If they gave out medals for ideas that sound really horrible on paper and even worse in real life, the city of Chicago just ran away with the gold.
In May, the city’s Board of Education voted to approve a new policy that would withhold high school diplomas from graduating students who can’t demonstrate either gainful employment or enrollment in college, the military, or a gap year program. The policy is set to go into effect for students graduating in 2020.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel argued that “If you change expectations, it’s not hard for kids to adapt.”
Emanuel has a point.
Kids in Chicago have to adapt all the time. The district of over 381,000 students has been adapting to severe budget cuts for years. In 2013, the kids adapted to the forced closure of 49 schools in low-income neighborhoods. In 2016, the kids adapted to a city-wide layoff of more than 1000 teachers and staff members. As this summer approached, the kids adapted to questions over whether or not their public schools even had the financial resources to remain open for the final weeks of the year.
Chicago kids, especially in the city’s toughest neighborhoods, must adapt to rampant gun violence, scarce job opportunities, and public schools that lack the basic resources to guide them forward. Chance the Rapper is trying to help, but for Chicago’s kids adaptability is a matter of survival.
Somehow, forcing them to adapt to yet another institutional barrier seems counterintuitive, but that’s only because it is. If you take intuition out of the discussion—as Chicago’s Board of Education has clearly done—you arrive at the conclusion that the only thing keeping Chicago’s students from succeeding after high school is the absence of sufficient authoritarian pressure.
With the national average rate of graduation at 83% and Chicago graduating something in the range of 74% of students in 2016, one thing we can conclude is that it’s harder for students in Chicago to graduate high school than it is for students elsewhere. Chicago just opted to make it even harder.
Does the threat of withholding a rightly-earned college diploma improve the odds that graduating seniors will secure brighter futures for themselves? Does it do the exact opposite by stigmatizing those who are already at a disadvantage? Or are these questions immaterial altogether? Are Chicago’s high schools overstepping their jurisdiction regardless of the expected outcomes?
All of these things are up for debate. How the city and its schools respond to that debate is pretty consequential. According to the Washington Post, Chicago is only the first major city to take a step that others are seriously considering. Under the premise that high schools should be held to greater accountability for the achievements of their graduates, 17 states have laid out plans for rating school performance. Among them, at least four states have included plans to incorporate the percentage of graduates who enroll in college or some other post-secondary education into this performance rating.
This trend could have the effect of moving more school districts—especially those in embattled urban centers—toward measures of extreme post-graduate accountability. Others will be watching Chicago closely as it barrels headlong into the policy.
So in light of the fact that all eyes are on Chicago, let’s consider, in no particular order, five reasons why this is a terrible idea that further victimizes Chicago’s already disadvantaged public school students.
1. It Promotes the False Narrative That There Are Finite Paths to Success
Mayor Emanuel argues that “what’s not good for kids is allowing them to go into a job market and the rest of their lives with a high school diploma when everything tells you that they need more than that.”
Sorry kid, there’s just no place for your self-starting entrepreneurial spirit here in Chicago. Go to college, get a job, or get the shaft.
I’m not going to sit here and list all the things you could possible do with your life after earning a high school diploma. I’m not qualified to whittle down your life’s ambition to just a few institutionally-accepted ideas. That’s for the city of Chicago to do, apparently.
After some negotiation, the city arrived at a final list of possible qualifiers for getting your high school diploma beyond, y’know, earning it. You must be able to show the city of Chicago a(n):
- College acceptance letter received and returned
- Military acceptance/enlistment letter
- Acceptance into a job program (i.e., coding boot camp)
- Acceptance into a trades pre-apprenticeship/apprenticeship
- Acceptance into a “gap year” program
- Current job/job offer letter
So taking out a bank loan to start a small business? Not on the list. Backpacking the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine? Not on on the list. Busking weird performance art while living in a crowded loft with other weird performance art types? Not on the list.
Also not on the list are the literally infinite options that lay before you as a young person entering the world. And you worked hard to get your diploma so that you could complete the formal portion of your education—at least for now—and venture out into the great unknown to find your fortune, be it material or intrinsic.
So yeah, you can forget all of that if you’re a student in the city of Chicago. Diplomas are for people who follow all the rules and avoid the temptations of individuality. This policy promotes the narrative that there are only a few acceptable paths to harnessing your high school education and individual potential, that any deviation from those paths should result in a penalty, and quite a steep one at that.
2. It Devalues the Achievement of High School Graduation
According to a March 2016 report from the Brookings Institute called “Income Inequality, Social Mobility, and the Decision to Drop Out of High School,” low-income youth are 4.1% more likely to drop out of high school by age 20 “if they live in a high-inequality location relative to those who live in a low-inequality location.”
With African Americans comprising 37.7% of the city’s public school population, and 80% of those students living under the poverty line, the connection between racial inequality and the difficult of graduating high school is clear, and causal in nature. When the mayor of Chicago suggests that earning one’s diploma somehow lacks value, he betrays his own enormous ignorance to racially-bound institutional barriers. Indeed, overcoming these barriers makes high school graduation an accomplishment worthy of even greater celebration and praise in disadvantaged communities.
Emanuel flips the script. The achievement of high school graduation—already an objective beset by countless institutional barriers—is now no longer a sufficient indicator that one intends to be a productive and contributing member of society. The goal posts have been moved. This is pretty unfair given that, for a lot of reasons that have more to do with the field of play than the players themselves, these goal posts were already hard to get to.
