SBOE, Jenner say lots of work ahead amid diploma backlash

Following a continuous slew of somewhat panicked, largely negative feedback from educators on the state’s new proposed high school diplomas, the Indiana State Board of Education is pushing forward with the overhaul . . . but they recognize they have a lot of work ahead implementing the feedback they’ve heard.

We’ve detailed for you the mixed feedback from educators over the last two months since the new diplomas were revealed. Similar to last month’s SBOE meeting, educators, parents, and other stakeholders from around the state spent three hours airing their concerns over the new diplomas, which, as you know, are the GPS Diploma and the GPS Diploma Plus.

Most of their grievances reflect what we’ve already been hearing – whether the proposed diploma changes will adequately prepare students for their post-secondary aspirations. Teachers aired fears about programs getting cut back due to some classes no longer being required for all students, including foreign language, world history, and fine arts. That is also coupled with concerns that the basic diploma option lowers the bar compared to the current Core 40 Diploma, and students won’t come out of high school “well-rounded.”

Notably this time, though, board members spoke up about their cautions as they move forward with the overhaul. A common complaint we’ve heard about the first proposal is a lack of structure in ensuring that a student has what they need in order to go onto post-secondary education, particularly if they want to go to college.

Board members echoed that concern. Though they are still optimistic overall, some went as far as to say they won’t vote for the new diploma rule until they see more concrete roadmaps on how to ensure students are set up to succeed.

“We started this as wanting a work-based diploma,” Board Member Pat Mapes, who is also superintendent of Hamilton Southeastern Schools, asserts Wednesday. “I wanted that kid who wasn’t going to go to college to be able to go get some experiences their junior and senior year, a really true experience in the workforce, and to take mathematics and language arts courses that led them to that work-based experience.”

Mapes continues, “But right now, I can’t see that. And I think that’s a lot of the caution of most people that we’ve had comments from.”

Echoing Mapes, Board Member Greg Gastineau also asked for a roadmap of sorts to better show how the new diplomas will work, what classes will be needed for different paths, and how internships will work.

“I have two kids who are going through high school and college now. For a student to have that roadmap to know ‘if I want to go to Purdue or IU, here I need this.’ I need that as a parent scheduling. Guidance counselors need that.” Gastineau remarks. He adds, “I love this. But before I can vote for this, you’ve got to show me a roadmap.”

Balancing Flexibility versus Listed Coursework

Crucial to the plan is flexibility, the opportunity for students to personalize learning pathways and experiences to what they want to do after high school – upending what we may consider the traditional path of listed required courses to get a high school diploma in Indiana.

The question looming over the Indiana Department of Education is how to find the balance between giving flexibility without sacrificing academic rigor, as well as not causing a mess for schools that would have to make sure each student has the correct classes on their schedule to get into college or go into the workforce.

With that, educators on Wednesday called for IDOE to consider reviving the Core 40 with Academic Honors diploma as part of the new proposal. Roughly 85% of students with that diploma enroll in college and need little remediation. Essentially, the ask is why mess with something that works?

“The (academic honors) diploma has gotten many students into college. It’s prepared them. And if we do away with it, we don’t have that guide.  We don’t have that map,” argues Marisol Martinez, a foreign language teacher from Fort Wayne.  “I see students who, if they don’t follow this, flounder.”

Colleges typically have a list of required courses students should have taken in high school that would afford admittance into their school, such as so many years of a foreign language. Much of those classes deemed necessary to go to college are already outlined under the Academic Honors Diploma.

Some educators and parents on Wednesday questioned if the GPS Diplomas would be enough for students to get into college and be competitive with students from other states. Some have also gone as far as to accuse the state of purposefully trying to push students to not go to college with the structure of the proposed diplomas.

“When businesses and colleges sift through resumes, the ones that have the top requirements are shuffled to the top. If a college sees a GPS Diploma, where is that going to stand in terms of other applicants from other states?” parent Christie Toops questions.

