Chicago: No Post High School Plans? No Diploma!

Chicago has been in the news recently for earning President Trump’s ire over heightened gun violence, with the White House threatening to “send in the feds” to clean up the Windy City. The brouhaha is over more than crime stats:  Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel, an outspoken Democrat, was President Barack Obama’s chief of staff before heading back to Illinois. A prominent critic of Donald Trump, Emanuel’s continued struggles as mayor have brought the commander-in-chief glee, and the two have verbally sniped at each other over various issues.

And a new issue looms that could spread to school districts nationwide: Graduation plans. This past spring, the Chicago school board approved a new graduation requirement for public school seniors and declared that all students must have a formal “graduation plan” before they get their diplomas. All graduates must have a written plan detailing what they will be doing after graduation, be it college, military service, starting a career, or taking a “gap year.” This reform has sparked controversy, with praise and opposition flowing from all quarters.

Proponents argue that the plan, which will be fully implemented by 2020, gives students much-needed guidance and prevents many teens from “falling through the cracks” by having given no thought to life after high school. Critics, however, argue that the benefits of mandated forward-thinking are minimal for high school seniors, who may not know what they want to do and should not feel “locked in” to a plan they created simply to check a box toward getting their diplomas. Others feel that the plans will be ineffectual, since seniors will be creating them just to cross that task off their list of graduation requirements and will not have to follow through with accomplishing them.

Some question the feasibility of the plan, regardless of its merits. In recent years, Chicago has had to lay off many public school teachers and counselors…and how many new school employees will be required to ensure that every single high school senior has a written graduation plan? Critics doubt that the school district will have the money to hire more counselors, placing tremendous additional burdens on existing faculty and staff. 

And, for the kicker, does the school district have the political will to actually deny a high school diploma to a senior who has accomplished everything but submitting a graduation plan? The outcry would be fierce, and the district would be accused of holding back a promising young man or woman over a mere triviality. However, if the district allows the senior to graduate without a graduation plan, the entire reform crumbles. The following year, many seniors will neglect to fulfill the requirement, knowing that they will simply be waved through anyway. 

The feasibility and merits of Chicago’s graduation plans are important to decipher, because other districts may follow suit. 

Frankly, the whole thing hinges on one thing: Money. Many liberals, and some conservatives, champion the idea of graduation plans as a positive reform that will increase academic rigor and prevent many students, especially minorities, from losing focus and falling into post-graduation unemployment. But who will pay? Obviously, citizens will chafe at the notion of shifting resources from existing high school programs or raising property taxes. State and federal grants could help cover the cost of hiring new counselors, but the Republican-heavy political climate makes that rather unlikely.

If Chicago’s graduation plan experiment succeeds, at least moderately, you can bet that other liberal school districts, and state legislatures, will move to follow suit. They should have a funding source anticipated and pre-determine which district employees will be responsible for overseeing the graduation plans. Will counselors be taking the lead, or will assistant principals be responsible? Will individual classroom teachers be expected to play a role? A bold plan like a mandatory graduation requirement will quickly skid off the rails if the Is are not dotted and the Ts are not crossed prior to kick-off.

Districts and states must also consider who the ultimate authority on graduation plans will be:  The high school, the school district, or the state? If the high school is the ultimate authority, the principal can simply sign off that each senior has submitted the required letter or form. This would make things simple, but could lead to weak compliance as overworked principals choose to check off all students rather than adhere to the letter of the law. Requiring high schools to turn all graduation plans in to the district would ensure more compliance, but would lead to a desire to hire additional [expensive] district administrators. And, of course, the district administrators, just like campus principals, could simply check things off that were not completed.

Putting the state in charge would ensure maximum compliance, but would increase the size of the bureaucracy, which conservatives would hate. It would also be politically unpopular for the state to be seen as cracking down on school districts, campuses, and students when not all graduation plans were submitted on time. Chicago’s grand experiment will face lots of scrutiny, so proponent Rahm Emanuel better have his A-game ready!

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