No, Louisiana’s Education System Isn’t the Worst in the Nation
If you've been anywhere near social media over the past couple of days, you've probably seen different articles going around with provocative headlines about how the Louisiana education system has been ranked last in the nation.
Which is nonsense.
Yes, technically it was ranked last - on a very specific list created by Wallethub. That much is true. The problem is that the whole premise behind the list is ridiculous and shouldn't even exist in the first place.
No one in their right mind would ever say Louisiana has the best education system in America - that's obviously not true - but saying we're the worst is equally disingenuous. Here's why.
Comparing education systems between states doesn't make any sense at all. You just can't do it and come back with any reliable data from which you can draw reasonable conclusions, due to how vastly different each state approaches (and measures) education.
Let's take Texas as an example. The Lone Star state is often held up as the "Texas Miracle" in a bunch of different ways that usually come down to the creative interpretation of specific data that tends to fall apart when you look at it a little more closely. When it comes to education, Texas often touts itself as having an excellent system other states should follow.
Which sounds good at first glance - and they have the data to support their claims - but what they don't tell you is that, not only does Texas collect their own data to present in the most favorable way they can, but it also makes its own rules and sets its own standards.
What happened not too long ago with the Beaumont Independent School District (BISD) in Southeast Texas is a great example of how easy it is to make claims of excellence based on suspicious data.
Before the problems brewing inside BISD boiled over and led to the Texas Education Agency (TEA) ousting the school board and replacing its members with a TEA-appointed board of directors, the school district made a habit out of presenting amazing statistics to the community to support their claims of being one of the best districts in the state.
The only problem was that none of it was true. The stat they relied on most heavily was their impressive graduation rate - BISD was graduating an astounding percentage of students each year, which the district touted as proof positive of their success. However, after a cheating scandal came to light regarding standardized testing, the house of cards they'd built began to collapse.
That impressive graduation rate only meant that BISD was probably passing seniors who shouldn't have passed, just so the district could boast about how many students graduated each year (which turned out to only be the tip of the iceberg of corruption that was going on).
This isn't to say that the Texas education system itself is corrupt or anything, but it does serve to highlight the problem with relying on information provided by states that set their own standards.
As a nation, we leave a lot up to our individual states when it comes to education, which leads to problems when it comes time to assess how well any one state is doing its job of teaching its students. This is something Common Core (love it or hate it or really, really hate it) was meant to address by establishing national standards - but states like Texas opted out of the program, preferring instead to create and measure their own standards. And, when you're setting your own standards, you can make them as rigorous or as forgiving as you want. Make the tests easy enough so more kids pass than fail, and congratulations! You've just created an education miracle.
As a result, trying to compare a non-Common Core state like Texas to one that has adopted the national standards like Louisiana isn't exactly comparing apples to apples. It isn't even apples to oranges. It's more like comparing apples to whatever was growing inside that tupperware container you forgot in the back of your fridge for an entire year. It's pointless and kind of gross, when you stop to think about it.
Does Louisiana's education system have its problems? Of course it does. It's woefully underfunded for starters, to the point that students seem to come home with new fundraisers every other day, just so their campus can keep the lights on. It's understaffed and overworked (which is actually a pretty common theme in education anywhere in America), and it struggles with a lot of issues. One of those issues cited in Wallethub's report was the lack of "safety" in Louisiana schools, which included factors such as the number of high school students reporting problems with bullying. But mostly, it comes down to test scores.
However, Louisiana is a Common Core state - which means we adhere to the more demanding national standards set by the Department of Education. Of course it's going to be harder to get things like graduation rates up - because our standards are higher. There's also been an adjustment period of adapting to those new standards, which studies like the one done by Wallethub don't take into account.
The other problem is that there really is no way to measure education like so many widgets coming out of a factory. The Information Age has led to a belief that everything can be quantified and measured and presented in nice PowerPoint slides, including education. However, teaching kids just doesn't work that way.
The primary method of measuring an education system's performance is, as we've discussed, via standardized tests - whether they're developed by each state or not. However, test results aren't really a very accurate indicator. Plenty of bright, intelligent students master the curriculum, but perform poorly on standardized tests. Other students might not truly understand the material, but they're great at taking tests, so they perform well. Either scenario leads to skewed and inaccurate results, yet we hold them up as the strongest data point in ocean of nonsensical statistics.
This isn't even touching on the fact that basing a school system's performance on standardized test scores doesn't mean our students are actually learning anything. All we're doing is tying teachers' hands and forcing them to teach their students how to pass the test. They don't have time (or permission, usually) to teach their kids critical thinking, life skills, or even develop a simple love of learning. Nope, it's all test, test, test, then test some more. We might not produce a generation of critical thinkers or anything, but you can be damn sure America will lead the world in our ability to bubble in multiple choice answers. So we've got that going for us, which is nice.
If someone did a study that added mastery of the French language as a defining metric, Louisiana would probably be ranked up at the tippity top. If someone else did a study that used student attendance as a primary metric, we'd also probably do pretty well. But when studies rely on things like test scores between states, no one should take them seriously.
Of course, that doesn't stop the media from scooping up these headlines and running with them - because they want your clicks. Anytime you see a headline that says "Everything's great!" or "Everything's awful!", you can bet there's probably more to the issue than the clickbait headline - which comes down to the exact sort of thing we're talking about with education: measuring success based on data points.
As part of the media ourselves, we're all too aware of how important pageviews are. It doesn't matter how great an outlet's articles might be, if you can't prove that people are reading them. Every website's success is based entirely on how many people click our stuff, which leads many in the media to shovel out sensationalized headlines designed to entice you into clicking - and more importantly - sharing them. Because the only thing that matters are the clicks, which is exactly what's going on with education: the only thing that matters are the tests.
It doesn't matter how well a teacher educates her students, if they don't do well on those stupid tests, they've failed. End of story.
Likewise, it doesn't matter how poorly another teacher might have failed to prepare her students for college or the workforce, as long as they end up doing well on the test. Two sides of the same awful coin.
The best thing anyone can do whenever you see articles with sensational headlines is to just not click them, because doing so only rewards and perpetuates the problem. By the same token, the best thing we can do whenever we see our education system ranked best or worst on anyone's national study is to just ignore it, because spreading the info just leads to more and more nonsense studies that don't do anyone any good.
Full disclosure: We ran a story the other day about another Wallethub study that ranked four Louisiana areas as the "least educated" in the nation. As it turns out, that study was based mostly off the number of college graduates living in an area at a time when higher education has become prohibitively expensive in a depressed economy, and degrees aren't leading to jobs. Of course the number of college graduates are going to go down under those conditions - but it sure did make for a good headline. Which we shouldn't have run, even if it did get more views than this story probably will.
In short, Louisiana's education system certainly has a lot of room for improvement, but it's hardly the worst in the nation. The study is clickbait, the headlines are clickbait, and to borrow a popular phrase, are pretty much the definition of "fake news".
Don't fall for it.