3. It creates another institutional barrier
As per usual, those most impacted by the move will be the city’s poorest schools and its most disadvantaged students. This is a policy which literally compounds the challenges facing a demographic that doesn’t need any more institutional obstacles.
While the city on the whole had a graduation rate of 73.5% in 2016, minority students continued to lag behind white students. Notably, boys lag behind girls in every racial subset. But while white students on the whole experienced a graduation rate of 81% (87% for girls, 76% for boys), Hispanic students saw a rate of 78% (84% for girls, 72% for boys) and African-American students had a rate of 67% (76% for girls, 57% for boys).
That Chicago’s young black men are also the most susceptible to gun violence, incarceration, and joblessness is a fact that is not lost on the city’s mayor or its Board of Education. The fact is not lost, but it is deeply misunderstood. The cultural and institutional barriers that detain Chicago’s most afflicted black neighborhoods in cycles of poverty and violence are numerous and considerable.
The failure of the city’s public schools to provide resources, education, guidance or motivation to these at-risk populations is significant among those barriers. In recent years, a cruel spate of budget cuts have only deepened Chicago’s tale of two cities; one a glistening white Metropolis, the other a hellscape of broken promises and opportunities that never were.
The scale of inequality in Chicago is massive and underwritten by too many institutional factors to confront here. But on the subject of education alone, note that during the school closings of 2013, for instance, 90% of displaced students were African American. And, as other schools worked to onboard 49 schools worth of displaced students. they saw inflated classroom sizes and worsened ratios between teachers and students. Oh, and as long as we’re keeping score, the mere cost of emptying and boarding up 49 shuttered schools ran the city $30.9 million.
So again, even just the education-bound institutional barriers for impoverished and minority students in Chicago are considerable. This policy adds yet another barrier. For those who will already struggle most to find gainful employment, who may not be well-suited for the traditional path to higher education, who will face the greatest uphill climb to achieving financial stability, who are disabled and will face myriad challenges finding a place in the workforce, for all of these students, there is now also the threat of proceeding without a rightfully earned high school diploma.
The policy now institutionalizes the idea that students who haven’t found opportunity after graduating high school should be penalized. But, in actually…
4. It penalize students for the city’s failures
Chicago’s public schools have been the well-publicized victims of deep and crippling budget cuts. And in 2016, guidance counselors accounted for a significant portion of the 1000 staff members and educators who were slashed by budget cuts. The counselor’s position has become one of the many expendables in a district strapped for solutions. This leaves the remaining guidance counselors in the city’s poorest schools to work at a ratio of 450 students to one.
You read that right. In the schools that will be most directly impacted by this policy, those where the poorest students must defy any number of odds to walk proudly on graduation day, the average guidance counselor is responsible for advising 450 student cases at once. This means that one person has the job of helping 450 students choose a college, navigate the admissions process, determine if enlistment is right for them, investigate the job market, or explore any alternative opportunities that might further a specific set of scholastic, technical, artistic, athletic, or humanitarian interests.
That’s an awful and unsustainable ratio. So even as Chicago’s students have been left to make their decisions with precious little help or guidance, the city is now also penalizing these students for not making their decisions correctly.
It’s like lopping off a runner’s legs and flagging him with a false start for falling over the starting line. First you take away the tools these kids need to succeed, then you penalize them for not being successful.
5. It conflates punishment with motivation
As part of Emanuel’s plan to motivate students to plan better for the future, all seniors will participate in a seminar designed to help make informed decisions about how best to take the next step.
That sounds great. One wonders why such a program must be backed by the threat of diploma withholding in order to be effective. Taking an educated guess, and based on the patterns that we’ve seen in the last few years for Chicago’s public schools, the reason is probably because the program isn’t backed by sufficient funding or resources. There’s literally no indication of how the school would fund programs designed to improve post-graduate planning. And where plans do exist, they aren’t particularly inspiring.
Take, for instance, the above-noted fact that there simply aren’t enough guidance counselors to handle the unique and individual needs of every student. To this end, Mayor Emanuel is working with the school district to raise $1 million dollars to help train school counselors, who would be essential to carrying out the new policy.
Of course, that sum is a pittance given the job at hand and wouldn’t do much to fix the labor shortage. So to what extent is this policy initiative aimed at improving the things about Chicago’s schools that make graduates poorly equipped for the next step?
There’s not much evidence to suggest that it would achieve this end. Chicago’s public school graduates are actually already guaranteed a free spot in the city’s community college program. But there’s no reason to think that this new policy would somehow better prepare these students to succeed once there.
Even as high schools find ways to push students along to college, the city’s community college system is straining to support the new weight. According to the Chicago Tribune, “The City Colleges system has continued to struggle with ‘softened’ enrollment numbers, as the system also looks at burning cash reserves and making cuts because of the state’s protracted budget impasse. At the same time, the system has said it has seen larger numbers of incoming students ‘without the required academic preparation,’ which has led to higher demand for remedial courses and support services.”
Forced To Adapt
Mayor Emanuel believes that the policy will be “groundbreaking,” that Chicago will be the first city to set a new basic benchmark for academic success, that instead of a standard K-12 education, Chicago’s students will evolve toward a standard K-14 education.
But he wishes to break ground without funding construction. The obstacles to success for Chicago’s disadvantaged children are not self-imposed. They are created by disadvantage. Complicated stuff, I know.
Until the city confronts those disadvantages, all the students of Chicago can really do is adapt. They will adapt, but they won’t evolve.