Restoring the Texas diploma’s worth

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In a recent article for the Fordham Institute, author Brandon Wright asks a salient question: “Has the high school diploma lost all meaning?” and concludes that it likely has. In Texas, where almost 60% of graduates who enter community college need remediation, our diploma no longer indicates readiness to succeed after high school.

Walking across the stage to accept your diploma at your high school graduation ceremony is a momentous occasion. Over a decade of hard work has culminated in a single document that signifies your readiness to succeed in the pursuit of higher learning or enter the workplace prepared to thrive. But what if it doesn’t?

The ugly truth is that we are spreading a grand lie; that graduating high school means you’re ready for what comes next.

A wrong turn

Forward-thinking Texans have said for years that we must strengthen the Texas high school diploma. This broad coalition advocated for policies that would have ensured Texas could turn our grand lie into a triumphant truth. They made ground for a while—increasing standards and rigor, ensuring the courses students need to succeed were required for graduation, and using workforce data to make informed decisions. Unfortunately, they eventually hit a snag.

After a period of rapid progress (with a lot of friction), policymakers were bombarded from all sides and have since hastily retreated. Much of the ground we gained as a state was lost when we eased standards and requirements and created workarounds instead of supports. This has led to record-high graduation rates.

If we continue to be okay with a watered-down high school diploma, there will be profound consequences. Hundreds of thousands of Texas students will enter the adult world believing they “have what it takes” to hack it. Surely, many do—but others simply haven’t been prepared to do so. Those students, let down by the adults they trusted to equip them with the skills and knowledge to excel, will flounder.

Let’s be honest; this IS about money. Some diploma-wielding Texans will enter the workforce unprepared to fulfill their job descriptions, only to lose that source of income. Some will enter college to be told they must pay for remedial coursework to complete a degree. Many of those will end up in staggering, life-altering debt when they aren’t able to complete their degree programs.

In a recent article for the Fordham Institute, author Brandon Wright asks a salient question: “Has the high school diploma lost all meaning?” and concludes that it likely has. In Texas, where almost 60% of graduates who enter community college need remediation, our diploma no longer indicates readiness to succeed after high school. And if we don’t act now to restore the value of our diplomas, scores of Texans will soon suffer.

Making a change

We agree with Brandon that it’s time to talk next steps. In the national context, he suggests four policy changes that we will use to offer solutions for Texas students.

  1. Eliminate the soft bigotry of low expectations. We must end the dialogue that suggests some students “just can’t.” With a fighting spirit as strong as we have in Texas, it baffles the mind to think this needs to be said. Many students are born in poverty. Many students come to our schools without speaking English. Many students are enrolled in a new school every couple of years. ALL students can achieve—we as adults must challenge ourselves to figure out how to enable them to do so.
  2. College is not the only option. College isn’t for everyone, and a degree doesn’t guarantee success. Yes, 60 percent of young people in Texas will need to have some sort of postsecondary education by the year 2030 if we want to keep up with economic growth. The other 40 percent will need the skills offered in high schools. Let’s make sure they are offered a chance.
  3. The one-size-fits-all diploma is a thing of the past. In post-industrial America, we can’t assume every high school graduate will be required to use the same skills. We must “bake-in” 21st-century skills into every high schooler’s coursework, of course, but we must also allow for differentiation. A teen who aspires to be a welder or mechanic may not need the same coursework as one who aspires to be a doctor or lawyer. Requiring the former to take advanced science courses or the latter to take mechanics or shop classes is ineffective. Allowing students the flexibility to choose the path they want to follow (as we do in higher education) will ignite a passion for learning and make sure that high school doesn’t become the “lost years.”
  4. We must change adult behaviors. Introducing incentives for adults to increase the number of graduates who matriculate from their campuses has proven to be ineffective. Rather than moving more students over the line, we’ve figured out how to move the line. Students do not benefit from this trend. Educating and empowering students to thrive should be the purpose of public schooling, not improving gameable, and therefore meaningless, school performance measures like graduation rates. If we fundamentally improve how we educate each and every student, graduation rates will follow.

If we do not commit to a wholesale course change, graduates will struggle to make a living. The businesses they work for and create will search for talent outside the Lone Star State. The communities they invest in will suffer. Texas will lose its footing as the land of economic opportunity.

Tough love

It may seem insensitive to some folks to take such a hard-line approach. We call it tough love because if you truly care about the long-term success of those you care for, you make the tough decisions. And if we care about the future of our state, we’ve got a choice to make.

We can allow our students to walk into the world unaware they’re unable to do what’s required of them. Or we can face the facts and fight tooth-and-nail to set appropriate expectations, offer the support to meet them, and inspire confidence in our future. You know where we stand.

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We believe every Texas child, regardless of race, ethnicity or zip code, deserves a quality education. You can help make that happen.