Putting Graduates Under ‘Warranty’ Gains Favor in Districts and States

By Meg Sommerfeld — January 15, 1992 13 min read

An increasing number of school districts, as well as a handful of states, are seeking to restore public and business confidence in education by issuing “warranties” on their graduates.

Under such policies--which some observers dismiss as low-cost public- relations gimmicks--schools promise to take graduates back for remediation if their employers find them lacking in certain requisite skills.

At least 50 school districts have adopted the guarantees since the idea surfaced in the late 1980’s, according to Melodye Bush, an information specialist at Education Commission of the States. At least two states, West Virginia and Colorado, are implementing warranty programs on a statewide basis, and a number of others, including New Jersey and Indiana, have policies under consideration.

The concept attracted new attention last November, when Superintendent William R. Anton of the Los Angeles Unified School District announced that the district, the nation’s second largest, would guarantee the skills of its graduates starting with the class of 1994. (See Education Week, Nov. 13, 1991.)

The country’s largest school district, the New York City system, will decide by the end of the current academic year whether to introduce a similar initiative, Kim Bohen, a spokesman for Schools Chancellor Joseph A. Fernandez, said last month.

Such moves are most important as a “frontal assault on the erosion of confidence” in public schools, suggested Theodore Mitchell, a visiting education professor at Stafford University.

“Externally, it restores confidence that schools are paying attention to the quality of education,” he said. “Internally, it really causes teachers, principals, and others to take a second look at that kid on his or her way out the door and ask, is this the one that’s going to be fed back?

“If that’s the fact,” Mr. Mitchell continued, “it’s quite likely that they’re going to take remedial action before the fact rather than after.”

But Mr. Mitchell warned that a skills warranty is potentially “a very risk-free promise for schools.”

He noted that “it would take a very remarkable employer who’s looking at substandard performance with an employee ... to choose to send that kid back to school and bear the cost of labor forgone, rather than just fire him and get someone else.”

School-to-Work Transition

Diploma warranties are one of several ideas advanced in recent years as ways of encouraging higher skills levels and easing the school-to-work transition for students who enter the labor market soon after high school.

Oregon, for example, last year adopted a plan requiting students, by age 16, to earn a “certificate of initial mastery"as a prelude to vocational training or college-preparatory study.

And a system called Worklink, now being pilot tested in Pasadena, Calif., and Tampa, Fla., is aiming to give students’ high-school achievements a more prominent place in hiring decisions by packaging the information in a coherent way for prospective employers.

Already, a diverse range of communities have embraced the warranty approach, from Wayzata, Minn., an affluent Minneapolis suburb that sends 80 percent of its graduates to college, to Rockford, Ill., where 70 percent of students graduating from the district’s only high school enter the workforce immediately.

Some districts offering the guarantees do not promise anything beyond a student’s basic ability to read, write, and perform routine mathematical calculations.

Others have drawn up explicit checklists of the skills covered, including a more sophisticated repertoire of abilities. Such programs may obligate students to demonstrate mastery of computer technology, the ability to solve problems in teams, and skill in locating information and other resources.

In Los Angeles, for example, the guarantee program will be based on a detailed set of job competencies identified by the U.S. Labor Secretary’s Commission on Achieving Necessary Skills, or SCANS.

Similarly, while some policies guarantee all graduates, others mandate that, in addition to course requirements, students meet minimum attendance and behavior standards in order to be covered by the warranty.

The “expiration dates” for the guarantees range from one year after graduation to lifetime warranties.

Statewide Programs

Colorado and West Virginia are believed to be the first states to call on districts statewide to enact warranty plans.

In late 1988, the Colorado Board of Education adopted a goal calling on all districts in the state to offer warranties on their graduates by July 1995. As of last month, 17 out of 176 districts had implemented the guarantees, according to Erlinda Archuleta, the field-services director for the state education department.

West Virginia’s state board adopted a policy in 1990 requiring all schools in its 55 counties to guarantee the skills of graduates earning “certificates of proficiency.” Proficiency levels for the certificates are currently determined locally, but the beard may ultimately introduce statewide standards, said Keith Smith, an assistant state superintendent of education.

“I think [the warranty program] is going to improve the relationship between education and business and industry,” Mr. Smith said. “I think there will be a better level of confidence in the product, and I think there will be a better product.”

