Public Education’s ‘Broken Promise’

Published May 1, 2004

The underlying promise of the nation’s commitment to free K-12 education is to give everyone a shot at the American Dream by providing each child with the opportunity to acquire the skills and knowledge needed to meet the demands of the adult world. The award of a high school diploma long has been viewed as marking an American youth as “ready for college and work.”

That’s no longer the case, according to a two-year study by the American Diploma Project (ADP), a coalition of three education policy groups: Achieve, Inc., The Education Trust, and the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation.

“For too many graduates, the American high school diploma signifies only a broken promise,” the report declares in its opening paragraph. “While students and their parents may still believe that the diploma reflects adequate preparation for the intellectual demands of adult life, in reality it falls far short of this common sense goal.”

The report, titled “Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma that Counts,” focuses on those students who successfully earn high school diplomas and go on to seek employment in the workplace or pursue a college degree. Their high school success appears somewhat counterfeit when the report reveals employers and postsecondary institutions regard a high school diploma “as little more than a certificate of attendance,” not intellectual attainment.

The three ADP sponsors call for anchoring high school graduation requirements to the knowledge and skills that colleges and employers say is needed for young people to succeed in their institutions. To help make that happen, the ADP partnership worked for two years with high school teachers, college professors, and employers to develop a set of benchmarks to describe that knowledge and skill set for English and mathematics. The benchmarks are part of the report.

“When all kids get the same, rigorous high school curriculum, we know that poor and minority students can more than hold their own in college,” said Education Trust Director Kati Haycock. “Through ADP, we now know just as definitively what it would take for graduates to compete in higher education and in good jobs, and it’s intolerable we would offer them less and consign them to dead-end futures.”

The devaluation of the high school diploma starts with state graduation requirements, the report suggests. Most states require high school students to take a certain number of English and mathematics courses, rather than specifying content to be covered, such as algebra I, algebra II, and geometry. As a result, there’s no incentive for students to take challenging courses. Even high school exit exams provide little added incentive for students to take more rigorous courses: At best, the exit tests assess only eighth- or ninth-grade content.

“People who grouse about high-school exit tests are voicing the wrong objection,” said Fordham Foundation President Chester E. Finn, Jr. “What should spark real dismay is the gap between what states expect of graduates and what the real world demands for their success.”

With such weak content requirements in high school, it’s not surprising the average high school graduate lacks the more advanced knowledge and skills required in the workplace and in college. Yet instruction in elementary school appears to be lacking, too, because most employers say high school graduates lack even basic skills. For example, a Public Agenda poll reported 60 percent of employers rate graduates’ skills as only “fair” or “poor” in grammar, spelling, writing, and basic math.

Although the vast majority of high school graduates–more than 70 percent–are accepted by two- and four-year colleges, more than half (53 percent) must take at least one remedial English or math class at some time during their college career. More than one-quarter (28 percent) must take remedial English or math as soon as they enter college.

Not surprisingly, the less prepared students are for college-level work, the less likely they are to graduate with a college degree. Overall, fewer than half of the high school graduates who enter college leave with a degree. Of those who have to take one remedial class, only 45 percent leave with a degree; of those who take three or more remedial classes, including reading, only 18 percent leave with a degree.

Several years ago, Public Agenda conducted a survey that showed a marked disconnect between what professors in teacher colleges thought was important and what employers and parents considered important. One way of reducing that disconnect would be to provide educators with a better idea of typical real-world tasks in today’s job market. The ADP report does this in an informative section on “Workplace Tasks and Postsecondary Assignments.”

The 30-page section provides numerous examples of actual job duties and assignments to illustrate the practical application of the competencies described in the report’s benchmarks. Broad distribution of this section of the report among educators would do much to dispel the unfamiliarity most of them have about the knowledge and skills required in today’s workplace.

George A. Clowes is managing editor of School Reform News. His email address is [email protected].

For more information …

The February 2004 report from the American Diploma Project, “Ready or Not: Creating a High School Diploma that Counts,” is available at the Web site of Achieve, Inc. at, together with other ADP materials.