Interview with Penny Dastugue

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Continued from “Harvard Study Calls for New Education Priorities.”

Robert: According to a study from the Southern Regional Education Board, 70 percent of the Louisiana’s high school graduates head to college within one year, but only 38 percent end up graduating within a six year time frame, far below the 55 percent national average . Therefore, do you think the current system, which seeks to send all students to college, is serving the public good?

Penny: Within BESE and LA’s Nine Critical Goals are that Students will enroll in┬ápost-secondary education or graduate workforce ready and that Students will successfully complete at least one year of post-secondary education. When we adopted LA’s Core 4 Curriculum, it was built upon feedback from Business and Industry expectations and both our 4 year and 2 year colleges and universities.

I believe that there are several factors that contribute to the high college enrollment rates and low college completion rates. First, LA’s TOPS scholarship program is merit based, albeit at relatively low levels of achievement (not need-based), so it enables more high school graduates to attend college. There is a Technical Award which has low utilization, as we have few 2 year Technical and Community Colleges (which now have record enrollments) so that trend seems to be changing. Last year the Legislature passed legislation that guaranteed coursework in those schools would be recognized by our 4 year universities.

Our higher education system of two and four year colleges and universities do not do a good job of informing the public and providing a recognized and desired pathway between the schools that others states have been able to do. Finally, K-12 needs to recognize that while we are making gains in student achievement, that we still have a long way to go to ensure that we meet our goal of having all graduates college or workforce ready. That is, many of our students are not prepared academically for college and that contributes to our low completion rate.

Robert: The Harvard report justifies enacting the policy on the basis of a study stating the half of all employment opportunities by 2018 will be available to those with a two-year associates degree or occupational degree. Would you have a response to this claim? (Source:

Penny: The study that you are referring to supports other studies which show that up to 80% of all jobs by 2014 will require some secondary education and training and is what Louisiana policymakers relied upon in establishing high school graduation standards. The knowledge that a high school student needs to be successful in any of these options are not that vastly different and I hesitate to have students tracked on a certain pathway as early as middle school that limits their options upon graduation. Math, science, literacy and critical thinking are essential preparation for any occupational, two year associate or four year college degree.

I believe that we need to do a better job exposing our students to different career pathways so that they see understand what options are available to them after graduation. Policy and Curriculum-wise we offer internships, dual enrollment, industry based certifications and other career based opportunities for our students but unfortunately not all of our districts are committed to this and do not offer this in a comprehensive manner. We need to hold ourselves accountable to our students beyond awarding a high school diploma.

Robert: The report claims that we need to expand the role of employers in the educations process [i.e. by supplying internships, etc.]. Do you feel that this approach is somewhat dumping the problem of unmotivated students onto private industry?

Penny: Not at all! Where our districts have been able to partner with our businesses, it works very well. However, not all internships are created equally and require commitments of both students and employers to truly benefit our students.

Penny Dastugue is president of the Louisiana Board of Elementary and Secondary Education.

Robert Ross is a research assistant and social media promoter with the Pelican Institute for Public Policy. Robert studies economics at Loyola University in New Orleans.