College & Workforce Readiness

Can Requiring a Post-Graduation Plan Motivate Students? Chicago Thinks So.

By Evie Blad — April 17, 2017 4 min read
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“What are you doing after graduation?” High school students may grow weary of such inevitable questions from family and friends, or anxiety-ridden as they contemplate their college or career decisions. But now, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel has proposed requiring students to report more formally on their post-graduation plans in order to get their diplomas.

Emanuel has proposed a new graduation requirement for the city’s high school students: a letter of acceptance to a college or university or proof of employment, military enlistment, or participation in a gap-year program.

If the nation’s third-largest school system implements the plan, it would be breaking new ground. While many districts work to educate students about post-graduation options and to track their experiences, no major school system asks students for tangible proof of their future plans.

“High school graduation is a milestone, not a destination,” Emanuel said when he announced the proposal with school leaders.

The plan—called Learn. Plan. Succeed—would include extra training for school counselors in helping students complete college and career planning. It is designed to help students be more future-minded, which will lead to more engagement in school, Chicago officials say. If adopted by the school board, it would first apply to 2020 graduates.

Carrots vs. Sticks

The proposal faced pushback from critics who argued that it is too heavy-handed, and that some students, particularly those from low-income families, would have a harder time securing college acceptance or employment before graduation. Chicago schools may not have enough support staff or other resources to properly engage and support some students as they plot a post-graduation path, those critics said.

“Perhaps the mayor could try some carrot approaches rather than using a stick,” Joni Finney, the director of the Institute for Research on Higher Education at the University of Pennsylvania, said in a statement.

Finney suggested that, rather than new graduation mandates, the schools should offer acknowledgments of college acceptance on students’ diplomas, work-study opportunities to give them professional exposure in high school, and other incentives.

Emanuel’s proposal was met with support from people like former U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, who served in the Obama administration with Emanuel and previously led the Chicago schools.

“To give every single student in Chicago a better chance, we need to invest in our schools and our counseling programs,” Duncan wrote in an opinion piece in the Chicago Tribune. “We need to make life-planning as much a part of high school as English, math, sports, and the arts.”

Chicago has been increasingly concerned with students’ post-graduation lives. The system tracks students’ college-going rates and their persistence in degree programs. Emanuel also set a goal last year that by 2019, at least half of students will graduate with at least one college or career credential, such as a dual-enrollment or Advanced Placement credit. About 40 percent of graduates have such credentials now.

Learn. Plan. Succeed. was designed with input from district leaders and principals, said Alan Mather, the chief officer of Chicago’s office of college and career success.

About 60 percent of Chicago high school graduates already provide proof of postgraduate planning, he said, and the new proposal is designed to close the gap.

The plan includes using $1 million in philanthropic contributions to help all school counselors earn a district-developed college-career-advising credential. About 40 percent of counselors have the credential, Mather said.

Schools would also add a new indicator to their accountability rating that tracks what percentage of graduates have completed college and career planning, he said. Every Chicago student who is on track to graduate is given admission to the City Colleges of Chicago, he said, giving them an accessible option for post graduation.

“We don’t anticipate that this will be a barrier to students,” Mather said. “In fact, we think it will be an impetus to really come up with a plan.”

Student Engagement

Schools around the country have increasingly have sought to use discussions of college and career as tools for engagement in the classroom.

Discussing college and careers can affect student motivation, but schools must match that talk with resources and supports that help students take the tangible steps necessary to reach their goals, said Mesmin Destin, an associate professor of psychology and education at Northwestern University, in nearby Evanston, Ill.

“Young people are constantly picking up on cues about what kind of future is going to be available to them,” he said.Destin has found that giving 7th grade students information about the college financial aid that may be available to them in the future can affect their school engagement in the meantime.

“Just telling kids what they need to do is not the same as providing context and support to make that vision a reality,” he said.

Destin didn’t weigh in specifically on Chicago’s plan.

The most important question Chicago should ask about its proposal is how students will perceive it, said Gregory Walton, an associate professor of psychology at Stanford University who studies student motivation.

Researchers have found that students are driven to rise to high expectations if they have a sense that adults in their school believe in their potential and if they see school as a supportive and fair place.

“It’s not simply about stating a high expectation,” Walton said. “It’s also about showing students that you really think they can meet those expectations and that you are creating a system where that is possible. That’s where they can really thrive.”

Coverage of learning mindsets and skills is supported in part by a grant from the Raikes Foundation, at www.raikesfoundation.org. Education Week retains sole editorial control over the content of this coverage.
A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2017 edition of Education Week as Chicago Wants to Know Students’ College, Career Plans

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