Rahm Emanuel’s Latest Brainstorm on Education: A Step Too Far?

April 11, 2017; Chicago Tribune

The desired outcome of our nation’s public schools has long been graduating with a high school diploma. States and local districts establish academic requirements to equip students with the knowledge and skills needed to move forward, whether that’s into college, a technical school, or into the job market.

Matching a high school curriculum with the expectations of colleges and employers is a challenge for educators. Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel, however, believes that making sure that their students learn what they need to is not enough. His recent proposal has schools taking a more proactive role by requiring students to present evidence of their post-high-school plans in order to receive their diploma.

According to the Chicago Tribune, and supported by a press release from Emanuel’s office, in order to graduate, students would have to provide “proof they’ve been accepted into college or the military, or a trade or a ‘gap-year’ program. The requirement would also be satisfied if the student has a job or a job offer” in order to graduate.

The point, the mayor said, is to get Chicago Public Schools students in all parts of the city to stop seeing high school graduation as an ending and get them to consider what’s next. “Just like you do with your children, college, post-high school, that is what’s expected,” Emanuel said at a Wednesday morning news conference. “If you change expectations, it’s not hard for kids to adapt.”

The mayor’s concern that all students leave public school with the best chance to succeed is not very controversial. But is this level of expectation taking the school too far from its educational mission? Maria Ferguson, executive director of the Center on Education Policy, told the Chicago Tribune, “I’ve been doing this for 20 years and I’ve never heard of anything like that. The question I would have for Mayor Emanuel is, ‘Where did this come from? What informed your thinking to lead you to believe that this was a good plan of action for CPS?’”

The Washington Post reports that Miranda Johnson, associate director of the Education Law and Policy Institute at Loyola University’s School of Law, calls the plan “unrealistic” given the realities that confront many students.

She said students who work with legal clinics at the law school often live in foster care or are disabled. “I think the goals are really laudable,” Johnson said of Emanuel’s proposal. “I just think that the challenges are the supports available for the students to enable them to do that. And if they fail to be able to secure an acceptance by the time they graduate, should they then be penalized by the withholding of a high school diploma?”

A step forward toward ensuring lower-income students move to a better economic place? Or a misdirection of energy from the real problems that plague inner city children and young adults? Mayor Emanuel, if he has accomplished anything with this proposal, has provided an additional reason to look hard at the challenges before our public schools and their students.—Martin Levine