I want to know what President Savoie's GPA was. I also want to know what Mayor-President Durel scored on the ACT, and I want to know where Congressman Landry graduated in his class at USL.

Mind you, I don't want to embarrass them. To the contrary, I want to hold them up as exemplars. We put a lot of emphasis on GPAs, ACTs & class rankings. Why? Here are three people who collectively have been highly successful citizens, civic and political leaders, and businessmen. Who cares about their academic credentials?

Apparently, the University and the state care-- very, very much. The State pays many millions of dollars every year to cover tuition for those students who have good grades and test scores. Thereafter, the University holds those students up as the best we produce.

But why? When President Savoie was a candidate to lead the University, no one asked him what his high school, college or graduate grades were. I can't imagine anyone asked those things of Vice Presidents Twilley, Leblanc or Ardoin. So how can we say these things are of paramount important for our students, if they're not the least bit important for our University leaders?

Because they really aren't important at all. Research has shown for decades that academic success is a lousy predictor of success in later life. The ability to take tests predicts one, and exactly one, thing.

The ability to take tests.

And it goes both ways. I have worked with various doctors, lawyers and other professionals who had first rate academic credentials. Sure, some of them were good. But some were downright dangerous. And I have known many professionals with mediocre academic achievements, who are first rate practitioners, executives and leaders.

I remember reading that Robert E. Lee graduated second in his class at West Point. I, like many people, immediately wondered, What did the guy who graduated first go on to do? If my memory serves me, he went on to become an insurance executive in New York. So much for class rankings.

These concerns are critical right now. The Governor, the Legislature, the Regents and the Boards of Supervisors are all putting great pressure on our educational system to produce more, and 'better prepared' graduates. Which, by the current metrics we are using, means better grades and ACT scores. Which means...

...bupkis.

I've given the once-over to UL's Strategic Plan . For des Americains, the consultants did an OK job, I guess. I want to reread it carefully, but I immediately noted one glaring omission in it.

Right now, we are building the Cecil J. Picard Center for Child Development in the UL Research Park. Correction: we are building the Cecil J. Picard Center for Child Development and Lifelong Learning in the Research Park. So where is the 'lifelong learning' goal in our Strategic Plan? It's mentioned in the explanatory text, and many of the goals imply and vaguely target lifelong learning. But it is never explicitly mentioned as one of our goals in the extended list. That goal isn't listed for our students.

More concerning to my mind, it also isn't listed as a goal for our community. At no point does the document even hint that the role of the University is to inculcate lifelong learning in our community and our state, even though we constantly encourage our faculty and students to involve the larger community in culture and learning. Consider the University Art Museum, the UL Press, the Acadiana Symphony, the Acadiana Center for the Arts, Festival International, Festivals Acadiens, and many other community enhancements that were founded wholly or partly by University faculty. All of those are directed toward the intellectual enrichment of our community. And yet, we don't list community lifelong learning as a goal. Considering the unusually close relationship UL has with Acadiana, that's a pretty big oversight. Because lifelong learning is not just a worthy goal.

It's the primary goal.

Right now, the political powers that be are arguing loudly for 'workforce development'. I wonder if this isn't a problem that happens when too many businessmen are running state government. It's said that when you're a hammer, the whole world is a nail. Well, I suppose that when you're a businessman, the whole world is either an employee or a customer.

That's unacceptable. 'Workforce development' is what Kim Jung Il wants of his people. He wants workers who show up and shut up. He wants minions who feed his ambitions. The last thing he wants are skeptical, inquisitive, and articulate citizens. So what does it say about our goals when we want to make workforce development the primary metric, and perhaps the only metric?

This is what happens when governmental leaders aren't constantly seeking the input of teachers, academics, nonprofits, and even religious leaders: we don't define our educational goals properly.

I have argued elsewhere that the American democracy requires so much more than just workers: we need citizens. Sure, a citizen must hold down a job. But even there, what job? The data is quite clear that today's worker must be able to constantly relearn her job, and even learn completely new jobs, as the market moves and old processes-- and old jobs-- become obsolete.

So what we need are people who will be lifelong learners: about their jobs, about their government, about their community, and about their world.

But that presents us with a new problem: how do we measure that? What indicator tells us, right now, who will be students for the rest of their lives? How do we measure today what will not happen until tomorrow?

Well, first of all it is the job of education to try to make that happen. Our faculty need to constantly ask if what we are doing today is likely to increase future learning, stifle it, or have no effect. That's worthy of a library of research. But the first thing we can do is to simply ask the question. Then we can encourage our profs to put a little more emphasis on creativity and innate curiosity, and pay a little less attention to rules and rote memorization.

Next, there is the topic that opened this essay: How do we predict who will go on to make a large difference in the world?   Because I would argue that is where we really want to invest our scholarship dollars, and our best faculty. Not in grades, not in ACTs, not in class rankings; but in people, in our future leaders. That's where we need to focus.

There may be some good research out there to help us in this effort. But I suspect that an excellent predictor of future leadership is, quite simply, current leadership. Which students are engaged in civic and social organizations today? Do they assume leadership roles? What do they attempt once they are leading? If the University exists to improve the democracy, as I argue it does, then perhaps that is where we should focus our attentions and our energies.

Not on test scores.

So to start changing things, I have a small suggestion. I recently made a UL graduation. As in all such events, we recognized our 'best' students: cum laude, magna cum laude, summa cum laude; an outstanding graduate for each college; and from those, an outstanding graduate for the University.

For the various laude distinctions, the honors are based entirely on GPA, nothing else. For the seven collegiate outstanding graduates, civic and social activities are considered, but a cursory glance at the graduates' qualifications makes it quite clear that the overriding concern is still the GPA.

Well, if the GPA is the basis for our honor graduates, why do we need to name honor graduates at all? Isn't it redundant? Why not just rattle off their GPAs, hand them a tchotchke, and leave it at that?

I would argue that an honor graduate should be someone who has done more that be an obedient little boy or girl in college, who has done exactly what he or she was told.  An honor graduate should be more than someone who makes life easier for the faculty.

In fact, it is the exact opposite of what want to see. We need to recognize students who may spend a little less time memorizing facts and practicing skills, and more time questioning what they are being told, exploring, challenging, and discovering ideas and concepts for themselves. We then should recognize those students, the ones who attempt to take what they have learned, and what they have discovered, and apply it to the world around them.

So I'd like to propose a different idea. To be considered for the various honor designations, we should make civic engagement, creativity, and innate curiosity the overriding concerns. Sure, GPA would still be considered, but it would be greatly de-emphasized, candidates should merely be required to maintain a minimum, and after that perhaps the GPA isn't even included. Committees would name our various honor graduates based on their development as complete human beings, rather than their abilities as test-taking automatons.

When we say someone is an honor graduate, we should be holding them up to the other students, to our community, and to the world at large.  We should be saying 'We believe that this person will be a future leader, and a lifelong learner. This is what we are trying to do. This is what we value. This is why we exist.'

Because I don't think any of us would argue that a GPA or ACT begins to describe those things.

Joe Abraham is a local physician, and president and founder of the Acadiana Educational Endowment, which publishes ultoday.com, CajunFun.com, and booksXYZ.com.  To read more of his writing, click on his name, above.



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