- Should a diploma be a minimum bar over which students should aspire to stumble over, as it has been for some states as some points of time?
- Should it be an elevated standard that denotes a level of achievement that will indicate students will be successful in college or a career, as the Common Core Standards advocates?
- Should it be something everyone should aspire to?
- Should it indicate some superior level of performance that everyone can achieve?
- Should an employer be able to look at the fact that a student has a diploma and believe that this student has the raw ability to be trainable in his environment?
- Is it something that must be earned or is it an entitled right?
- Is it about time served or amount learned?
Because we are not sure what a diploma should mean, our education system flounders, wandering this way and that, not doing a good job of meeting any of the objectives.
Kathleen Mikulka addresses this question in her response to Maine's increased standards for graduation. Maine will require students to earn an 80 or better on 8 proficiency exams in order to earn a diploma. Problems abound around this idea, particularly the fact that the exams are locally developed and thus not comparable to each other or married to any standard. Mikulka's primary objection appears to be that her students with special needs might not be able to pass the exams and thus create young people "with no future."
If the exams are easy enough to be passed by everyone, a strategy that districts could take, they are meaningless. Employers or colleges want to see a diploma and know what that means. Students who lack the ability to apply themselves in a way to be successful on the exams (those with emotional disabilities are the largest group of non-diploma winners) or lack the ability to be successful on the exams might have a future confronted with limitations. Poor social-emotional skills will prevent them from being successful in the real world. Is it better to have students not fail in school but fail in life, or fail in school where maybe they can later learn the skills to be successful in life.
I know it is hard to have a child who puts forth every effort only to fail or barely pass, but that is life. No matter how hard you try, there are things you will not achieve- as a middle aged 5'2" female with poor coordination will never be an NBA player, more than half the people who want to be president, in spite of trying very hard, never make it. I would rather have the hard working high school non-finisher on my team than the lackadaisical, diploma-granted, entitled one. Many employers will tell you that it is not cognitive skills that enable individuals to be successful in jobs but soft skills- things like punctuality, initiative, manners, diligence, and persistence. Some employers see a college degree not in terms of a person having particular content skills, but in terms of him being trainable. As employment tests have been increasingly thrown out of use by courts, employers have raised the education bar because it is a mark of work ethic, not acquired skill level. Yes, employers want employees who can write a decent report, read a manual, do basic arithmetic without a calculator, and speak intelligibly, but they also want them to show up on time, put away their devices, work for their full shift and be pleasant throughout. If we are only teaching the former "content" skills, our children find themselves with a limited future regardless of their diploma status.
We need to decide what it means to have earned a diploma. Then we need to focus our efforts toward that goal. Yes, some will not earn a diploma. Some people will never be in the NBA, paint award winning pictures, perform at Carnegie Hall or be employed at a fortune 500 company. That is ok. We need to view all work as valuable- regardless of its income potential. People have a future until they are dead. Yes, some will have to work their backsides off while others will seem to breeze through with no troubles. When we see some jobs as more worthy, when we tell kids who are not going to be the top 1% or 20% or 50% they are not as worthy we have a problem. Most are not going to be in that top 1% or 20% or 49.9999%, we need to get comfortable with whosoever we are.