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Chicago's Graduation Requirement: Planning Ahead for Success

“What are you going to when you’re done with school?”

Every high school student is inevitably asked at some point about their plans for when they graduate. Will they go to college? Get a job? Enter a trade school or apprenticeship? But, while many students have planned ahead one, four, even 10 years, others leave school unsure of what their next move will be.

Now, one major school system is making future plans a requirement for high school graduation.

As the Washington Post reports, last week Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that city high school seniors will be required to prove that they’ve obtained a job or have been accepted to a college or university, trade school or apprenticeship, the military, or some other gap year program before receiving their diploma from any city public high school.

The plan, which was approved by the Chicago Board of Education back in May, has stirred up controversy among education and community leaders throughout the city.

While plan supporters applaud the effort to make sure students are prepared for life after school, critics question how such a requirement can be realistically implemented and say the district isn’t doing enough to support students for it to work.

Planning ahead

“We are going to help kids have a plan,” Mayor Emanuel said during his announcement, “because they’re going to need it to succeed. You cannot have kids think that 12th grade is done.”

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When Chicago’s new graduation requirement takes effect in 2020, it will be the first of its kind in any major-city school system. Will other districts adopt similar requirements? Time will tell, but the new strategy raises questions about the definition of school and student success.

The trend toward future planning is also showing up in new state accountability plans for the federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

Across the board, schools, districts, and states are increasingly looking beyond traditional education metrics, such as grades and standardized tests, to propose new measures of success.

Empty promises?

Critics of Chicago’s new graduation requirement say the rule exacerbates the very problem it’s intended to fix.

The plan targets students who do not have the proper support at home to effectively plan for their future. Skeptics say sweeping budget cuts, which have reduced the number of teachers and school counselors in the district, make it nearly impossible to give students the personal support they need.

As Karen Lewis, the president of the Chicago Teachers Union told the Washington Post:

“It sounds good on paper, but the problem is that when you’ve cut the number of counselors in schools, when you’ve cut the kind of services that kids need, who is going to do this work? If you’ve done the work to earn a diploma, then you should get a diploma. Because if you don’t, you are forcing kids into more poverty.”

Chicago’s new future planning requirement represents an intriguing experiment into the very definition of student achievement. We’ll have to wait until 2020 to see if it fulfills its goal of inspiring success beyond high school.

What do you think of Chicago’s new future-ready plan? What steps is your school or district taking to equip students for life after school? Tell us in the comments.