Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Jarvis DeBerry gets it all wrong

Times-Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry gets it all wrong in this screed against the alternate diploma bill approved by the legislature this year.

It is tempting to forgive him because we understand where he is coming from. For too many years, school systems used tracking to dampen the futures of African-American students, poor white students or anyone else from the wrong side of the class divide.

But that was then and this is now. Thirty five percent of the students who enter Louisiana's high schools won't graduate. Some estimates put it closer to 50%, counting those who drop out before eighth grade.

There are a lot of reasons for that, most having to do with our state's ignoble history of downplaying the importance of education. It was once possible for an uneducated person to make a decent, if hard, living in the oil patch or on a shrimp boat. Scores of politicians built their careers pandering to ignorance and making fun of intellectualism.

But that was then and this is now. Jobs in the oil patch have dried up. Cheap foreign imports have dry docked our once-proud shrimping fleet. Kids who drop out have few options and little chance for success.

Leaders finally came to understand that an educated work force is the bootstrap we must use to pull ourselves up from poverty. So far, so good. But at some point, the aim of public education became to push every child through a college prep curriculum. Rigor became the buzzword driving the education reform agenda.

Somehow, our leaders came to believe that if too many children were dropping out of school, the solution was to make school harder. Test them relentlessly, and fail them for a single shortfall.

DeBerry contends that the career diploma is mean-spirited, but what could be meaner than a high-stakes, pass/fail system that degrades any other accomplishments a student may have?

The column seems to be based on the unwarranted contention that the career diploma "is inherently shameful because it encourages adults to give up on their young students and those students to give up on themselves."

The columnist absorbed all the talking points made against the career diploma, even quoting George H.W. Bush to deride supporters as guilty of "the soft bigotry of low expectations."

You might hear a very different story from the teachers at our community colleges and technical schools. They haven't given up on students and they don't have low expectations. There is rigor in those schools, just as there will be in the alternative diploma programs.

The difference will be another word that begins with "R": Relevance. Bright students who don't necessarily see the virtue of a college-prep curriculum will be able to focus their energies, talents and ambitions on learning facts and skills with real applications to their lives.

Contrary to DeBerry's demeaning assertions, students earning career diplomas won't necessarily learn less than others, but they will learn it differently.

Teachers want their students to succeed. That's why they have been so frustrated with a system that tries to squeeze all children into a mold that many simply don't fit. The career diploma can give more children a way to succeed in school and to find their life's passion. And it can reduce our state's truly shameful dropout rate.

There's absolutely nothing wrong with that.

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