Are Public High Schools Diploma Mills?

Our edu-columnist asks whether we make it too easy to get the degree and thus make it less valuable?


(Editor's note: Patch columnist Jerry Heverly is an English teacher at San Leandro High.)

On this graduation day I’d like to ask the contrarian question: would it be better if we awarded fewer diplomas?

Your opinion on this, I suspect, hinges on your notion of what a high school diploma should signify.

For many people the coveted parchment represents a rite of passage somewhat akin to a communion or quinceanera. It is a certificate of official adulthood. My sense, without any real proof, is that this is the predominant view of teachers, administrators, some parents, and counselors.

It’s an ill-concealed ‘secret’ that, each Spring, we at the high school bend or modify the rules to allow late-maturing kids to walk the stage at the official graduation ceremony at Cal State East Bay.

Students who had a hard time with ninth or tenth grade — and thus arrive at their senior year deficient in credits — can mend their ways and use a variety of tools available to them:

  • they can take classes at a local junior college;
  • they can go to adult school;
  • they can take online courses;
  • in English they can take Creative Writing and (if an administrator approves) substitute that for English 1, 2, 3, or 4.

And only the most cold-hearted senior teacher would not bend the rules a bit to help someone with a 55 percent in May to get that last bit of forgiveness.

Suffice to say that we do the humane thing. We try to get as many kids across the finish line as possible.

There’s another view of diplomas, though. This is the view that most outsiders (i.e. taxpayers) probably take. They think a diploma should reflect knowledge gained: basic literacy, citizenship, awareness of history and nature.

The idea here is to have a believable document that shows that the bearer will show up for work on time and possess some adult skills that will make the person a good employee or a successful student in post-graduation schools.

It’s this view that created the high school exit exams that are common in most states now. If you can’t calculate the slope of a line, you shouldn’t be marketable as a high school graduate.

I will stipulate, of course, that we should do a better job of teaching and administrating.

We should intervene earlier and communicate more clearly when a student is in danger of non-graduation.

Our classes should be more interesting.

But establishing who is to blame when a child drops out or produces insufficient credits is a game of finger pointing that no can win.

I want to do the humane thing. The kids who make it to grade 12 are generally the ones who have some residue of ganas (to use Jaime Escalante’s term for desire or persistence).

It seems cruel to tell a young person that, because they failed Math as a 15 year-old they should be denied a chance to walk the stage as an 18 year-old. (Why didn’t they make it up in summer school? Things happen.)

Yet I can’t help thinking that you citizens discount the value of our diplomas because you’ve seen too many young people who can’t fill out a job application after four years with us.

If we were more cold-hearted about this would you have more faith in us?

Would our students try harder if they knew the parchment they earned would buy more community trust?

Like many of these columns I have gotten to the end without really coming to a firm resolution.

Time to head off to Cal State.

Let the festivities begin, but keep your mylar balloons down, please. The folks in the back want to see, too.

(You can read more essays like this in the archives of Entirely Secondary.)

