Our Views: A new need for standards

In a season of wins for Louisiana, Stephen Waguespack remembers the years he moved out of state, unwillingly. The young man now heading the Louisiana Association of Business and Industry spent his high school years in Missouri instead of Louisiana, because of the early 1980s oil bust and economic collapse.

For a son of Ascension Parish, where tight-knit families are the norm, it was a wrenching experience, and he told the Press Club of Baton Rouge that it colors his views of the urgency of sometimes difficult decisions facing Louisiana in the next few years.

The key is a better-prepared workforce, and that means tough decisions about education, Waguespack said. “We’ve got to improve the level of technical training in our schools,” he said.

Louisiana has seen a parade of announcements of major petrochemical industrial expansions or new plants, many related to cheap and abundant natural gas. Ascension Parish lost a big one, as Royal Dutch Shell did not proceed with a $12 billion project, but Waguespack said the billions still coming are a challenge for every institution involved in Louisiana’s workforce preparation.

One of the lessons of the early 1980s was that in a time of prosperity during Waguespack’s childhood, the state failed to make hard decisions to improve its future prospects.

Even as short-term challenges are generated by petrochemical expansion, Waguespack said, Louisiana must make the difficult transition to a stronger preparation for school students. He strongly backed the controversial Common Core, the tougher school standards developed by the states and adopted by Louisiana in 2010.

Since, though, some systems are ready to deal with higher standards and others lag behind, so LABI approved the plans of the state education leadership to phase in some of the consequences of the higher standards. It’s “a big transition that will take time” Waguespack said, but it’s worth doing.

The diversification of Louisiana’s workforce continues, with growing companies working in computer technology and other fields, but if one counts only energy fields the growth in the state requires more and better-educated workers.

An estimate is 250,000 industrial construction jobs, but also the some 69,000 jobs that an LSU study predicted will be needed to operate the new energy facilities, Waguespack said — and those operations require workers with a high level of knowledge in mathematics and critical thinking.

It is that last part that should energize every policymaker in education. If Louisiana is 48th in teaching reading, Waguespack said, then how can students achieve the level of critical thinking required for 21st century jobs?

The Common Core standards have been a matter of controversy, including a bit of wobbling on his position by Waguespack’s former boss, Gov. Bobby Jindal. Yet Waguespack said the lesson of Louisiana’s low rating in reading is not only that Louisiana is rated low among the states, but that the United States is only rated as middling among the industrialized nations.

The Common Core is one way to improve education in critical thinking and the STEM disciplines — science and technology, engineering and mathematics. “We cannot turn back on these principles,” Waguespack said.

He is right, but one of the abiding lessons of young Stephen’s unfortunate exile from Ascension Parish is that diversification of the state’s economy must be pursued as well.

But that makes the Common Core’s higher standards more essential, not less, and we welcome LABI’s continued support of raising Louisiana’s education goals.