Our Views: A long view on the core

By an 8-2 vote, the state education board has rejected a bid to do away with letter grades for schools for the next two years. That might not sound like much, and it really isn’t, in the sense that the letter grades aren’t that big of a deal compared with the larger issues before the board recently.

The big issue is raising academic standards in schools, and the letter-grades dispute is only one element of a larger transition toward the so-called Common Core of knowledge that students need in a tough new world of economic change.

Politics, though, gets in the way.

The Board of Elementary and Secondary Education is dominated by a majority of members, elected with the governor’s support or directly appointed by Gov. Bobby Jindal, who back the Common Core. In 2010, along with other states, the core standards were adopted by BESE for Louisiana, but here as elsewhere opposition to them has surfaced among constituencies of both left and right.

Education Superintendent John White and the BESE majority have attempted to thread the political needle with a series of policy changes to transition the state into the Common Core era. Among them is a plan to issue letter grades to schools, although grading the schools “on the curve” will soften the impact of higher standards on school performance scores.

School performance scores will be issued, too, but a series of other steps will make schools and students less liable to drastic consequences of any major drops in scores in the next two years.

The 8-2 vote on the letter grade suspension reflects the same BESE majority that has backed the core and efforts to make academic standards higher in Louisiana schools. We think the majority is right on this.

It is the larger issue that has to be kept in mind, and we hope that the critics of Common Core will look more deeply at the standards as a natural progression for our long-lagging schools.

The philosophy of the Common Core is not about hackneyed phrases of politics, left or right. The core standards are intended to make sure that students get it — not just solving the algebra equation, but knowing why it works. Not just answering a multiple-choice test about an essay, but being able to explain what the writer said. Not just regurgitating an answer, but understanding the question.

That’s a big difference, and it is undeniably tough in many Louisiana public schools where the student bodies are predominantly drawn from poor neighborhoods, from families not having the advantages that middle-class parents take for granted.

In fact, the challenges of the Common Core improvements will doubtless be felt in what are today considered Louisiana’s better schools, public and private.

To phase that process in? Sensible enough.

To mitigate the consequences for a short time, a year or two? We can live with that.

To make it a long, drawn-out process that results in annual political battles over whether we have letter grades this year or next or next? Or whether it is “fair” to let underperforming schools out of this or that sanction at some point in 2017, or 2019, or 2025? Not a very promising future for backers of higher standards.

Unless there is an effort to put the issue of higher standards at the center of the debate, and to hold the governor and BESE and others accountable for their commitment to higher standards, the Common Core controversy will devolve into petty fights that obscure Louisiana’s central problem of low student achievement.