The recent decision by the BESE Board to require students to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) or have their parents sign an opt out form in order to graduate from high school is an example of both overreach and ineffectiveness – unfortunately a common result when someone in government gets a “good idea.” It addresses a minor symptom while failing to see a much larger problem, one that will not lend itself to superficial “feel good” solutions and therefore won’t be addressed.
I was a schoolteacher in one of Louisiana’s poorest districts for four years after leaving the Air Force. After that, I worked for seven years in the Admissions Office of one of our state universities. Those jobs gave me a unique insight into the condition of secondary education in our state. I visited high schools in every parish in Louisiana where I met many bright, interesting kids, easily the equal of any in the country. While there is considerable room for improvement, our better high schools do a good job with top students. Unfortunately, such is not the case in the majority of schools I visited and in none of the poorer ones. A bright child in one of those schools is not being educated to anywhere near his/her potential. This is a waste that borders on immoral.
Seniors not filling out financial aid paperwork is the least of our state’s educational woes. The quality of guidance in the schools is as abysmal as the education all too many of them fail to provide. There are other symptoms, many more serious than the low numbers of seniors filling out the FAFSA. How many high schools schedule homecoming or dances on the night before an ACT test date? How many schools fail to offer the PSAT or SAT, the only gateway to a National Merit or Achievement Scholarship? I once found myself explaining what those scholarships were to a guidance counselor at a large public high school in New Orleans. Her “We don’t do that” condemned her students to unknowable lost opportunity.
The temptation to impose rules rather than know the underlying cause is a constant temptation to bureaucracies everywhere that must be constantly guarded against. If we only had one more rule, everything would be so much better…
Contrast the new BESE rule with The Taylor Opportunity Program (TOPS) one of, if not the, most successful educational reform enacted by our state. Its authors looked at the end goal-what does a young person need from his or her high school to make it through college and how can we incentivise both the student and the schools to prepare for that future? BESE’s new rule makes government an endlessly nagging scold. “Do this! Don’t do that! We know what’s best and it’s for your own good anyway!” TOPS tells a young person “Do this and we’ll help you build a better life.”
Ask yourself how many high schools offered foreign languages before TOPS? No edict came from on high commanding high schools to offer foreign languages and advanced math. Parents wanting the opportunity for their children bought into the idea and drove the change, bettering the district and its students. That, not nagging edicts from Baton Rouge, is how you drive positive change. Were I in charge, I would not ban dances and ballgames x amount of days from an ACT test date, nor would I declare that the PSAT/SAT must be offered in every district. Instead, I would work to change the culture so that those things would become important. Care to venture a guess as to which approach leads to lasting change?