The results of Fordham's 2018 Wonkathon

In Fordham’s fifth annual Wonkathon, policy experts submitted twenty-three entries—a Wonkathon record—addressing whether our high school graduation requirements need to change, in light of diploma scandals in D.C., Maryland, and elsewhere:

A recent investigation revealed that several high schools in Washington, D.C., skirted district rules to graduate large numbers of their students who didn’t meet the standards for earning diplomas. As Erica Green of the New York Times and others have argued, this type of malfeasance isn’t limited to the nation’s capital. It happened in neighboring Prince George’s County, Maryland, and there are reasons to believe it’s happening in plenty of other places.

It’s not hard to understand why. For a decade now, federal policy has required states to measure graduation rates uniformly, to set ambitious goals for raising those rates, and to hold high schools accountable for meeting such goals. But the same local administrators who have been charged with getting more students across the graduation stage also have considerable leeway—via course grades, credit recovery programs, and shadier practices—in determining whether students have earned the privilege.

Given how many children enter American high schools far below grade level, and noting how many states have been dropping external checks such as exit and end-of-course exams, the temptation for educators to ignore graduation norms is pervasive.

That’s no reason to excuse cheating, but it does point to a large systemic problem and a bona fide policy dilemma. It may imply that we’ve set unrealistic expectations about the number of students who can feasibly reach rigorous graduation standards. Or it may mean that we’ve been wrong about what kinds of standards make the most sense in twenty-first-century America—and whether they should be uniform for all schools and kids.

This year’s Wonkathon will tackle these issues head-on. We are asking contributors to address the following question: What standards should students meet to graduate from high school?

The articles offered a wide range of great ideas from some of the wonkiest wonks in education reform. And because we received so many, we’re honoring first-, second-, and third-place submissions.

So, without further ado…

First Place

"High school reimagined (and we truly mean reimagined)" by Jessica Shopoff, M.Ed., and Chase Eskelsen, M.Ed.

Shopoff and Eskelsen argue that our current approach to high school is so flawed and ineffective that we can’t fix it with mere tweaks. Instead, they urge policymakers to revamp it by building a personalized learning model that effectively graduates students prepared to successfully contribute to society. This requires at least three steps: 1. embracing cross-curricular competency-based learning; 2. personalizing graduation paths; and 3. realigning learning across the preschool-to-higher-education-or-career continuum.

Second Place

"Look beyond four-year graduation rates" by Peter Greene

The pressure to inflate grades, bogus credit-recovery courses, and plain-old D.C.-style fraud don’t happen just because school districts are under pressure to graduate students, contends Greene. They happen because districts are under pressure to graduate students “Right Now! In Four Years!” For all the reform talk these days about personalization and flexibility, we still deny public schools the option to say to a student, “We are going to get you through this. We are going to see you succeed, even if it takes a little bit longer than it does for some of your peers,” Greene says. And he calls on leaders to change that.

Third Place

"Reformer, heal thyself. You've ruined high school." by Max Eden

Eden argues that the technocratic education reform movement provides structural and social incentives for fraud. The central premise is that by empowering highly-trained central-office leaders with world-class systems designed by preeminent experts, we ought to expect “transformative” change. But that is, he claims, willful wishful thinking. In the face of these headwinds, Eden believes that only a truly bold policy shift can restore systemic integrity: Make classes optional after tenth grade and grant diplomas to anyone who a local employer certifies shows up steadily and performs adequately.


Thanks to all the participants for another great Wonkathon, and congratulations again to this year’s Wisest Wonks, Jessica Shopoff and Chase Eskelsen. All of this year’s articles are linked below as inspiration for you to continue wonking out, all year long.