Chicago School Board to consider making post-high school plans graduation requirement
May 6, 2017

By Igor Studenkov

Alfred Tatum, dean of the UIC College of Education, feels any initiative encouraging students to succeed must be embraced by the community. (Photo by Lloyd DeGrane courtesy University of Illinois at Chicago)

Mayor Rahm Emanuel is calling for requiring Chicago Public Schools high school students to obtain some kind of proof that they have a plan in place for what they do after graduation in order to graduate in the first place. According to CPS officials who spoke to the Gazette, this can take a number of forms, such as a letter of acceptance from a college, a trade school, an employment program, or a branch of the military, but it also can be a job offer or acceptance into a gap year program. CPS described the plan as a way to help ensure students can succeed after school.

Many community activists and education experts, however, feel that, while the goal is admirable, this is the wrong way to achieve it. Instead, they urged CPS to invest in its teachers, principals, and counseling staff, arguing that, if students receive better education and more support, they are more likely to go to college or a trade school. Although Emanuel announced the initiative, CPS has expressed its full support.

Janice Jackson, EdD, CPS chief education officer, said, “We all need to change how we think about what it means to be a high school graduate—a diploma alone isn’t enough anymore. At CPS, we’ve long believed that high school is only a stepping stone, and now we’re ensuring that every one of our students has given real consideration to what’s next—and taken action to succeed.”

To help students along, all school counselors will receive Chicago college advising credentials. According to CPS, 40% of counselors already have the credentials, and CPS plans to raise $1 million from philanthropic and business communities to cover the rest.

Help for counselors

Alan Mather, CPS chief of college and career success, said CPS would ensure each of its networks (administrative divisions) has a career specialist to help counselors. Individual counselors also would receive help from support staff.

When asked whether CPS would allocate more money to let schools hire more counselors, Mather replied that hiring decisions were left up to principals, and they can use their budget however they see fit. Alfred Tatum, PhD, dean of the University of Illinois at Chicago College of Education, said it would not be that easy.

“I think it would be a logistical nightmare to manage the post-secondary education requirement be- cause it’s going to take away attention from the broader aim of the mayor’s goal, which is to ensure positive outcome trajectories for students,” he said. “To move a system of 400,000 students to post-secondary aims, it’s hard to mandate and legislate success.” Tatum also feels any initiative encouraging students to success needs to be something the community and faculty can embrace. Emanuel’s plan “has created a division between the mayor and how some communities are reacting to this,” he said.

Instead, “Any policy and practice that is going to best serve students of Chicago is one that is going to lead to greater collaboration and less dissension,” Tatum added. As an alternative, Tatum said CPS should provide more support and resources to teachers and principals. “As the dean of the College of Education, I think we already have a post-secondary education plan, which is having good teachers and good principals,” he said. “It’s really the question of how teachers and principals advance education aims. Many students already want to do something after high school, and it’s not the presence or absence of requirement that will make a difference.”

In fact, the requirement would not address the underlying issues that hinder students’ ability to obtain post-secondary education, Tatum said. “It’s really an erosion of optimism and academic confidence, connected to cultural and economic issues,” he explained. “And I’m not sure the proposed graduation requirement addresses that. There’s evidence that, even if it moves forward, the net result will be a short-lived policy that will not achieve any of its aims.”

Unintended consequences?

Every policy of this nature tends to have unintended consequences, Tatum said, and he worried CPS did not think it through. “Our city and our students deserve the very best, and we just
want to be very, very careful that we don’t move forward in the way that misses the mark and penalizes our students,” he said.

Maria Ferguson, of the Washington, DC-based George Washington University Center on Education Policy, had similar concerns, saying the proposal does not take into account differences in resources between schools as well as some of the challenges students in less well off neighborhoods have to face.

“For some students, that journey is a lot more difficult than for other students, so why do we want to make it harder for them and punish them?” she said. “It’s going to be hard enough to get some students across the finish line. Why do you add another stress?” Ferguson cited stress caused by violence, issues with parents, and having to balance school with jobs, as examples of issues with which the less affluent must cope. “It just seems like you’re putting those students that have significant disadvantages in a difficult space.” she said. “I understand you want to set high expectations for all students. But the bottom line is that resources matter, and some kids have access to more resources than other kids.”

Like Tatum, she believes a better approach would give more resources to students and teachers and do more to account for the fact that different students learn differently. Mather disagreed, saying he does not believe resource disparities would cause much of an issue. “We don’t think there’s going to be disproportionate impact,” he said. “In fact, one of the reasons for ramping up the process is that we understand that schools need to have additional support.”

School funding

Grassroots Collaborative, an alliance of community activist organizations that includes the Chicago Teachers Union, also took a dim view of the idea. Abbie Illenberger, the organization’s acting executive director, said the mayor’s plan does not address what she described as the real problem—a flawed school funding formula. “We really want Rahm Emanuel and CPS CEO Forrest Claypool to come with us to Springfield to advocate for our reforms,” she said. “There’s money to fund our schools— we need their courage to implement solutions, not regulations.”

Some reform ideas include changing the income tax structure, using surplus from the city’s tax increment financing funds, and taxing financial transactions involving stocks, bonds, and derivatives. Illenberger added the best way to ensure student success is to provide resources not just to students but to their families through “a model of public education that provides wraparound services for students or families and makes sure they have access to counseling and…trauma support.” Mather said the Chicago Board of Education still needs to vote on whether to approve the policy some time before the beginning of the 2017-2018 school year.

If implemented, the policy will affect only freshmen who are interesting high school this fall, and not students currently in high school. Attempts to obtain comment from the Chicago Chamber of Com- merce on how the proposal would affect business were unsuccessful.