15 Sep 2014
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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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