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Larry Smith June 14, 2012 at 02:26 PM
Sadly, too many teachers follow the line of thinking that it is cruel and unusual to deny a student the right to walk on stage and receive a diploma even after failing a class or failing to make up a failing grade. We have created a world that has no consequences for failure, that is probably why Chabot College for one is saddled with a language program that has to cater to a student population that failed to grasp English in high school. Most of their language class offerings are remedial English for such students who 'failed' without consequence to master their language. Sadly, not only is there a lack of negative consequences for the students, there is also no consequence for the teachers who passed them along unprepared for the future. That has to change. Meanwhile, I will contemplate my use of double negatives.
Robert Marrujo June 14, 2012 at 05:56 PM
The expectations of teachers for students continues to diminish each year, resulting in students who are barely meeting minimal educational requirements and skating through the system. I don't know how many high school Seniors' writing I read that bordered on incoherent, yet were still bound to graduate. The system is too focused on keeping parents happy as opposed to making kids stay back and repeat courses unless they are absolutely flat-out failing.
Bill Gannon June 14, 2012 at 08:18 PM
You should have to achieve an appropriate level to pass. The minimal appropriate level to pass, graduate and receive a diploma should be 70%. It is true there are many parents who do not care about their children or the kid's performance. If the kid cannot meet the standard, then it is the duty of the teacher to document the failure of performance, which would then be grounds for the child's failure. There are no guarantees in life. You can work hard and try to achieve and even that is not guaranteed, but you can try. There is no guarantee you will get a job or even have a happy life. That is just the way it is. But if you work hard and keep working hard, you do stand a better chance. Keeping parents happy should be the last consideration of teachers. Providing information to the students should be first and foremost. If the children do not have the ability to make use of that information then their future will basically be limited to the lowest potential jobs, or maybe they can become rockstars instead.
Tom Abate (Editor) June 14, 2012 at 08:34 PM
I have a friend whose senior just graduated. The student had failed a 10th grade English class and took an online course to get the credits and the diploma. Not to rat but there was parental help. To have denied the diploma would have been wrong, I think. Just my two cents.
Elisabeth Huffmaster June 15, 2012 at 12:14 AM
I keep meeting the rare but impressive people who did not graduate from high school. They went straight to college or completed a high school equivalent later than 18. I have also met career students (bachelors, PhD and beyond) who have trouble getting and keeping jobs. I benefited from high school, graduated on time, and went straight to a UC; I did not appreciate going so quickly. I felt rushed, phoney and unhappy. One can push precocious students hard, they are scrappy, complete assignments and apply what they learn. For others rushing requirements does not mean a student understands or has a way to apply what they learn so that they can remember and use it let alone appreciate it. Perhaps studying and applying more human development to our educational system might reduce the number of students who view school as a waste of their time. Watching students take algebra 4 or 5 times is about as painful as it gets. If they could let go of school and work at something they love until they get through puberty it might help but the stigma behind the person who did not graduate with their class and the statistical legacy of never completing a higher degree if you do not complete high school on time has been daunting, especially the statistics by ethnicity. And parents want and need the free childcare. I now understand this aspect of public school better than ever. I support a more strict standard of graduation and a less stigmatized time period to complete it.
Marga Lacabe June 15, 2012 at 02:41 AM
I'm not sure that I can calculate the slope of a line. I don't think that in the 26 years since I graduated High School I've ever had to calculate the slope of a line, so that piece of knowledge, like many, many others, just disappeared from my brain. And I think that that's the fundamental problem. When is the last time that we have actually and comprehensively addressed K-12 curricula from a point of view of establishing at least the fundamental pieces of knowledge that are needed for someone to survive in the adult world? I have no doubt that there have been tweaks since the system was put in place in the 1800s, but some times you have to redesign systems altogether. Of course, that seems like such an impossible task, that concentrating on meaningless minutia actually seems preferable. But it's not. In reality, it doesn't matter whether you make it harder or easier for kids to graduate HS because right now, even the most honest HS diploma, does not assure that a person has the scope of knowledge necessary for adult life. I can pretty much guarantee that the number of students who graduate from HS with those skills is 0. Some will acquire them in the years to come, many, perhaps most, will not. Of course, I'm defining "life as an adult" as more than "being employable".
David June 15, 2012 at 02:34 PM
I've had to calculate the slope of a line. Anyway, there was an interesting article in the WSJ about German companies (i.e. Volkswagen, Siemens) working with the local community colleges, designing curriculum designed to make them employable by the company, and of course instituting apprenticeships at the factories. It would probably be more useful to teach the basics of reading, writing, math, history and science, stop school at 16, and go on from there in apprenticeship or pre-college courses for those going on to college.
Leah Hall June 15, 2012 at 03:55 PM
Pulled this out for Marga and David, http://www.learningwave.com/lwonline/algebra_section2/slope3.html In all seriousness, I don't believe the problem at this point has much to do with lack of teaching technologies. There are excellent resources and tools. From where I sit the problem is one of motivation (which does suggest more vocational training and good jobs) and adult supervised coordination. As one educator recently put it: "Students have all these services, call them "accessories," but they still find themselves quite cold in this world. The tools we give them are failing to warm them up."
Leah Hall June 15, 2012 at 04:00 PM
Thought also I'd give a shout out for this amazing and free educational site for everyone from ages k-adult "How Khan Academy Is Changing the Rules of Education" -Wired Magazine 7/2011 http://www.wired.com/magazine/2011/07/ff_khan/all/1
Leah Hall June 15, 2012 at 04:05 PM
As an aside, Santa Rita Elementary School, seen in some of the photos, was an architectural school modernization project I worked lead and managed. It turned out really nice if I do say so myself. :)
David June 15, 2012 at 04:57 PM
Uh, I wrote I've had to calculate the slope of a line, not that I couldn't do it anymore. I'd try to find a reference for you for reading comprehension, but well, it would be useless. QED.
Marga Lacabe June 15, 2012 at 05:15 PM
I think I mentioned before how back home in Argentina we have specialized high schools, starting at 8th grade. Students who graduate from technical schools do so as specialized technicians of one kind or another (electrician, chemist, construction manager, etc.). But any type of a technical education needs math. Indeed, these schools require you to take more math than you would at a regular high school. However, given that kids would actually see how that math is applied, maybe they're more willing to learn it.
Leah Hall June 15, 2012 at 08:56 PM
David, what you really need to work on is reading comprehension and gleaning the /point/ of a paragraph. ;-)
Elisabeth Huffmaster July 12, 2012 at 02:27 PM
Khan Academy is free and very helpful for the students who need to quietly hear (and see) a topic explained multiple times. Interactive problem sets are available if you create an account; login is done through a Google or Facebook account. Watch this TED video for Salman Khan's explanation of what he as a former hedge fund manager realized to make Khan academy explode: http://www.khanacademy.org/talks-and-interviews/v/salman-khan-talk-at-ted-2011--from-ted-com


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