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The Bottom Line Fix Graduation Requirements, Then Track Credentials


Graduation from high school is based on time. After 12-13 years of school, to receive a diploma a student needs to collect a certain number of credits (called Carnegie Units). A credit is generally based on having received a passing grade for one year of class time or 9,900 minutes of instruction (55 minutes x 180 days).

What all of this says is that seat time, rather than real learning, is the primary measurement for meeting graduation requirements. As Don Nielsen expresses in another way, “in public education, measuring input is more important than measuring output.”

The same can be seen in the industry-recognized credentials (non-degree or certifications) that students are earning. According to ExcelInEd, “nearly half of the 50 states lack the ability to understand which students are earning credentials and whether those credentials are aligned with high-value job opportunities.”

While tracking career-readiness certificates or industry-recognized credentials are important, we must recognize that the paths to economic opportunity and becoming a responsible citizen are significantly more diverse today than in the past. We should be offering alternate routes earlier on.

Today, too many students are graduating from high school without the knowledge needed to become a productive citizen in our twenty-first-century economy. Nielsen proposes we ponder these questions:  “What should a high school graduate today know and be able to do? Should we only have one kind of diploma?”

A state is the main party to take on the task of defining what it should mean to be a high school graduate. Our suggestion is that three task forces be set up to determine the admission requirements for universities, community colleges, and the workforce. The requirements for each level will differ, as they should. This, in turn, means we should have at least three different diplomas that provide the receiving organizations with a clear knowledge of the student’s capabilities.

The change will not only give new meaning to a high school diploma, but will also allow employers and colleges to assess the preparation each student has received.

As ExcelInEd summarizes, “Everybody wins when students have multiple pathways that position them for success in college and career. But we know that simply increasing the number of students who earn any credential is at best short-sighted. The end goal of our education and training systems must provide a high likelihood of long-term success.” 

Bailey Takacs

Program Coordinator, American Center for Transforming Education
Bailey Takacs serves as program coordinator at Discovery Institutes' American Center for Transforming Education. With a passion and drive for reforming education, Bailey’s experience includes managing campaigns for elected officials as well administrative roles with elected officials at the local, state, and federal levels of government. He holds a B.A. in Politics and Government from Pacific Lutheran University.