First Person

Voices: Is today’s high school diploma the equivalent of Weimar republic money?

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?

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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.

First Person

I mentor students demoralized about not having a vote. Here’s their plan for getting civically involved before turning 18

Students in the Minds Matter program.

Every Monday night during the school year, I spend time with two wonderful young women. They’re high-achieving high school sophomores from low-income families whose success would be certain if they grew up in a more affluent ZIP code.

Along with a team of other mentors, I help the students improve their writing and communication skills to help them prepare for a successful college career. That’s what I’m prepared to do.

I was less prepared for what they brought to our meeting last week, the first time we met under the tenure of a new president. They talked about feeling the consequences of the national political shift, though at 15, they knew it would be years before they could cast a ballot of their own. “We feel left out of a system that affects us too,” they said.

So our task that night became to expand our ideas about what participation in the American political system really means.

Here are five ideas we came up with, designed to help high schoolers do just that.

1. Meet elected officials. Meeting state senators and representatives during their campaigns is often the easiest way to make contact. Attend a coffee event, a party meeting, or a fundraiser where students can introduce themselves and talk about their concerns. Encourage them to be more than just another face in the crowd.

There are plenty of young, local elected officials to learn from. Dominick Moreno, a prominent Senate Democrat on the state of Colorado’s powerful Joint Budget Committee, got his start running for class president as a high school sophomore. Still only 32, he has already served in the House of Representatives and as mayor pro tem of a Denver suburb.

2. Volunteer on a campaign. This is the best opportunity for students to get an inside look at the political process and can help them establish lasting relationships with real people working in politics.

Some legislators face tough races and are out knocking on doors for months. Others spend their time differently, and in either case, candidates need help reaching out to voters, managing social media accounts, answering emails or organizing events. Plus, this work looks great on student résumés.

I tell students about my own experience. It started small: When I was 10, I passed out stickers for local elected officials at holiday parades. When I was 16, I got the chance to intern at the South Dakota state capitol. At 21, I got my first job in Washington, and at 23 I started lobbying in Colorado, affecting policy that now touches all citizens of the state.

3. Think locally. There are so many small things that students can do that will help their community become a better place on their own timeline. Help students organize a neighborhood clean-up day or tutor at an elementary school. These might feel inadequate to students when they look at the big picture, but it’s important to remind them that these actions help weave a fabric of compassion — and helps them become local leaders in the community.

4. Pre-register to vote. Voting matters, too. It sounds simple, but pre-registering addresses a root cause of low voter turnout — missing deadlines. In Colorado, one must be a U.S. citizen, be at least 16 years old, and reside in the state 22 days prior to the date of the election.

5. Affiliate with a party.
This assures full involvement in the process. Before turning 18, students can still attend party meetings or even start a “Young Democrats/Republicans” group at school. If they don’t feel like they fit with either the Republican or the Democratic parties, that’s OK — unaffiliated voters can now take part in the primary elections and help name either Republican or Democratic leaders.

Talking through these ideas helped the students I work with realize voting isn’t the only way to make a difference. One of my students has started a group that helps other young women know about birth control options, after seeing girls in her high school struggle and drop out after getting pregnant. Other students in the group have asked to learn more about the legislative process and want to testify on legislation.

They’re proving that democracy doesn’t begin and end with casting a ballot — but it does depend on taking interest and taking action.

Zoey DeWolf is a lobbyist with Colorado Legislative Services, based in Denver. She also works with Minds Matter of Denver, a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to help prepare accomplished high school students from low-income families for successful college careers.

First Person

It’s time to retire the myth that any counselor can do the job alone — even at a tiny school

A few of the author's students who graduated last year.

I waited five years to get my dream job as a counselor in a New York City public school. After all of that waiting, I was full of ideas about how I would be able to use my experience to help students navigate what can be an overwhelming few years.

I wanted to make our school counseling more individualized and full of innovative support mechanisms. I wanted our guidance department to be a place that anyone could leave with a grand plan.

A few months into that first year, in fall 2015, it was clear that my vision would be, to put it bluntly, impossible to achieve.

When I received my position at a Harlem high school in District 5, I was assigned to not only take on the responsibilities of a school counselor, but also to act as the college advisor, assign (and then frequently re-shuffle) class schedules for every student, and several other tasks. My school had just under 200 students — enrollment low enough that it was assumed this could all be managed.

This proved to be a very inaccurate assumption. I was working with a group of students with low attendance rates, and many were English language learners or students with disabilities. Many students were overage and under-credited, others were in foster care or homeless, some had returned from incarceration, and a couple were teen parents or pregnant.

The American School Counselor Association recommends a maximum school counselor-to-student ratio of one to 250. I know from experience that extremely high student need makes that ratio meaningless. Almost all of these students needed help in order to be ready to learn. Their needs tripled the feel of our enrollment.

This frequent mismatch between need and numbers puts school counselors like me in the position to do a great disservice to so many students. As the only counselor available, a seemingly small mishap with a task as crucial as graduation certification or credit monitoring could have spelled disaster for a student. I know some seniors missed certain financial aid opportunities and application deadlines, and some ninth, 10th, and 11th graders could have used more academic intervention to help them transition to the next grade level successfully.

My success at keeping our promotion and college admissions rates on the upswing was largely due to my outreach and partnership with community-based organizations that helped support several of our students. Had it not been for their assistance, I wouldn’t have achieved anything near what I did.

I’m still a counselor at my small school, and some aspects of the job have gotten easier with time. I love my job, which I think of as the most rewarding yet intense position in the building. But I still believe that there is almost no case in which only one counselor should be available for students.

Principals and school leaders directly involved with the budget must make sure to effectively analyze the needs of their student population, and advocate for an appropriately sized counseling staff. Small schools face real funding constraints. But ones serving students like mine need more than they’ve gotten.

Students’ social and emotional development and their academic success go hand in hand. Let’s not make the mistake of conflating enrollment numbers with need.

Danisha Baughan is a high school counselor and college advisor. She received her masters in school counseling in May 2010 and has held elementary, middle, and high school counseling positions since then.