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?

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.

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.

First Person

I’m a Houston geography teacher. This is my plan for our first day back — as soon as it arrives

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Texas Military Department
Texas National Guard soldiers arrive in Houston, Texas to aid citizens in heavily flooded areas from the storms of Hurricane Harvey.

Hurricane Harvey has upended so many things here in Houston, where I am starting my third year as a teacher. One of them is the lesson I am planning for the first day of school — as soon as it arrives.

This upheaval is nothing compared to what people across the city have faced, including my students, who have been sending me photos of evacuation boats going past their houses.

But it is fundamental to the task of being a teacher at a time of crisis. As an A.P. Human Geography teacher, my job is to help students make connections between the geography concepts we are learning in class and their real lives: Does Houston look like the models of urban development we study? Does their family history include a migration?

Before the storm, my thinking went like this: I am white and was born in England and most of my students are Hispanic, many with parents who were born in other countries. I was excited for us to share and compare our different stories. My students last year were shocked and fascinated when they discovered that my white, middle-aged father who is a university professor was applying for a green card, just as many of their family members were.

Now, Hurricane Harvey has underlined for me the importance of those real-world connections. As I looked at the photos from my students, I was struck by how geography concepts can affect us in very real — even life-threatening — ways.

I had planned to teach a lesson at the end of the year about how urbanization affects the environment. The lesson looks at how urbanization can exacerbate flooding: for example, how paving over grassy areas can increase the speed with which rain reaches the bayous, causing the water levels to rise faster. I would then have students evaluate different policies cities can adopt to mitigate that risk, such as encouraging the building on brownfield rather than greenfield sites and passing laws to protect farmland — options that have significant benefits but also significant costs.

I have decided to move this lesson up in the curriculum and teach it when we have school again. School is scheduled to start again on Tuesday, though at this stage everything is provisional, as each hour we find out about more families that have had their homes destroyed by the rising waters. It is still unclear how all our staff, let alone students, will get to school.

I am worried that the lesson could re-traumatize students who have experienced so much trauma in the past few days. I know I will need to make an active effort to make students feel comfortable stepping into the hall if they are feeling overwhelmed. However, my experiences with the recent presidential election make me think that this lesson is exactly what some students might need.

After the election, many students were genuinely confused about what had happened. One question in particular was on their minds: How you can you win the popular vote but not the election? We talked through the Electoral College together, and having clarity about what had happened and why it happened seemed to give them a firmer foundation to build on as they processed their emotions. I am hopeful that teaching about flooding will help ground them in a similar way.

This lesson about flooding was once simply another lesson in the curriculum, but now it has taken on a new urgency. In moments of disaster, it is easy to feel powerless; I certainly could not help the people I saw posting on Facebook that they were been on hold with 911 for hours while standing on their roofs.

Yet teachers have a unique power — the power to shape the minds of future generations to solve the problems that we face. Houston’s location means that it will always be susceptible to flooding. But by teaching about the flood I hope I can play a small role in helping our city avoid repeating some of the tragic scenes I witnessed this week.

Alex McNaughton teaches history and geography at YES Prep Southeast in Houston.

Looking to help? YES Prep is collecting donations to support its students and their families. Houston ISD and KIPP Houston are also soliciting donations for their students.