Editor's note: This post is a submission to Fordham's 2018 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts whether our graduation requirements need to change, in light of diploma scandals in D.C., Maryland, and elsewhere. Other entries can be found here.
What standards should students meet to graduate from high school? In the midst of graduation rate scandals and the ever-increasing population of high school graduates requiring remediation in college, it is no wonder that this question is a hot topic. Ensuing discussions typically revolve around things like the appropriate rigor of diploma requirements, high school graduation exams as proof of student achievement, and accountability changes that could be made to prevent schools from gaming the system. Are there tweaks that could be made to the existing system that could address some of the issues we are seeing today with high school graduation rates? Sure. But that only matters if we are convinced that our current system is worth saving, and as evidenced below, we aren’t sure that we have much (any?) data that says that is true (except the record-high national four-year cohort graduation rate, obviously).
So what is the purpose of high school in America? We think most agree that it is to train our students up to be responsible and productive citizens. But how exactly do we measure that? Research over the years has shown the numerous benefits of high school completion, how it improves the likelihood of higher wages and decreases the likelihood of being arrested for a crime, for example. This type of research led to a focus on graduation as the ultimate measurement. It’s as though we believed that something magical happened by simply pushing all students to get across the graduation stage in four years.
In turn, while the national graduation rate has soared to record highs from 2005 to 2015, the value of a high school diploma, as measured by median annual earnings, has taken a significant dip over that same time period. The value of the diploma has decreased, even as more students have crossed the stage. Would we say that 84.1 percent of our students, all those who graduated in 2016, are leaving high school prepared for successful lives? Ask ten people and we bet you won’t get a single “yes.” Therein lies the problem we are faced with today.
Where did we go wrong and how do we fix it? First, it’s important to change how we measure success. If we want high schools to ultimately turn out responsible and productive citizens and we agree that not every graduate in America today fits that criteria, then let’s not use graduation rate as our ultimate measure of success. Let’s instead measure the outcomes we wish to see after high school; things like employment rates, median annual wages, job satisfaction, and postsecondary educational program enrollment and completion rates. Are these metrics as easy to calculate and report out for every school and district as the four-year cohort graduation rate? No. Should that prevent us from doing it? No (but it often does).
With our focus firmly planted on student outcomes after high school, we can now begin to reimagine the experience itself. The solution—personalized learning, the educational buzz word that has every school across the nation attempting to better serve each student’s unique needs and goals. All the while the system in which these schools operate has continued its one-size-fits-all model. The right hand is saying, “Every child is unique, has different strengths and weakness and dreams, and should have ownership and agency over his/her learning,” yet the left hand is simultaneously shouting, “But don’t forget you need to ensure he/she masters every single rigorous standard, passes every standardized test, and graduates college-and-career ready in four years.” It’s time we take the hands and align the left with the right (and no, that isn’t a political joke).
To build a personalized learning model that effectively graduates students prepared to successfully contribute to society, let’s do three things:
- Embrace cross-curricular competency-based learning
- Personalize graduation paths
- Realign learning across the preschool to higher education/career continuum
Cross-curricular competency-based learning
Across the country at this very minute, there are thousands of students sitting in classes they could have aced on the very first day of school. An even larger population of students are being dragged along to more advanced concepts before they are ready simply because the teacher needs to cover all of the course objects in the allotted amount of days for the semester. Our current system based entirely on the accrual of seat time and credits in individual subject areas is incredibly outdated. Instead, our high school “graduation plan” should be a cross-curricular checklist of knowledge and skills that students should master in order to graduate. Education Reimagined is partnering with schools nationwide to make learner-centered education like this a reality. The beauty of this model is that it not only allows a student to advance at his/her own pace, but it opens up a wide range of pathways by which a student can demonstrate mastery, which leads us to our next recommendation.
Personalized graduation paths
It’s time we truly acknowledge that every student is unique and in turn provide fully personalized graduation paths. Career and technical education (CTE) and college preparation programs should be seen as equals, preparing students for the next step they choose to take. For example, if the graduation checklist requires students to be able to write a research paper, let’s give them an option to fulfill that in any course whether that is advanced English Literature or a welding course. A 2016 CTE study from the Fordham Institute shows many benefits to a quality CTE program, including an increased likelihood that the student will graduate from high school, enroll in a two-year college, and be employed with a higher wage after graduation. Every student should be given control to create a path toward graduation that uses his/her interests and future plans as a foundation upon which to add relevant coursework, internships, and life skills training. Indiana seems to be leading the way in this area with recently-approved Graduation Pathways.
Realignment across the learning continuum
Embracing the above two recommendations means a shift in American high schools as we know them. Knowing that, it is important that our last recommendation be to reimagine learning across the entire preschool to higher education/career continuum. Instead of moving students in primary grades with age cohorts, let’s focus on competency-based mastery. Give students who need extra time the time that they need to gain understanding and allow those who are ready to move on the chance to advance. Instead of labeling a student as a “failure” for not having graduated from high school in four years, set the expectation that students may master all of the competencies required in anywhere from three to seven years. Connect that high school graduation checklist with expectations of colleges, universities, career training programs, and jobs in order to ensure that when students do graduate they are truly prepared to embrace the next step, whatever that is for them.
So with three simple recommendations we have successfully turned the entire high school system on its head. We warned you in the title—we truly meant high school reimagined.