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

What I learned about the limits of school choice in New York City from a mother whose child uses a wheelchair

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

As a researcher interested in the ways online platforms impact learning and educational decision-making, I’ve been trying to understand how New York City parents get the information to make a crucial decision: where to send their children to school.

So for the past six months, I’ve been asking local parents about the data they used to choose among the system’s 1700 or so schools.

I’ve heard all sorts of stories about the factors parents weigh when picking schools. Beyond the usual considerations like test scores and art programs, they also consider the logistics of commuting from the Bronx to the East Village with two children in tow, whether the school can accommodate parents and children who are still learning English, and how much money the parent-teacher association raises to supplement the school’s budget.

But for some families, the choice process begins and ends with the question: Is the building fully accessible?

The federal Americans with Disabilities Act requires public buildings constructed after 1992 to be fully accessible to people in wheelchairs. However, most New York City public school buildings were constructed prior to that law, and high construction costs have limited the number of new, fully accessible buildings.

As a result, a shocking 83 percent of New York City schools have been found non-compliant with the ADA, according to a two-year federal Department of Justice investigation whose findings the city Department of Education largely disputes. Recently, the city’s Office of Space Management has begun surveying buildings for full accessibility, but more work remains to be done.

One parent’s struggle to find a school suitable for her son, who has a physical disability but no cognitive issues, illustrates what a major role accessibility plays in some families’ decision-making.

Melanie Rivera is the mother of two and a native New Yorker living in Ditmas Park in Brooklyn’s District 22 who shared her story with me — and gave me permission to share it with others. Here is what she told me, in her own words:

My son Gabriel is seven years old. He was born with a condition called arthrogryposis, which affects the development of his joints. His hips, knees, and feet are affected and he has joint contractures, so his legs don’t bend and straighten the way most people’s do. In order to get around, he uses a combination of crutches and a wheelchair.

Before I had my differently-abled son, I was working in a preschool for children with special needs. The kids I worked with had cognitive developmental disabilities.

Despite my professional experience, I was overwhelmed when it was my turn to help my child with different abilities navigate the public school system. I can only imagine the students falling by the wayside because their parents don’t have that background.

When I was completing my son’s kindergarten application, I couldn’t even consider the academics of the school. My main priority was to tour the schools and assess their level of accessibility.

There are only a couple of ADA-accessible schools in my district, and there was no way of indicating on my son’s kindergarten application that he needed one. When we got the admissions results, he was assigned to his zoned school – which is not accessible.

I entered lengthy and extensive mediation to get him into an ADA-accessible school. At that point, I knew I would just have to take what I could get. For families whose children have special needs, “school choice” can ring hollow.

The process of finding any accessible school was a challenge. The DOE website allows families to search for ADA-accessible schools. But the site describes most schools as “partially accessible,” leaving it up to parents to call each school and say, “What do you mean by this?”

When I called the schools and asked, “Are you a barrier-free school?” the staff in the office didn’t know what the term meant. They might reply, “Oh yeah, we have a ramp.” I’d have to press further: “But can you get to the office? Can you get to every floor in the building?” The response was often, “Oh, I don’t know.”

Even the office staff didn’t know. But for my son’s sake, I needed to know.

Gabriel deserves the full range of academic and social experiences. So every day I make sure he’s learning in the least-restrictive environment — from the classroom, to phys ed, to field trips.

I believe the Department of Education also wants to make schools accessible and to place students with different abilities in settings where they’ll flourish, but the current system is not equipped to follow through on those good intentions. While I see gradual changes, I still know that if I don’t find the best placement for my son the system definitely won’t.

At the school level, administrators should know the details of their own school’s accessibility. Teachers should learn to include children with different abilities in their classrooms. Such a commitment means recognizing the value of inclusivity — not viewing accessibility as something ADA says you must do.

Before I had Gabriel, I never thought about accessibility. I never looked at street cutouts or thought about how to enter a store with steps. We’re probably all guilty of perpetuating exclusion at one point or another.

Recognizing that will allow us to change the status quo. It will allow every individual with a physical disability to fully participate in the public school system.

Claire Fontaine is a researcher at Data & Society, a research institute in New York City focused on social, cultural, and ethical issues arising from technological development. Kinjal Dave is a research assistant at Data & Society. You can read more about their project, which seeks to better understand the ways in which diverse New York City parents draw on school performance data, online dashboards, and school review websites when researching schools for their children.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.