Credible Diplomas, Not 100% Graduation, Should be LAUSD’s Goal: Guest Commentary

As Originally Published: LA Daily News, written by Nadia Diaz Funn

It’s graduation season, and Los Angeles Unified School District seniors are preparing to walk across that stage for a diploma. Without totally ruining the party, there is something that needs to be addressed.

Allowing LAUSD students to graduate with “D” grades in core competency courses is like pushing them out of life’s airplane without a parachute.

Is that a little dramatic? Perhaps. Is it the punishing reality? Almost certainly.

While LAUSD’s improved graduation rate is noteworthy and demonstrates important progress, we must reserve our applause for now. Of the 77 percent who gallantly crossed the commencement stage in 2016, 53 percent lacked the grades and skills to be considered “college-ready” or “career-ready,” locked out of consideration for admission to a California State University. Even more sobering, only 47 percent of African-American, 53 percent of Latino and 26 percent of English-learner students graduated from LAUSD college-ready.

What value are we providing to our youth by sending them out into the world without the tools necessary to succeed?

To answer this, a refresher on the value of a high school degree in our 21st century economy is in order.

Although a high school diploma holds important value, especially when compared to not having one, that value has significantly decreased over time. According to the Department of Labor, in 2014 the median weekly earnings for individuals with a high school diploma were $658 — compared to $757 in 1979.

On the other end of the spectrum, the value of a college bachelor’s degree has continued to rise. According to a 2011 report from the Georgetown Center on Education and the Workforce, individuals with a bachelor’s degree earn 84 percent more than those with a high school diploma. These figures translate to more than $950,000 of additional earnings over a lifetime.

The role of college attainment to create opportunities for upward economic mobility is undeniable. This is especially true for low-income Latino and African-American students, for whom college represents the best opportunity to break the cycle of intergenerational poverty and to meaningfully participate in all aspects of civic life.

LAUSD is the largest district in California, serving over 525,000 students, of whom approximately 84 percent are low-income students of color. Yet despite the clear opportunities that college attainment provides our youth, and the demand for more college graduates to fill our local, state and national workforce needs, LAUSD continues to keep in place policies that fall short of preparing every student college- and career-ready.

Setting the goal of 100 percent graduation vs. college readiness as the ultimate measure of success is not just missing the mark, it’s aiming for the wrong target altogether.

We must advocate for our youth and challenge LAUSD to reinstate its 2006 public promise to align its high school requirements with University of California and Cal State University qualifications to ensure that all students — not half — truly graduate college-prepared and career-ready.

In doing so, we must remind LAUSD of the thousands of students who in 2006 and again in 2015 marched to demand that the high school graduation standards be raised so that their diplomas would represent a meaningful pathway to college and, ultimately, a more prosperous future.

Our children deserve more from their high school diploma. It is time to give it to them.

Nadia Diaz Funn is executive director of the Alliance for a Better Community, a nonprofit organization that promotes the economic prosperity of the Latino community and the Los Angeles region.

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