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GEDs Just Don't Cut It


GEDs Just Don't Cut It

October 1, 2004
EducationPre K-12
Urban PolicyNYC

SCHOOLS Chancellor Joel Klein is taking heat for school reform again. This time it’s about centers where dropouts take test-prep classes for the GED — the city is cutting back from 51 to 16 centers.

In a front-page New York Times article yesterday, dropouts and their parents complained they weren’t told the closures were coming and fretted that some of them might not get their GEDs.

As usual, Klein is getting blasted for doing the right thing. Having dozens of extra GED prep centers was wasting millions of education dollars every year. That money is now going to programs designed to help keep kids from dropping out in the first place — an urgent priority in a city with a minority dropout rate of over 50 percent.

The most important thing to understand about the GED and other alternative certificates is that they aren’t even close to equivalent to a high-school diploma.

Employers don’t treat job applicants with GEDs as though they had real diplomas. Studies overwhelmingly find dropouts with GEDs have worse life outcomes than real graduates in terms of incomes, unemployment, crime, and so on.

In fact, researchers aren’t sure the GED raises life outcomes at all. Some studies, including one by Nobel-Prize-winning economist James Heckman, finds dropouts with GEDs have life outcomes that are indistinguishable from those of other dropouts. But one thing the research agrees on is that dropouts with GEDs are a lot closer to dropouts without GEDs than they are to real graduates.

There’s a common myth that obscures this reality. Lots of people think “GED” stands for “general equivalency diploma.” It doesn’t. It stands for “general educational development.” It’s not a regular diploma, and it’s definitely not equivalent.

Don’t misunderstand � if you’ve already dropped out of school, it’s probably better to have a GED than not have one. Even if the benefits are small, the cost of obtaining one is even smaller. Research shows most people pass the test without many hours of preparation. And you can take it over and over again until you pass.

But while a GED is better than nothing, such a low hurdle can’t possibly replace multiple years of missed high-school classes.

Not only is the GED not a big help when you get it, but centers like the ones New York just closed don’t seem to be a big help in getting it, either. Last year fewer than 20 percent of enrollees got their alternative certificates. On a given day, only about half of them were showing up.

So Klein isn’t a monster for thinking maybe New York schools can find better uses for the millions of dollars being spent on these centers every year. Every one of those dollars is a dollar that’s not helping keep current students in school, where they can get real diplomas and a real shot at a better life.

With more than half the city’s minority students dropping out, there’s no shortage of kids who need saving.

Besides, it’s not like the city has stopped offering GED prep classes. People will just have to travel further to get to them. Yes, that makes it harder — but it’s only natural that in a well-run system the second chance to accomplish something will be harder than the first. That even serves a good purpose: It gives kids an incentive to stick with it the first time and earn a real diploma.

There are always complaints when government offices close. Jobs are lost, services are harder to get and people have to deal with uncertainty. But Klein can’t reform a system in crisis if he’s not allowed to redirect money from less effective programs to more effective ones. And if there’s anything in New York’s education system that isn’t helping improve people’s lives much, having dozens of extra GED prep centers has got to qualify as one of them.