Posted Date: 05/19/2022
Along with Mother’s Day and Memorial Day, May is a time to celebrate graduation. All over Kansas, students are putting on caps and gowns and families are coming together to hold open houses, parties and commencement ceremonies.
For me, this year was my great niece Dreaya’s “graduation” from the preschool run by my alma mater, Fort Hays State University, in my hometown where I graduated from high school 44 years ago. That makes me officially old enough to hold forth on how much better schools used to be, how much tougher kids were in my generation and the general decline of civilization.
That little ceremony reminded me that those assumptions may not be true.
Graduation rituals were developed long ago to mark completion of high school and college because it was special. It wasn’t expected that everyone would graduate. When my parents were children in 1940, only about one-third of Kansans over 24 had completed high school and only five percent had a four-year college degree. When I was child in the 1960’s, high school graduation had just reached about 50 percent; adults with college degrees less than 15 percent.
Today, according to the U.S. census, 91.4 percent of Kansans over 24 had completed high school or the equivalent, 65.8 percent had some type of postsecondary education, including technical schools and community colleges, and almost 34 percent had completed a four-year college degree or more – each an all-time high. Kansas ranks in the top third of states on each of these measures.
The grumpy old man in me would suggest this is simply because standards have been lowered. After all, aren’t Kansas test scores shockingly low, with only around a third of students at the levels we want?
Well, one reason that fewer students are scoring at higher levels is that Kansas actually raised its standards, so a “passing” score on state tests is now based on preparing for college, like a score on the ACT or SAT, not a “minimum” competency. If only about one-third of Kansas students are at that level, remember only about one-third of Kansans today have a four-year degree, so that percentage is equivalent to the highest level of college attainment ever. (Of course, when I was a student, Kansas didn’t even have state testing to measure students and schools.)
What is required for high school graduation has also changed. To graduate from Thomas More Prep, a “college prep” Catholic school in Hays, I had to have two units of math, one of science and no fine arts – and that’s all I had. Today, all students must take three units each of math and science and one of fine arts. On average, students take more courses and more core academic subjects than ever before. More students stay in school longer, fewer drop out, and more go on to some type of college than ever before.
In the Sixties and Seventies, among my classmates in Hays public schools as well as private, there were far fewer special education students and those that were in school had less severe disabilities. Schools today educate children that in previous generations would probably not have lived until school age and certainly would not have been in school. Schools were less diverse and a lack of understanding around mental health meant that many modern services were not offered to students.
In other words, schools today have far more students with higher needs than the schools I attended in the Sixties and Seventies, yet we graduate a higher percentage of students. That has been made possible by numerous new programs and interventions public schools have added.
One of those changes is preschool. We didn’t have preschool graduations because there were almost no preschools; fewer day care centers because most families could afford to have a parent (almost always the mother) stay home. Educators believe expanding preschool is one of the ways schools have been able to raise graduation rates and college participation despite the challenges mentioned.
That’s critical because job needs have also changed. When I graduated high school, two-thirds of jobs required nothing more than a high school diploma or less. Today, two-thirds of jobs require more than a high school diploma, and that share is expected to grow. In addition, wages have grown much faster for jobs requiring more education. Every step from finishing high school to technical and community colleges to bachelor’s and advanced degrees results in higher wages, lower unemployment rates and less poverty.
Which raises the question: if high school graduates are less prepared, why are more students completing postsecondary credentials and why are employers paying them more?
A few last thoughts about my great niece’s ceremony. At a time when public schools are under fire for undermining patriotism and traditional values, it was pretty moving, to me at least, to hear a couple dozen four-year-olds lead the singing of the “Star Spangled Banner.” In listing what these students want to do when they grow up, the most popular career goals were police and firefighters, followed by preschool teachers – and a number of girls also listed “being a mom” among their goals. I would argue that public schools actually are among the strongest force for instilling common values.
Let’s be clear: public education still has a lot of challenges. Now is a good time of year to reflect on the successes that so many Kansas families are celebrating.