In both Colorado and West Virginia, the warranties spell out on a line-item basis what level of mastery students have achieved in every subject, according to local standards.

West Virginia’s certificates of proficiency, for instance, summarize in transcript-like form all courses taken in grades 9-12, grade point average, rank in class, attainment of computer literacy, attendance records, extracurricular activities, and special competencies a student might have, Mr. Smith said.

‘Out of Touch With Reality’

Since even the oldest warranty programs, which began appearing in 1987 and 1988, are still in their relative infancy, little research is available to document their effectiveness.

In the absence of such data, critics say the programs are at best an empty public-relations gesture"particularly in a time of stringent budgets.

Teacher leaders in Los Angeles have been especially fierce in attacking Superintendent Anton’s warranty initiative.

Helen Bernstein, the president of United Teachers-Los Angeles, issued a statement characterizing the plan as a headline-grabbing “Frankenstein’s monster” and the “ravings of someone out of touch with reality.”

The plan contains “lofty goals,” but lacks any indication of how they will be met or who will finance them, the union’s communications director, Catherine Carey, added in an interview. Warranties are a “pie in the sky,” she said.

Over the past two years, Ms. Carey noted, the state has cut more than $500 million from the budget of the Los Angeles schools, despite the socioeconomic deprivation and language barriers that confront many of the system’s 625,000 students.

“A lot of the students we lose before they graduate anyway,” Ms. Carey said, observing that the warranties would not cover students who drop out.

But Gabriel Cortina, an assistant superintendent of the Los Angeles district, expressed confidence in the program’s potential. “We can deliver it,” he said.

In the three years before the warranties take effect, Mr. Cortina expects the district to undergo “massive restructuring,” redesigning its curriculum and revamping its adult-education and job-training programs.

In a much smaller district--the 9,000-student Plymouth-Carver, Mass., system--the introduction of a warranty policy met with a considerably more favorable reaction from the local teachers’ union.

The district’s superintendent, Bernard Sidman, was not sure how his staff would react when he introduced the policy in 1989. He found, however, that the Plymouth-Carver union viewed the policy as a “vote of confidence” in the district’s teachers, according to Jane Russell, the union’s president.

For those who label such warranties a publicity stunt, Mr. Sidman said, “My response to that is, what is wrong with positive P.R. when in reality there is something we can be called upon to deliver if someone wanted us to?”

Publicity for Programs

While schools say the warranties can help motivate students to study harder, in some cases students are not even aware the programs exist.

Denise Forster, a senior at Minnesota’s Wayzata High School, had never heard of her district’s warranty policy, approved nearly five years ago, until a guidance counselor asked her last month if she wanted to be interviewed about it.

“I just found out about it today,” Ms. Forster said in the interview. Nevertheless, she said she felt it was a positive program that would give students “something to fall back on.”

Schools have undertaken a variety of measures to publicize the warranties to students and to businesses. Harlem High School in Rockford,

Ill., featured local employers in promotional videos that were broadcast on the school’s closed-circuit television show. In the Prince George’s County, Md. schools, the program’s coordinator, Delores Brown, is seeking to increase the business community’s awareness through the chamber of commerce, civic organizations, and cable-television advertisements.

Boost for U.S. Industry?

Much of the blame for the decline in the United States’ economic performance has been placed on the failure of education to keep pace with changing demands of industry, and some educators see diploma warranties as a means of addressing this criticism.

“As the economy has become more dependent on wide literacy, existing failures of the system that have been with us for a while become more visible as those job requirements have changed,” said Mr. Mitchell, the Stafford visiting professor.

Numerous administrators involved in warranty policies echoed similar sentiments about the national indictment of American education’s shortcomings. Most, though, did not cite local dissatisfaction as playing a pivotal role in the development of their warranty programs.

In fact, the administrators generally said they offered warranties because they felt confident about the existing condition of their schools.

But Mike Moses, the superintendent of schools in Lubbock, Tex., conceded that his schools were responding to local dissatisfaction.

“Our employers of our vocational students were concerned” about their level of preparation, Mr. Moses said, and so Lubbock instituted a “promise” for its vocational graduates. About 47 percent of Lubbock’s graduates enter the workforce upon graduation.

“Basically, this was an offer of cooperation,” Mr. Moses said. “We are willing to go the extra mile to demonstrate to employers that the schools recognize that they have a responsibility in helping ensure a quality workforce in this community.”

