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Really, Rahm? The Chicago mayor’s newest far-fetched plan for high schools.

Students on campus at Morgan Park High School after classes were dismissed May 9 in Chicago. (Joshua Lott for The Washington Post)

When Chicago officials recently announced their new “Learn. Plan. Succeed initiative” — which requires any student who wants a high school diploma to prove they have a plan for life after high school — they called it, to be exact, “an evidence-based proposal that is the first of its kind in the country.”

So what’s the evidence?

And is it really the first of its kind in the country?

As my Post colleague Emma Brown wrote in this article about the new graduation requirement for Chicago students, seniors must provide written proof  of a plan after high school with one of these options:

  • College acceptance letter
  • Military acceptance/enlistment letter
  • Acceptance at a job program (e.g. coding bootcamp)
  • Acceptance into a trades pre-apprenticeship/apprenticeship
  • Acceptance into a “gap-year” program
  • Current job/job offer letter

The Chicago Board of Education recently approved the plan by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and the requirement is set to start with the Class of 2020.

Officials say that young people should start to think about life after high school far earlier than the day after graduation and that schools should help them through the planning process.

There is, of course nothing wrong and a lot right with schools helping students look ahead, set educational and post-education goals and then plan a route to get there. Though young students shouldn’t be expected to write down in stone what they want to do after high school and college, learning about possibilities and courses of action could be an important exercise for many students who don’t get such support at home.

The question is whether school districts, and in this specific case, Chicago, plan to provide schools with the resources to engage in meaningful planning. Emanuel wants students to provide proof that they have something to do — within parameters — when they leave high school. But that requires planning, and Chicago public schools aren’t exactly filled with counselors who can help young people plan their futures. A 2016 article published by the 74 found that Chicago is one of the big-city school districts that has more security staff than counselors. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of one counselor for every 250 students, though in Illinois, there was one counselor for every 701 students in 2013-2014, the latest available data period.

Is Emanuel planning to spend money to hire more counselors? Well, this is what the mayor’s office said about that in its news release about the new plan:

In 2013, CPS began training staff to obtain the Chicago College Advising Credential (CCAC), which will best equip staff to support concrete post-secondary plans, with a goal ensuring every high school has a certified counselor or coach. To date, roughly 40 percent of school counselors have obtained this certification and as part of this initiative, CPS will ensure all counselors have the training. Working with the Mayor, CPS is raising the approximately $1 million in funding from the philanthropic and business communities to accelerate this training.

That says counselors will be trained, not that there will be more counselors. I asked Chicago officials for more specifics and will publish them if/when I get them.

As for the evidence that Chicago said backs up the program, this is what a school district sent in an email:

Here are some of the relevant findings:
  • CPS students who aspire to complete a four-year degree do not effectively participate in the college application process.

  • Attending a high school with a strong college going culture shapes students’ participation in the college application process.

  • Filing a FAFSA and applying to multiple colleges shape students’ likelihood of being accepted to and enrolling in a four-year college.

  • Among the most highly qualified students, having discussions on post-secondary planning and having strong connections to teachers is particularly important in shaping the likelihood of enrolling in a match school.

The findings do address issues with the college application process, but they say nothing about the particular approach of the new program. And as critics have pointed out, all Chicago high school graduates can attend community college, so any student could simply apply, get accepted, show the proof, pick up their diploma and then not attend. Simply showing proof of a post-graduation plan is not the same as a serious, multi-year planning process. Critics of the plan have said the plan shows that Emanuel is out of touch with many of the people he represents.

Despite Chicago’s claim of being the first school district to do this, Washington state has had a similar (though not identical) process of career-planning for students since 2010 — and it goes far beyond what Emanuel is proposing.

In Washington state, students must start working on a “High School and Beyond Plan” in middle school, which, according to the state education department, is a series of documents “designed to help students think about their future and choose coursework that prepares them for their goals after high school.” These plans — which started with the Class of 2008 — include over time such things as:

  • Identification of career and life goals through a career interest inventory.
  • Identification of educational goals in a personalized pathway in support of career interest.
  • A four-year course plan for high school aligned with post-secondary plans.
  • Identification of assessments needed to earn a diploma and achieve post-secondary goals.

The Tacoma school district went further than the rest of the state, starting an additional process in 2013 called the Verified Acceptance of Next Institution, requiring students to show acceptances to a two- or four-year school, vocational school, degree program, military, trade apprenticeship, job, gap-year program or other plan.

Brandon Ervin, a college and career readiness official in the Tacoma Public Schools district,  said students who choose to do nothing high school can still get their diploma if they complete the other requirements but that the program has helped propel graduation rates from 55 percent in 2010 to 86 percent.

Did Chicago officials talk to Takoma officials about their process? Chicago officials did not respond to the query, and Tacoma officials say they don’t know anybody who got a call.

Chicago won’t allow high school students to graduate without a plan for the future

Chicago’s mayor got the idea, apparently, from former Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who served for seven years in the Obama administration and before that headed Chicago Public Schools. Duncan wrote in an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune in April:

For low-income kids, however, those work experiences don’t just happen naturally. That’s where the schools and society have to step up. To give every single student in Chicago a better chance, we need to invest in our schools and our counseling programs. We need to make life-planning as much a part of high school as English, math, sports and the arts.
Some people worry that raising graduation standards will cause more young people to drop out, but they’re wrong. Young people don’t drop out because school is too hard. They drop out because it is too easy and they are not engaged. They don’t understand how it’s relevant to their lives.

Let’s forget the part about young people dropping out of school because it is too easy; that isn’t supported by research about high school dropouts. How about the part about investing “in our schools and our counseling programs?”  The real question is whether Chicago’s plan actually raises graduation standards — and gives students a useful opportunity to prepare for their future — or just puts one more hurdle in front of students to jump through.