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Making Diplomas Matter


May 02, 2008

Leading educators say our high schools are in trouble, so they are proposing higher and grander standards for our teenagers.

Hartford, if you can believe it, wants to set the bar higher than the state of Connecticut does.

I don't know whether raising standards is the answer when many students can't meet the demands we make now. But no doubt there's a heck of a problem because we need capable college graduates more than ever before.

The painful truth is that for many students, the high school diploma is a fraudulent document. College, in turn, becomes a costly tutoring session.

We spend almost $11 million a year trying to bring incoming students up to speed for college-level course work in our state schools, according to the state Department of Education. In 2005, there were nearly 20,000 students attending community college and in the state university system in need of remedial help.

That's 20,000 who didn't learn what they were supposed to learn in the 12 years before college. How many companies will want to hire these young people?

"Our biggest issue is developmental education. We have under-prepared students trying to enter college," said Marc S. Herzog, chancellor of Connecticut's community college system.

Among incoming community college students last fall, 63 percent were behind in at least one course area, a figure that matches national numbers. At the four schools that make up the state university system, about 44 percent of incoming freshmen in 2007 were recommended for remedial classes in English or math, a spokesman said.

This means we have thousands of high school "graduates" that can't cut it in one or more college-level courses.

When I read recently that this is the first modern generation where those entering the work force have less education than those edging toward retirement, I couldn't believe it. I called Higher Education Commissioner Michael Meotti to ask if this could possibly be true.

It is. Among industrialized countries, middle-aged folks in the United States are more likely to have the most basic education a high school diploma than those in their 20s and early 30s. Frightening.

These are the people we are counting on to pay for Social Security for all those soon-to-retire Baby Boomers.

"It is not sufficient that high schools do a really good job with their top 25 percent of students. Any community in Connecticut fools themselves if they think they are exempt from this phenomenon," Meotti said. "You are not doing anybody a favor with a diploma that says they finished high school if they don't know what they should know."

Both Hartford and the state want to increase the number of credits needed for graduation. Students would also have to pass end-of-course exams for classes. Ultimately, this means denying a diploma to those who don't pass.

"We don't have the workforce with the skills that we need," said Education Commissioner Mark K. McQuillan. "It's huge and people don't see it."

"Everyone thinks they are leaving high school with the skills equipped to do the work. They don't," McQuillan said. "We have not established a common standard across Connecticut a common set of expectations. You raise the standards for everyone and you make it accountable. Everyone has to move to a higher standard."

You can be sure this will cost plenty, money politicians tell us we don't have. It will mean, as Chancellor Herzog explained to me, rethinking college and high school.

It will require a uniform statewide high school curriculum, a radical idea in a parochial state where many think this should be left to the whim of dozens of different boards of education.

All this is controversial. So is graduating thousands of high school seniors every year who aren't prepared.

Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant. To view other stories on this topic, search the Hartford Courant Archives at http://www.courant.com/archives.
| Last update: September 25, 2012 |
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