Rating ‘Attitudes’

Brian Howard, the vice president of human resources at Ingersoll Milling Machine Company, near Rockford, Ill., said there was “no question that people are less and less qualified coming out of high school.”

In an attempt to restore the confidence of executives like Mr. Howard, administrators at Rockford’s Harlem High School developed a warranty with three elements they viewed as central to an entry- level employee’s success: punctuality, a positive work ethic, and the ability to learn about and adapt to changing technology.

In order to receive a “certificate of employability,” Harlem High students must not only complete 24 academic courses, they also cannot be absent more than an average of six days each school year.

In addition, students receive “attitude” rankings, ranging from 1 to 5, in every course; they must attain a cumulative average of 4 in the attitude ratings by the end of their senior years. Among the qualities the ratings assess are promptness, effort, honesty, cooperation, responsibility, quality of work, and initiative.

In Harlem High’s class of 1991, the first to be backed by a warranty, 36 percent qualified for the certificate. Nelson Pyle, the school’s principal, acknowledged that a significant percentage of those receiving certificates were high-achieving, college-bound seniors--not necessarily the graduates who needed the credential the most.

But he noted that several students who graduated near the top of the class did not receive certificates, because of absenteeism.

The Harlem High program has found advocates in several Rockford employers, including Mr. Howard at Ingersoll Milling. He has promised that the only Harlem High graduates his company will hire are those with the certificates.

Christine Walder, a Harlem High senior, views the warranty as a useful marketing tool. “When you go for an interview, it will look better,” she said. “Students on the whole thought it was a good idea.”

A recent graduate, Tonya Ross, said she believed that listing the certificate on her resume helped her get hired as a doctor’s receptionist by giving her an edge over the 50 other applicants for the job.

So far, few school systems have encountered more than two or three “redemptions,” if any, of graduates deemed unsatisfactory by employers.

The Prince George’s County schools in Maryland have certified some 9,000 graduates, probably the largest number by any one regional program, since the policy took effect with the class of 1989, and have only received two complaints, according to Ms. Brown, the program coordinator. Both were regarding the graduates’ attitude or appearance rather than academic skills, she said. In both cases, the former students chose to leave their jobs rather than return to school.

Remedial Mechanisms in Place

Despite the paucity of inquiries from businesses about returning unsatisfactory workers, most schools currently offering warranties have mechanisms for remediation in place should the need arise. Most would allow students to continue working during retraining, which would be provided either through existing evening adult-education classes or independent tutoring sessions.

Remediation may prove more challenging in larger districts like Los Angeles Unified, however.

“Our adult-education program is already stretched to the max; we don’t have an extra penny,” said Ms. Carey of the Los Angeles teachers’ union. "[Superintendent Anton’s] saying we’re fine, we’re wonderful, and we can do even more with less money.”

The district’s administration is making an active effort to obtain additional funding from state, federal, and corporate sources, according to Assistant Superintendent Cortina. In the meantime, he said, the district hopes to develop “alternative ways to expose our students [to technology and workforce skills] through experiences in the private sector.”

Ms. Archuleta of the Colorado education department acknowledged that large urban districts may face greater challenges than smaller and less diverse districts in instituting diploma guarantees. But she also said it is essential that all schools sot high goals, regardless of demographics and any accompanying disadvantages.

‘Lever for Change’

If challenging standards are part of districts’ warranty packages, added John Bishop, an associate professor at Cornell University’s Center for Advanced Human Resource Studies, the policies can have a positive impact.

“I think this is a lever for bringing about other change ,” he said. “It creates a mechanism for employers to communicate back to schools, and it creates some signal to youths that they need to study hard to develop these competencies ... so they can get a better job.”

Many educators believe it will take several more years to evaluate the impact of the warranty programs.

“In the long run, people are going to believe in [them] not so much by what they say, but by how they back up what they say,” said Tom Brody, the director of elementary and secondary curriculum in Minnesota’s Wayzata district.

Administrators hope the warranties’ main impact will be building greater confidence in their schools. “I don’t hear local complaints anymore about accountability,” said Mr. Sidman of the Plymouth-Carver schools in Massachusetts. “That alone is worth it.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 15, 1992 edition of Education Week as Putting Graduates Under ‘Warranty’ Gains Favor in Districts and States