It’s graduation season. Approximately 3.5+ million students from all corners of our nation will walked across a ceremonial platform to receive a high school diploma or are anticipating such an event in the coming days. It’s a traditional experience that is the source of pride for students and loved ones alike. A right of passage. The formal acknowledgement that one has passed from childhood into adulthood. It’s a moment that celebrates persistence: sticking through thirteen years of a commonly valued experience to achieve a mutually valued outcome. We celebrate it with flowers, photographs, parties, cakes, limousines. It’s a big deal!
You made it! You are graduating! (Personal pride was mine as I recently watched my grandson, number 5 of 7, recently receive his diploma.)
Graduating from high school is a momentous occasion. Chief among the many things it signifies is that each student receiving a diploma has accomplished exactly what was expected of them.
That, what we expect of our graduates, may well be the Achilles’ heel of American public education.
Under our traditional system, and the prevailing system for the past 100+ years, students must satisfy specific requirements. Allow me to break these requirements down into three easily understood and digestible bites.
First is the expectation of time spent on task, otherwise known as “seat time.” This comes as an expectation that for kids to benefit from the experience of education, they must physically be present. In the state where I reside, and I expect similarities within other jurisdictions, students are expected to receive a minimum of 990 minutes of instruction annually for the first three years of high school. Assuming that a student is “on track” to graduate at the end of their third year, the legal expectation is reduced to 900 hours of instruction for their senior year. This accumulated minimum of 3,870 hours of instruction satisfies the expectation of: “He was there. He must have learned.”
The second requirement to our traditional and present system of graduation eligibility centers on the accumulation of Carnegie units or credits, not just in the total number but also those earned in discreet and specific areas of study. Again, relying on the requirements of my state of residence, it looks something like this.
Summary of Credit Requirements
English / Language Art 4
Mathematics (Algebra I or higher) 3
Social Sciences 3
Physical Education 1
Career & Technical Education, Applied Arts Fine Arts, World Language 3
Career Development .5
Electives 5 .5
Beaverton School District policy IFK, AR-IFK/IKFA/IKH, 5/20/2019
By way of clarification: The credits above are awarded on the expectation of one earned credit equals a full school year of study. So, to earn 4.0 English/language arts credits assumes four years of study, while the 0.5 Career Development credit reflects half of a year of study.
This broad exposure to diverse areas of study guarantees a well-rounded graduation candidate.
Right? Does it?
The third leg under the graduation requirement stool is grades. (Certainly, one of my favorite topics richly deserving of criticism.) We continue to rely on a five-point letter grading system in the United States: A=excellent, B=above average, C=average, D=below average, and F=failing. To earn any of the credits outlined above, a student must earn a “passing grade.” In our current and prevailing systems, a grade of D or higher is considered “passing.” (You read that correctly. A credit earned is a credit earned, regardless of the degree of accomplishment.)
So, each of the gown-clad, tasseled and mortar-capped individuals prancing triumphantly across the stage have done exactly what was expected of them. More in some cases. But we can be assured that all will have met the minimum requirements described above.
The following question must be asked. Are these the right requirements of 21st century graduates?
Aside from celebrating the tenacity to complete a task, what does this document really tell us about the accomplishments of the person receiving it?
- Does the diploma communicate what the recipient knows and can effectively contribute to society? A 3.95 GPA on a student’s transcript may suggest a degree of success with specific skills within discreet disciplines. But does it tell us what he or she really knows? Does this ranking suggest that one is adept at pleasing the instructor, or does it accurately reflect a grasp of the content?
- Does the diploma gauge one’s effectiveness in collaborating with others?
- Does this newly minted diploma assure anyone of the holder’s level of analytical skills and problem solving?
- Does this honored recognition clearly define one’s communication capabilities, written and verbal?
- Does this commonly revered testament of accomplishment accurately describe the understanding of global issues, including inclusivity and empathy?
These questions, and others like them, look to the skills and attributes required of 21st century citizens and successful contributors to our modern society. The immediate recall of facts may have been helpful while playing parlor games in previous contexts, but they are no longer sufficient descriptors of learning. What society demands now is “what can you do with what you know?”
I again turn to the quote from Tony Wagner that I used to begin my book, The Education Kids Deserve: “Teaching all students to think and be curious is much more than a technical problem for which educators, alone, are accountable. More professional development for teachers and better textbooks and tests, though necessary, are insufficient as solutions. The problem goes much deeper - to the very way we conceive of the purpose and experience of schooling and what we expect our high school graduates to know and be able to do. (Emphasis added.)
Tony Wagner, The Global Achievement Gap, 2008
I am not critical of kids who are graduating. I congratulate them for doing exactly what was expected of them. That said, our problem rests with our expectations. They are outdated. They are too narrow. They need to expand. They need to reflect contemporary demands. They need to better prepare our high school graduates to embrace the challenges and realities of the world they are about to inherit.
Isn’t that the education kids deserve?