Rahm Emanuel’s Not-So-Modest Proposal
The new CPS graduation proposal is good in rhetoric, but would be a disaster if enacted.
Mayor of Chicago and commander-in-chief of the Chicago Public Schools, Rahm Emanuel, recently announced a new proposal called “Learn. Plan. Succeed.” This proposal says that in order for high school students to graduate from CPS, they must first obtain an acceptance letter from a college, trade school, job or job program, or the military.
Taken at face value, this may sound like a good idea. Indeed, politicians know that their proposals are supposed to sound good to the public. But on closer inspection, the proposal is deeply problematic. In our ambition to secure greater educational and economic well-being for our children, it is important to look at the implications and repercussions of this policy, rather than taking the proposal on its face and getting swept away in feel-good rhetoric.
There are at least three major problems with the proposal. First, it places more of the burden for improvement on students, schools, and communities at a time when we need more accountability from public officials and our broader society. Second, the policy would force high schoolers to be confident in a post-secondary path too soon in their lives, simply in order to move on and have basic qualifications in the job world. Third, the proposal will widen the inequality of opportunity that already exists by making it even more difficult for struggling students to get a diploma.
Let’s look at the first problem: the burden for improvement. Miles Kampf-Lassin published an article in the Chicago Reader explaining how this proposal would simply make things more difficult for students and families in the context of a school system “struggling to stay afloat”:
“What Emanuel left out was that it’s a bit more difficult to adapt when your school is chronically underfunded and under-resourced, as is the case for the more than half of CPS students who live in predominantly African-American and Latino neighborhoods on the south and west sides.”
Emanuel’s proposal is yet another way for the city to shift more burden onto those who work and learn in the schools, despite the fact that they are not properly being supported in the first place. While teachers and librarians are being laid off, schools closed, programs cut, budgets cut (especially in minority communities), and far fewer social workers are employed than are recommended by their professional organizations, Rahm Emanuel and his hand-picked board once again step in to implore the students and remaining staff to “just try harder.” This is not a real solution, and is just as insulting as it is unrealistic.
The second problem with this proposal concerns the ridiculous implication that in order to move beyond high school, a student must already have decided what he or she intends to do after graduation. While a student under this proposal does not necessarily have to pursue the college or job that accepted him or her, all students will nevertheless have to make a large commitment to this process. This will of course be a hindrance for many students who do not know what they plan to do after high school (not an unreasonable thing, given that the majority of students feel unprepared for life after graduation), but it will be especially destructive in the case of the most struggling, apathetic, and unsupported students. This policy will not “motivate” these students to try harder; it will more likely “motivate” them to give up and drop out sooner.
The third problem has just been implied, but let’s make it clear: everyone who was unsure about finishing high school is now less sure. This is not a difficult prediction to make. One more large and tedious obstacle to graduation almost certainly means that fewer students will graduate.
By “raising the bar” to a ridiculous level and adding another bureaucratic hurdle to graduation — which will be more difficult for struggling students to clear — this new policy will effectively be widening the opportunity gap. Fewer students will graduate, and the reason they will not graduate will be arbitrary and poorly-considered. There is nothing written in the stars that one must know where one is going after high school, and be accepted there, in order to get a high school diploma. This policy is a political decision — a bad political decision — not a “natural” consequence of the needs of the education system, or the economy.
Take a guess where more of the drop-outs will go. These former students will be less likely to get a job, especially a decent paying one, since job prospects are severely limited without a high school diploma. These students will either end up on the street, or they will go into the military — as Emanuel has so generously added as an option for the graduation requirement.
If you’ve heard of the school-to-prison pipeline, there is also a school-to-military pipeline, and both of these pipelines are primarily connected to poor and minority communities. This proposal would speed up that process, and effectively force many young people to put their lives on the line because they were not born into the right community.
If there is a precedent for Emanuel’s graduation proposal, it is rare — and for good reason. The proposal is bold in that it seems to be based on zero evidence, and it’s such a terrible idea that nobody else has tried it. Merely claiming that it is an “evidence-based proposal” — as was stated in the press release — does not make it so. The evidence was not cited, probably because it hardly exists.
If it does exist, I urge Mayor Emanuel and his colleagues to release it. That will allow for the evidence to be scrutinized by educators and scholars, and then we can let the public evaluate for themselves. I doubt there will be any such scientific and transparent process, however, based on the way school reform has proceeded in Chicago and elsewhere.
Miles Kampf-Lassin writes that though Emanuel rationalizes this policy as motivational, it is actually “more punitive than it is motivational.” Indeed, this is one major trend of politics-driven education reform over the past several decades: a fundamental confusion of punishment with motivation. Threat of punishment has long been discredited through the social sciences as a good form of motivation, and it is a kind of “motivation” that interferes with learning and ethical behavior. That sounds like the opposite of what we want when it comes to motivating students and teachers.
Chicago citizens must continue to push for an elected school board so that we don’t have to rely on people like Rahm Emanuel and his friends to offer legitimate proposals based on evidence, empathy, and sound thinking. There is a long list of legitimate, “evidence-based” reforms that we could use to improve our schools — and the future prospects for our children — if only it were elected community leaders who were making the decisions.
And of course, it is still possible and admirable to encourage high schoolers to apply for future positions — without making that a requirement to attain a basic high school diploma.