Van Schoales, head of A+ Denver, argues that our current requirements for high school graduation aren’t rigorous enough to ensure the highly-educated workforce we need. 

Just a few weeks ago, thousands of Colorado high school students donned black gowns, heard their names read, and proudly walked across a stage to take hold of their high school diploma.

Photo credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00104 / Pahl, Georg / CC-BY-SA
Photo credit: Bundesarchiv, Bild 102-00104 / Pahl, Georg / CC-BY-SA

But what is the value of that diploma? What did it cost in terms of time and learning? How can it be used? In many ways, the diploma is currency. However, that currency has far different value depending on what you look like and where you went to school.

On one end of the spectrum, about 20,000 Colorado students from the class of 2013 will not be able to take a community college class or enroll in the military because their literacy and/or numeracy skills are too limited. For comparison, the Pepsi Center only seats 18,000 people.

One the other end, a few thousand students will graduate from high school with college courses already completed and the skills to succeed regardless of whether they enter a trade, the military or college. Some will even have an associate’s degree — having already knocked off the first two years of college.

In Denver, where I live, more than one third of students that graduated had an ACT of 15 or lower – a score that wouldn’t meet to the minimum requirements of the military ASVAB test. (See charts below on what a particular ACT scores means and what the distribution is for DPS students),  Meanwhile, fewer than one in five students could pass credit bearing courses at CU Denver.

By granting a student a high school degree, we are implying that they are ready for the world. But are they?

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 2.41.08 PM

What does it take to get the degree?

Screen Shot 2013-06-19 at 2.41.37 PMA little over a hundred years ago, a distinguished body of university presidents and the Carnegie Foundation argued for a standardized unit of study based on a 120-hour block of time (five hours per week for 12 weeks for two semesters).   The Carnegie Unit was designed to help standardize teaching and curriculum across high schools.

These time units were used to define the metrics for high school diploma. For example, high schools would require four units (or years) of English, two units of science, etc.  The system signaled that the US was taking “high school for all” seriously, and the value we placed on having an educated public fueled much of America’s remarkable development throughout the 20th century.

The problem with this industrial model of schooling was that it was designed so that a small percentage of the population would be prepared for highly skilled jobs and college, and the rest would work in factories and fields. There were few formal means of measuring students’ knowledge or skills, and diplomas were mostly about punching the time or Carnegie clock. We now have access to all sorts of student data, but the American high school diploma is still all about punching the clock. Meanwhile, both factories and fields rely on advanced machinery, and need far fewer high school graduates.

While we’ve been coasting along, the rest of the world (or at least another 20 nations or so) realized that the key to their long-term economic development was having a highly educated workforce. They created or reformed public education systems where students have to demonstrate what they know and do before getting the equivalent of a high school diploma.

Denmark is an excellent example of a country that realized it would be left behind as many of their 20th century industries (like textiles) moved offshore.  While the Danish system still uses time to guide course development, it is the demonstration of a students’ competencies, skills and knowledge that are used for credentialing students.  Not surprisingly, many of these nations are not only educating more of their own populations to higher levels than we Americans do, but most of their citizens would find greater access to the “American Dream” than the typical American has now.

Let’s match degree requirements to what kids will need to know to succeed

The Colorado State Board of Education recently passed a set of “guidelines” requiring districts to set a minimum standard for a diploma starting in 2021.  It appears we may need to make adjustments soon to these fairly mild new requirements because both the current and new “guidelines” do not align with the Common Core.   The reason the timeline is so long — seven years! — is that districts are concerned that they do not have resources and expertise to get the current crop of middle and high school students prepared for the most basic college course.  They are afraid that many students will drop out if the standards are raised, even though there is little evidence of this in other states like Indiana and Massachusetts.

Despite the long timeline, the decades that districts have been working on “standards-based reform,” they have kept the graduation bar low. Not a single school district, school board or the groups representing teacher unions, administrators or school boards publically supported the idea of raising standards across the state. The education establishment prefers to leave it up our locally elected school boards to set the standards for what students should know and do. Unfortunately, locally elected school boards in Colorado have done nothing to raise graduation standards other than an occasional tweak of credit or time requirements and there is no reason to believe they will voluntarily decide to increase standards. After all, if fewer kids graduate or more are held back, it could be seen as a black mark on their performance.

As school boards know, the tough part isn’t raising standards, it’s redesigning our entire system to ensure kids are learning at higher rates and in a more efficient way. Having a clear bar may finally force the system to get serious rather than adding some new program band-aid that only masks some of the fundamental problems. Redesigning our education system will be difficult, but when it comes down to it, most students are bored a lot of the time. Many teachers are unhappy or bored or dissatisfied, unappreciated, and principals feel overloaded and overworked.

What about this broken system is worth saving? It’s time to have a more serious conversation about how to re-build the system as other nations have done over the last fifty years.

In the end, our education system — like all others — will be judged not on the inputs or time that students put into school, but on the legacy they leave after high school and throughout their lives. We have to keep the Colorado currency strong if we are to trade and compete on the international stage. It’s way overdue to tie our diploma to a competency standard as most industrialized nations have done for decades. We need a gold standard for our high school currency.