A lot of that fear likely stems from the fact that the GPS Diplomas largely focus on “foundational courses” in 9-10 grade, while leaving more flexibility and less required courses for 11th and 12th graders. The GPS Diploma has fewer math and social studies requirements than the current Core 40 diploma. The only “required” math and English classes everyone would have to take are Algebra 1 and English 9. The only history class is U.S. History. Students can choose what they can fill their schedule with to fulfill remaining credits, such as taking world history for social studies if they want, or creative writing or public for English credit, instead of the traditional English 10 or English 11, for example.

Still, Board Member Scott Bess points out that the Academic Honors diploma is “really just a name,” that’s going away. The coursework will be there.

“Colleges pay attention to the coursework, not to diplomas, right. Just because you get an academic honors diploma, it’s the courses you’ve taken that determine whether you get into Purdue, or IU, or Rose-Hulman,” Bess remarks.

He agrees more guidance is needs to tell students and parents, “hey this is what you need to go to college,” but adds he doesn’t want the state through this process to full revert back to a “checklist” of classes just because this seems intimidating.

“I’ll probably be a hardliner on this. I don’t want to turn our diplomas back into just these massive checklist of courses as they sit today. Because then we’ve done away with the idea of the flexibility,” Bess asserts.

Addressing the College-Going Problem with Seals

While we won’t see a second draft of the diplomas until July, IDOE already brought forward an additional proposal to try to ease some confusion and anxiety. The department proposed seals that students could earn on top of their diplomas. The seals would show that the graduate is ready to enroll in higher education, ready for employment, or ready to enlist in the armed services.

With the seals will come a list of coursework required to earn each one. The enrollment-ready seal, for example, will likely mimic what we already see under the academic honors diploma with a list of courses needed to ensure a student is ready to go to college. This seal and its requirements are being worked on in collaboration with the Indiana Commission for Higher Education. The seals will be visible on a student’s transcript.

Secretary of Education Katie Jenner hopes the seals will satisfy some of the asks for more structure or a “roadmap.” She notes that a list of required courses for each pathway will be outlined in the rule, per state law.

“We will have to have those details before it can enact so we 100% those will be ready to go before the board approves this,” Dr. Jenner says.

Dr. Jenner also tells us after the meeting that, despite some assumptions made, the idea is not to encourage fewer students to pursue higher education by making it more difficult to get into college with the new diplomas.

“I will not bring this, as the chair of the state board of education, to a vote unless we can ensure that students will be very competitive and be able to get into enrollment, be more prepared than they are today for whatever their next step might be,” she contends.

Change is Coming and What to Expect

Much like last month, most of the teachers who spoke were either social studies or foreign language educators – two subject areas that would be trimmed down under the GPS diplomas. To clarify, such classes are not being cut altogether; they would remain options for students to pick when building their schedules. However, some teachers continue to argue that removing the requirements will afford school districts room to discontinue those classes and slim down departments.

Secretary Jenner says the board is listening, and she reveals we can expect a lot of this feedback (specifically on the foreign language and world history classes) to end up in the next draft of the diplomas.

“I think sometimes as a state or as a country we come out with something and this is the plan and you set it down and that’s it,” she remarks, “In this case, we genuinely want feedback on the plan.”

More than 4,5000 people have also sent in feedback online, and a lot of those responses are similar to what’s been heard in meetings, Dr. Jenner says.

Initially, the board planned to vote on the final rule for diplomas in September . . . but a lot of the feedback has prompted to shift the timeline. The plan now is to hold a vote in late fall.

Dr. Jenner also admits that perhaps IDOE can to do better at communicating the true intentions and details of the diploma changes with stakeholders and the public. She has noted some misconceptions have floated around since the first unveiling, such as the idea that middle schoolers have to pick a graduation path at the age of 14 and stick with it.

“We knew when we first laid this out at the end of March that we would continue to make improvements to get it right for Indiana. And that includes working with not only educators, students and parents, industry and business higher ed, community leaders and officials,” Dr. Jenner observes. “It’s  going to take time and we have to go through that process.”

Expect to see more long board meetings and discussions as work on the diplomas continues through the end of the year. Up next, the IDOE plans to have a second draft of the diplomas in July.