proportion of the student population for an economy that demands greater critical thinking abilities that the current curriculum emphasizes more. If so, it makes a bad public policy decision even worse.

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