What good is a high-school diploma these days? The educational establishment appears to grade the country’s graduating seniors on a very twisted curve. A few years ago, politicians were decrying low graduation rates, high schools as “dropout factories” pushing kids out into lifetimes of poverty, joblessness, and wasted potential.
Now the curve has apparently shifted, according to The New York Times; in light of rising graduation rates in recent years, education experts—presumably those who previously worried about low high school completion rates—now worry this seemingly good news is actually meaningless because diplomas are losing their “value.” According to a report by Motoko Rich, the fact that more students than ever are finishing high school, while “measures of academic readiness for college or jobs” remain relatively low, “has led educators to question…whether graduation requirements are too easy.”
So while graduation rates steadily tick up, should we suspect a shifting of the academic goal post? Is someone shortchanging families—perhaps struggling schools or education officials hoping to avoid bad ratings, or overly accommodating teachers using “social promotion” to shepherd through hopeless pupils?
Rich cites some “business leaders” expressing alarm that state graduation requirements “vary in rigor,” sometimes lacking key courses like Algebra II, and that “a state’s graduation rate may not match how many students graduate ready for college and careers.” The research cited comes from Achieve Inc., a think tank spearheaded by said business leaders (funders include ExxonMobil, Intel Foundation, and JPMorgan Chase Foundation). It seems they are very alarmed by a lack of qualified job applicants.
But other analyses of the academic data, by the left-leaning think tank Economic Policy Institute (EPI) and independent economist Joydeep Roy, place the modern diploma in a more complex economic frame. First, while Achieve compares various states’ graduation criteria, as EPI President Lawrence Mishel explains, “none of their comparisons are historical, showing a change from an earlier period.” Yet historical trendlines suggest that skills required in high-school curricula today might often exceed those the job market demands—linked in part to the so-called “deskilling” of certain conventional trades, which some economists argue is pushing highly trained workers “down the occupational ladder” (read: baristas with BAs). If there is a gap in qualifications, it seems to center on overqualified workers who can’t find positions commensurate with their credentials. (By the way, the same research reveals steadily rising portions of high schoolers taking Algebra II, along with calculus, chemistry, and physics—so maybe it’s not the school system that lacks rigor but the labor market).