Chicago Public Schools goes overboard on graduation requirements

Ohio policy makers just dismantled the high school graduation requirements for the class of 2018. This retreat harks back to the days of social promotion and state-sanctioned low expectations and should prompt some soul-searching as to what exactly we think young people need to be prepared for life after high school.

I’m all for high standards that are taken seriously by all concerned and that have real-world consequences. The point, after all, is to boost achievement, cause more learning by more young people, cause diplomas to mean something, and ensure that many more of our future citizens will be up to the challenges ahead.

But it’s also possible to demand too much. Witness the Chicago Public Schools: in addition to meeting basic high school graduation requirements like earning 24 credit hours in core subject areas and completing additional obligations such as service learning and consumer education, a new proposal requires high school students in the Windy City to prove that they have a “post-graduation plan” that includes a job or acceptance into the military, college, or a trade program.

Ohio’s plan is akin to providing high school graduates with flotation devices. Who cares if they can actually swim in the real world, so long as they, their parents, and their teachers feel comfortable that they’ve gotten in the water and tried. But if Ohio is guilty of endangering its graduates with a false hope that they’re ready to stay afloat in the world of college or the workforce, Chicago is threatening to drown them with a surfeit of expectations, including some that go well beyond the capacities and expertise of public schooling.


Chicago’s proposal will go into effect in 2020. Mayor Rahm Emanuel is not wrong when he says, “You cannot have kids think that 12th grade is done,” and when he points out that increasing academic rigor leads to improvements in graduation rates. (Ohio lawmakers: please pay attention.) But the augmented requirements are wrongheaded—and at least one policy expert has questioned whether they’re legal.

Start with the fact that students should earn what they’ve worked hard to earn—a fact that puts me in rare agreement with teachers’ union president Karen Lewis: “If you’ve done the work to earn a diploma, then you should get a diploma.” When Ohio superintendents and policy makers said it was unfair to change the rules mid-game, they were referring to changes in the score one must earn to be deemed proficient, a raising of the bar that the state determined years ago was the right policy move. In Chicago’s case, the rules are quite literally changing before kids’ (and educators’) eyes. Doing the work, proving you’re proficient, and earning the necessary credit hours won’t be enough in Chicago—you’ve also got to prove to the public school system the merits of your life plan.

Why is this the Chicago Public Schools’ damn business? The role of the K-12 system is to prepare young people for life after high school and to expand opportunities, not strong-arm young people into taking those opportunities.

What about students who won’t have it figured out by June? They fall into several categories, some laudable, some verging on the irresponsible. They could be students who:

  • Plan to travel or work before attending college or otherwise take a “gap year” (not approved by the board);
  • Didn’t get into their college of choice, so need extra time to figure out their plans and maybe reapply;
  • Care for family members who might be ill;
  • Struggle with health issues themselves;
  • Are expecting or new mothers;
  • Are non-traditionally employed artists or performers, e.g., musicians;
  • Are still on the job hunt, struggling to get hired.

Sure, it’s good to emerge from high school with a clear path to follow, and teachers and counselors ought to help with this as best they can. But require a plan? Approve a plan? No. Chicago’s new policy leaves room for the district to grant waivers from the post-grad plan requirement, but one can imagine the value judgments that are apt to affect waiver decisions. The policy also seems to overlook the fact that disadvantaged students—a large percentage of Chicago’s—face barriers to employment such as racial discrimination.

The school board promised to provide additional college and career coaches for counseling, which is a great way to provide extra support, but it seems that just eight such coaches (for a district nearing 400,000 students) will be deployed. Perhaps the school system should get its own priorities in order before demanding evidence that students have theirs in good shape.

The sentiments behind Chicago’s graduation proposal are good (and certainly better than Ohio’s recent decisions), and it’s great that city leaders are laser-like about raising the bar. This time, however, they’ve gone overboard.

Jamie Davies O'Leary
Jamie Davies O'Leary is former Senior Ohio Policy Analyst at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute.