Whatever its educational merits, or lack thereof, Common Core is unquestionably an ecological disaster. Whole forests of trees, oceans of ink and untold acreage in the nation’s landfills have been used up in the debate over Common Core. Five hundred years from now, archeologists will be sorting through a landfill. When they dig through the Common Core and get to the Goals 2000 layer and the Race to the Top layer, the question of what caused the decline of Western Civilization will have been answered.
We are so preoccupied with the debate over the latest educational fads that we miss the underlying problem. A high school diploma no longer says anything meaningful about the young man or woman holding it. There are several hundred high schools in our state. All of which vary widely in quality, even within the same building. An “A” in, say American history, says nothing to a college admissions officer. The student may be fully conversant in American history, or may be unable to tell the Monroe Doctrine from the Battle of Gettysburg. The better schools have contacts with college admission officers and are known to colleges and employers. Where does that leave a smart kid from a New Orleans housing project or a smart kid from a rural district in a small northern parish?
My father grew up in a working class family in an era when an Irish last name was not exactly an entree to the country club. My grandfather was an electrician with an eighth grade education, my grandmother stopped at the sixth grade. My father was the first high school graduate in the family and went on to be the first college graduate. In 1952, my dad had a ticket out, a ticket that got him past the guidance counselor who thought my dad should just join the union and go to work, that the horizons for the children of the ethnic working class were shorter. He had a New York State Regents Diploma. Twenty eight years later, I earned mine. My high school was a little fancier, but none of my classmates were more than a generation removed from the factory floor and construction site. Our Irish, Polish and Italian last names were no longer a disability, but there was nary a trust fund among us.
I’d like to see the children of Louisiana have the same chance. A Regents diploma was earned by taking a series of examinations each year in various subjects. All over New York on the same day and time, students tore the seals from the test booklets and got to work. After the tests were administered and graded, the exams become a public record. Unlike the current high stakes testing in which the test items are more secret than the Manhattan Project, anyone can read last year’s physics, American history, English, etc. Regents exams. Not only would an error be uncovered quickly, anyone can see for him or herself just how rigorous the exams are. My father wasn’t exactly (regretfully with good reason) convinced that I was applying myself, but he had no doubts about the curriculum. The Regents Diploma was a gold standard that meant the same from one end of the state to the other. It didn’t matter who your family was, how wealthy they were or where you lived. It started my father on a journey that ended with a PhD in chemistry.
Were I the governor, I’d have the following conversation with the Louisiana Secretary of Education. “John, I want you to get with the Presidents of LSU, the Scholars’ College and Tulane. By next month, I want them to figure out what a high school student should know in the following: science through physics, math through trigonometry, with calculus as an option, world and American history and English. If I see the word ‘pedagogy’ or ‘rigor’, the offender will be sent to Angola. No, we are not going to kill a forest and drive up demand for giant 3 ring binders. I don’t care how the schools teach the subjects. If the kids pass the exams, well, the teachers did their jobs. Get cracking!” Louisiana has a lot of bright, scrappy kids from the wrong side of the tracks. Education is the key to social mobility. Let’s give them the ticket out.