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Every Little Helps

Tuesday, February 10, 2004

The Measure of a Sheepskin


CNN is reporting that high school diplomas are "losing meaning," a statement that should surprise no one. It says, "in the eyes of many of those in hiring and higher education, the diploma is little more than a certificate of school attendance, the report contends."

Let's tally up what we have here:

-Some people are complaining that high school diplomas mean nothing, since everyone who goes to school a minimum of time and does a minimum of work (if that) gets one.

-On the other hand, school districts where not everyone gets a diploma are criticised, even if those are districts where those who do graduate are uniformly well qualified; districts with high graduation rates are praised, and anyone who points out that their graduating students are often functionally illiterate are generally shouted down.

See a problem here?

For high school diplomas to have meaning, schools would have to give them out only to students who have earned them. If the school is selective, or with a bizarrely small sample size (Round Top High School, out Highway 290, for example, with, I believe, a recent graduating class of thirteen), then it might make sense for all students to qualify for graduation; in an exceptional and non-selective school, all students might graduate, but they'd need to demonstrate that all their students were of an acceptable standard to be granted a diploma. If, by some stroke of fortune, every student across the country managed to measure up, then high school diplomas would mean nothing -- but only in the way that birth certificates mean nothing if you try to present an employer with one as proof that you are alive (on the other hand, if birth certificates were given out to imaginary beings and couches and other un-born things...). Their meaninglessness is not, in that case, a bad thing.

(I might say this of the Harvard "Honors" system, as well as of my high school calculus class. If you have exacting and (I realize now that I am at a public university -- and have talked with fellow grads now studying around the world) exceptionally grueling standards, standards far beyond other universities (or far beyond what is required for national AP tests), and every or nearly every student measures up, it is not "inflation" to recognize each student, give each one honors, give each one a 5 on the AP, and graduate each one. It is only "inflation" if the standards are lowered to incorporate more students.)

Of course, all suggestions are ridiculous and impossible, given the nature of our public school system. If you have twelve sixth-graders who can neither read nor count to twenty (whether your fault or another's), and you refuse to pass them on to the next grade, your classroom will be over capacity the next year (because, obviously, it is much worse to have as many students as Japanese classes have than to lower standards and make the concept of "education" worthless). People who lack either the inclination or the mental capability to pass a grade are still required by law to stay in school until sixteen, so you have to keep passing them on in order to free up your classroom for the next batch. There's really not much you can do there.

This is not a problem that can be solved by action in one area (e.g. stricter testing) without action in many others (character education, discipline, teacher salary, hiring practices, certification practices, parent involvement, teacher unions, "progressive" education practices, head start, liability fears...). However, it might be a start to increase public awareness of the state of our schools and the relative worth of a sheepskin, especially among those who themselves graduated decades ago and may not realize how much has changed -- and who often have the time and money to do something about it. Every little helps.

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