Letter: La. students have multiple paths

The Advocate editorial board recently took up the issue of rules governing the TOPS program that provides tuition dollars for college in Louisiana. Absent in the editorial, however — and absent in the public dialogue generally — is TOPS Tech, a parallel program that offers tuition for technical training that prepares students for jobs in the workforce of our state.

Only 500 high school students in Louisiana received TOPS Tech funds last year, out of 175,000 high school students statewide. This issue deserves greater attention, as does the issue of career preparation generally.

I recently concluded a set of statewide meetings discussing the diploma pathways from which Louisiana students can choose. I learned on the tour that our nation’s education system has in many ways become unmoored from a vision of work readiness.

In losing that vision, we rob our students of enriching experiences outside the traditional academic classroom — many brought to life eloquently by teachers and students during the tour — that can provide young adults a more certain future in an uncertain world.

What is called “career education” must not be considered a specific program in high schools or a small department at the school board office. Instead, “career education” should be the orientation of all that we do.

An earnest attempt to achieve rigorous career preparation in Louisiana would include not just changes to our diplomas, but also changes to how we reward schools in our accountability system. It would include changes in funding for career coursework, including changes to TOPS Tech. It would address the credentials required for professionals who teach and mentor young adults. It would ensure greater collaboration amongst high schools, technical colleges, and industry. And it would involve a concerted effort to inform the parents and grandparents who shape so much of what adolescents choose to do with their lives.

In September the Department of Education will release a blueprint for a new approach to diplomas and career education. We will then hold meetings again this fall in every region of the state to discuss the blueprint and to consider in greater depth each region’s approach to joining high schools, technical colleges and industry in one unified system of career education.

Following these discussions, we will propose to the Legislature and to the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education a comprehensive package of policy changes that they may consider in the spring.

True career education does not mean locking students into rigid tracks at an early age. Quite the opposite. It means building more doors for them to open as they mature. A new vision of career education represents an important step through a door for too long barely cracked open.

John White

Louisiana superintendent of education

Baton Rouge