Chicago’s New Education Plan Falls Short

Image via Chicago Tribune

Does Chicago’s well-intentioned new graduation rule miss the point?

Soon, graduates of Chicago public high schools will have to prove that they have a plan for the future in order to obtain a diploma. Whether this will help or hurt students and their families has been hotly debated recently, and all sides have valid points. What it ultimately boils down to is that while this new requirement probably isn’t going to hurt more students than it’s going to help, it is far from an effective way to help schools that are already struggling to stay afloat.

The requirement is well-intentioned; it seeks to help more high school graduates consider higher education a valid option. The goal is to send more students to school so that they have the potential to earn more money and to avoid or escape poverty. Students who live in rough neighborhoods grow up living around crime. Many of them were raised by parents unable to emphasize the importance of education because they themselves were unable to graduate high school or college. On a basic level, the new requirement facing Chicago high schools sounds like a good idea: Require students to at least apply to schools and jobs, and there’s a higher chance that they will go to work or go to school.

However, as this article discusses, the students attending many Chicago public high schools are not receiving sufficient support to make the transition into a successful post-graduation life the least bit smooth. Layoffs and budget cuts are placing an immense burden on schools that weren’t doing well to begin with, meaning that most students are unable to get a satisfactory education at the high schools they attend.

Many students graduating from Chicago high schools are not truly prepared for what’s going to come after high school despite the diploma they may have in their hand at graduation. Sure, once the students graduate from a sup-bar educational system, the best thing for them is probably to get them onto another career or educational track. But this does not solve any of the underlying problems being suffered by the education system.

This new program, which will take time, energy and money to implement, is essentially sticking a band-aid on the problems administrators and policy-makers are watching worsen with each passing day. Forcing kids to apply to trade school, college or for a job at a local supermarket to graduate might get kids thinking about their future, but what if those same resources were funneled into students’ lives when they were in 2nd grade?

What if that money was used to pay qualified advisors who could try and help students see the value in higher education from a younger age? The problem at hand is not a simple one; otherwise someone would have solved it by now. But the new requirement facing Chicago public high schools is a weak attempt at bandaging gaping educational wounds.

There’s another factor to consider: How many would-have-been high school graduates will drop out because of the new requirement? Unmotivated students who only come to school to keep the truancy officers at bay are less likely to graduate from a school that has just placed more obstacles between the student and their diploma. Students who are completely disengaged and uninterested in their education won’t turn in an English essay on time, so what makes educators think they’re going to apply to college, a trade school or a job, much less show the school documentation of as much?

The argument can be made, of course, that students who don’t have the ambition to apply to institutions and provide documentation of doing so are unlikely to be successful or high-achievers after graduating. But why risk it? Why take away opportunities from students whose futures would be so much more hopeful with a high school diploma? Beyond this, why risk Chicago high school graduation rates? A drop in graduation rates isn’t going to help convince the government to give Chicago high schools any more money. And goodness knows, a little extra money for academic and extracurricular programs or paying guidance counselors and teachers more will go a lot further in helping students.

At the end of the day, the new requirement facing Chicago public high schools is unlikely to produce much change. Students with more resources and/or motivation will be more likely to apply to trade schools, colleges or jobs than students whose life experiences may have left them feeling dejected and hopeless. This requirement isn’t going to change that.

Kids can show that they got accepted into a Chicago City School (all of which are open-admissions community colleges) and never enroll. A one-time requirement is not a sustainable solution for students who are statistically struggling. This new policy has its heart in the right place, but ultimately is not going to produce much, if any, positive change.

Cassie Kuhn is a student at the University of Alabama. She has written for the university's paper, The Crimson White.

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