Recently, Education Next, published quarterly by the Hoover Institution, Stanford University, is also sponsored by Program on Education Policy and Governance, Harvard University and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, examined how the Common Core State Standards might impact high school diplomas in the coming years in a piece titled, “Rethinking the High School Diploma.” Through this series, the three authors called for a two-tiered high school diploma. The authors of the essays were Chester E. Finn, Jr., distinguished senior fellow at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute; Richard D. Kahlenberg, author of the definitive autobiography of Albert Shanker; and Sandy Kress, advisor to President George W. Bush on the No Child Left Behind Act.
To establish context for the pieces written by Finn, Kahlenburg, and Kress, here is the online introduction to the essays:
“As states move to implement the Common Core State Standards, key challenges remain. One is how to make sure a high school diploma acknowledges what students have achieved. Should states adopt a two-tiered diploma, in which students who pass internationally aligned Common Core exams at a career- and college-ready level receive an “academic” diploma, while students who fail to meet that bar receive a “basic” diploma? Yes, say three prominent thinkers who have long wrestled with questions of standards, testing, equity, and excellence.”
I wanted to make sure there was context for the authors’ collective call for a two-tiered diploma. This, admittedly, is a difficult issue to wrestle with because it touches on many of the bedrock notions of today’s education policy. Even though the essays are collectively well argued and well written, this is fundamentally a policy idea that I do not support for four specific reasons.
1. Equity: First and foremost, in the United States we need to have a system of education based on providing equity for all. It is, in my mind, the principal role of the federal government is education, since it is the only real silver bullet for defeating poverty in our country. Furthermore, Finn offers, “I expect howls of protest from those who cannot accept anything more than a single standard for all.” To be a competitive nation in today’s economy we need all of our students on track to be college and career ready. It is important to note that Kahlenburg at least offers that we need to “support low-income and minority students to earn stronger diplomas. Any system involving multiple diplomas raises a very legitimate concern: will low-income and minority students disproportionately receive a less-well-regarded degree?” He is correct. We need to make sure that we have the right supports in place for all students but especially low-income, minority populations.
Kress writes, “States should adopt a two-tiered diploma system, in which students who have demonstrated college and career readiness receive a ’diploma plus’ and other graduating high-school students receive a diploma of the sort typically granted today.” I understand where he is coming from. The new standards are more difficult and we should reward those students that achieve at higher levels. I don’t disagree with the sentiment but what is proposed would lead to tracking of students towards a college and career ready diploma and others into a lesser valued, basic diploma. This is essentially two separate systems with unequal outcomes. It is important to note that this is not about political correctness but rather about what’s right for our children and our nation. Higher educational standards are about raising the bar for all students, not just some.
2. High-standard implementation: A two-tiered diploma system undermines the implementation of high standards for all students. Finn argues, “The Common Core is supposed to solve that problem by producing generations of high school graduates who are truly college ready. How can that happen unless the K–12 system radically alters what high school diplomas signify?” This does not make sense to me. We honestly do not know yet what type of high school graduates the Common Core or other high standards (e.g. VA and TX) will create. We can hypothesize, and I think correctly, that we will have higher achieving, better prepared graduates but we are still early in the process. Finn continues, “What to do? In my view, states have no alternative, for the foreseeable future, to issuing (at least) two kinds of diplomas. The one with the gold star will signal college readiness, Common Core style. The other one will signal much the same as today’s conventional diploma, mainly that one has passed a set of mandatory courses to the satisfaction of those teaching them.” But this undermines the underpinnings of implementing high standards for all. With a two-tier system it quickly becomes high standards for some. Yes, it’s demanding. Yes, it is hard (an argument advanced by Diane Ravitch last year). But it is again the right thing to do and a two-tier system undercuts the purpose of implementing high standards as well as the good work being done by teachers across the country.
3. Implementation timing: Fundamentally, it is too early in the implementation of higher standards for all to wave the white flag. Kress writes, “The current diploma in most states today is not designed to assure or signify, nor does it come close to assuring or signifying, college and career readiness.” He goes on to say that we know this from data on remediation rates in colleges and universities, surveys of employers, etc. Finn also argues, “Today, far less than half of U.S. 12th graders are “college ready.” (Never mind those who have already dropped out of high school.) The National Assessment Governing Board estimates not quite 40 percent are college ready. The ACT folks estimate 26 percent are college ready across the four subjects that comprise their suite of questions.” They are both correct but these are the arguments that were used to implement the Common Core and increase standards in Texas and Virginia. The standards (Common Core or otherwise) are still in the early stages of implementation. To say that these higher standards are not yet reaping benefits is short-sighted at best and illogical at worst. We know that when standards are first rolled out, test scores dip; but with refined implementation, data analysis, and curriculum alignment, scores begin to take off.
4. Global competitiveness: A two-tiered high school diploma weakens our nation’s global competitiveness. Kress correctly argues, “the future of our young people and indeed the economy of our nation require that an ever-increasing number of our graduates exit high school ready for college and career. We have considerable data on the knowledge and skills now generally required to get the better-paying, fast-growing jobs in the economy.” However, a two-tiered diploma system would actually undermine our nation’s ability to be globally competitive. We know that for our nation to be even more competitive globally (both educationally and economically), we need more graduates that are college and career ready. We know that we need more low-income, minority students graduating college and career ready. We are shifting, in many parts of this country, to a minority majority. The demographic shift along with the move to college and career ready standards begins to put the right pieces in place for the United States to address both the achievement gap as well as the global gap. A two-tiered system undercuts that traction and our ability, as a nation, to compete globally.
I appreciate the views of the authors and their courage to put forth a controversial idea. I believe that a two-tiered system would be easier and more expedient (both in practice and policy) but it would dramatically undercut our ability to educate all our students at the highest level and undermine our collective global competitiveness.