Nearly 50 cents of every state tax dollar goes to education. That includes funding for our public universities, technical schools, and the state Department of Education, but the majority is used to fund our K-12 system. Given that education makes up such a large portion of our budget, we need to routinely evaluate how we are doing as a state. We should often ask ourselves this question: Are we sufficiently preparing our students for what comes next?
About a year ago, we pulled together data that indicated the answer to this question, for most of our high school students, is “No.” Of our students who start 9th grade, 80-90% will finish. About 70% of those will enroll in post-secondary education. This is less than two-thirds of those who started 9th grade. Of those who enroll at a tech school or university, only 50-60% will graduate. Thus, only a fraction of our students who started 9th grade will earn a degree. In other words, our current system is only working for a minority of our students.
We need to do better.
We have long emphasized the four-year degree path over other valid options – like technical degrees and certificates, associate degrees and industry-recognized credentials. This focus has led some of our students to be disengaged and unaware of good alternative options. This disengagement, coupled with large-scale economic changes, is forcing us to think differently about the high school experience in South Dakota.
After I met with several superintendents to discuss these issues and former Education Secretary Don Kirkegaard gathered input from education leaders across the state, we decided to propose new high school graduation requirements. While our old requirements met the needs of some students quite well, many of our students are not finding relevance between what they learn in school and their expectations for, and experiences in, the “real world.” At the same time, employers tell us they are struggling to find workers who possess the skills they need – all of which is leading to a gap between employer needs and worker skills.
These new graduation requirements offer students the flexibility to explore various types of career paths. They were designed to empower school districts, school counselors and student support networks to help our young people find meaningful, personalized pathways to success through graduation and beyond. The new requirements are not a value judgment about the “right way” to success. Nor do they put students into tracks. Implemented well, they are about each student finding his or her own right way and making that informed choice.
Under the new requirements, every student must still take four units of English, but an aspiring engineer might take a technical writing class instead of a lang uage arts elective. Every student must still take three units of math, but an aspiring accountant might take a business math class instead of geometry. Every student will still be required to take three units of science, but an aspiring nurse might be able to take an advanced biology class instead of physics. Any student who seeks to go directly into the workforce after high school can find that path through these requirements. A student seeking to enter a university and progress to postdoctoral work years down the road can also lay that foundation through these requirements. The new system serves our future nurses and welders as well as our aspiring teachers and doctors.
Students need to be well-versed in a variety of subject areas throughout their high school years. But they also need to start thinking about what they will do after graduation – looking for that intersection of aptitude, interests and workforce opportunity. These new requirements will help our students – ALL of our students – to do just that.