Commentary: In loco parentis

by David Burns, Director of Battelle STEM Innovation Networks

david headshotThroughout the three weeks that span the end of May and the beginning of June, students all over Ohio will be donning an unflattering tasseled mortarboard cap and a polyester gown, lining up in alphabetical order, and trying to remember all the words of their soon-to-be alma mater’s song.  They will be a bit apprehensive, somewhat self-conscious, and a tad more anxious than usual.  They’ve practiced this drill two or three times and generally know where they are supposed to go and when they sit and stand, but the gravity of the circumstance has them a little on edge.

Soon, they will walk across the stage, receive a diploma, shake a hand, and move on.  It all seems easy enough and has been done 100,000 times before, but there’s always a moment or two of hesitation.  It’s the thin line between saying what you are going to do and knowing what you are going to do that catches them off guard.  A thousand questions run through their collective minds  – Am I prepared? Did I pass Spanish? Does the tassel go on the right or the left?  The questions are certainly valid and most will get answered in due time, but the one that is most important is the first: Am I prepared?  It’s a big question for a lot of reasons, but on graduation day it is underlined, bold and italicized: Am I prepared…for the rest of my life?

A little more than 10 years ago, all the discussion in education circles in Columbus focused on the “Ohio Core” legislation proposed by then Republican Governor Taft’s administration. Thomas Friedman surfaced the quiet fears of middle class America with The World is Flat. Published a couple of years earlier, the political climate and fear of globalization was palpable, especially in Ohio, as our manufacturing base was slipping and our education levels were sliding.

The Core required students to take (and pass) three years of science and four years of mathematics in order to complete high school requirements for graduation.  The intent, at the time, was to raise standards and accountability so that Ohio’s students would be prepared to be competitive in a global economy. The thought, at the time, was that students would need some education beyond high school to effectively contribute to society.

While many of the arguments focused on the “what” of the core, very few questioned the “why.”  Preparing kids to be successful in the 21st Century was a no-brainer. One of the big sticking points was the requirement of Algebra II – long thought of as a gatekeeper for college entrance and success.  After countless negotiations with administrators, educators, unions and policy wonks, the Core passed.  In a sympathetic gesture, schools and districts were granted what amounted to a 10-year runway to ramp up and prepare for what most schools in Ohio were already doing – providing a quality education.

Slow forward to today—10 years has come and gone.  As we creep toward the end of the runway, a small number of the schools and districts are still stuck on the tarmac, waiting for clearance to stay in 2006.  Frantic calls to the statehouse have set off alarm bells across the state. The schools are demanding more time.  The districts are screaming for more resources.  The dire warnings are clear: if the 10-year new graduation requirements are activated, thousands of kids might possibly crash and burn.

Luckily for them, their SOS has been heard.  Well-meaning bureaucrats are lining up like a bucket brigade to douse the fire and put an end to this catastrophe.  Relief will be granted in the form of local control.  Higher expectations for students and accountability for schools all across the state will be abandoned, and, thankfully, no one will get hurt (for now).  Students will once again be eligible to graduate from high school based on rigid non-academic requirements such as attendance.  In Ohio, a high school diploma means they came, therefore, they learned (we hope).

To the casual observer, the path forward the state is taking might make perfect sense.  Kicking the decision-making down to the 4,300 local schools  allows for plausible deniability.  No one wants to see kids fail.  No one.  High school dropout rates are already appalling.  Statistically, kids without diplomas tend to face some future horrific data points: higher levels of unemployment, drug use, and incarceration – the list of bad goes on and on.  However, the idea of giving a kid a meaningless diploma is just as damaging  – at best, it’s indulgent; at worst, it’s a breach of trust.

Even though the political climate has changed dramatically since the Core was passed, our responsibility to students hasn’t.  At the risk of sounding like a left leaning liberal (currently out of vogue), one of the underlining values of the Core was ensuring equity and access to meaningful coursework for all kids.  Without the opportunity to take classes that will get you into college, too many kids, mostly in poor rural and urban areas, are locked out of the game before it even begins.  In 2017, it seems almost unimaginable that we would consider denying our most vulnerable population access to high quality… (never mind).

Protectionism may seem like a good policy in the short term, but handing out cheap credit is the formula for a meltdown (see: Financial Crisis).  At the risk of sounding like a right leaning fiscal conservative (also out of vogue), if the taxpayers are going to invest millions of dollars into the education system, the high school diploma needs to be a highly regarded security, not a worthless paper certificate.  Denying the rapidly accelerating education levels of students in places such as Singapore, China, India, and  ____________ (insert country of choice here) is like ignoring climate change (ok, so maybe this isn’t such a great example).  The facts, alternative or real, are that the basic math of America lowering standards while the rest of the world is increasing them (Hello, Calculus!) won’t add up to America being great again anytime soon.  Worse – it puts our kids at risk on a global scale.

But the most important issue at stake here isn’t just academic – it’s a matter of trust.  High school graduation is a milestone that we, the adults, created.  We are the ones who sign the paper, file the documents, and stamp the transcript.  In the end, we, the adults, are responsible for setting the bar – but the students are the ones who will ultimately be held accountable for the result.

For students, what’s “next” after high school can take many shapes and forms – it might be a job, enrollment in college, an apprenticeship, or even an enlistment to serve our country.  But, as the adults in the room, we should never mistake what’s next for what’s always.   Choices made at 17 should not be life sentences without parole.  All kids are “gifted” when it comes to changing their mind.  It’s our responsibility to ensure they have all the skills necessary to adapt to wherever their journey takes them.  We can debate the merits of statistics versus algebra, but we would be hard pressed to defend complacency.  With each passing year, the economy demands more and our kids deserve better.

In a week, maybe two, a small box will unceremoniously show up on my desk.  Inside, there will be 100+ diplomas from the Metro Early College High School, a small liberal arts STEM school in Columbus.  Each piece of paper within the box is in need of a signature –mine – the Board President   Some may consider this an onerous task, but I think of it as the most important two hours of my year.  Staring down at names of kids I mostly don’t recognize, I’ll be a bit apprehensive, somewhat self-conscious, and a tad more anxious than usual.  I’ve done this drill two or three times in the past and generally know where my name is supposed to go, but the gravity of the circumstance has me a little on edge.   I know the world is flat, but that doesn’t make it even.  With one stroke of a pen, school board presidents all around our state are about to let loose tens of thousands of Ohio’s kids to the rest of the world.  Are they prepared?

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