Why Old Arguments for Earning a Diploma Don't Resonate With My Students...

Voices | Teaching and Learning

Why Old Arguments for Earning a Diploma Don't Resonate With My Students — and Which Ones Will

Graduating high school is often viewed as a significant milestone for students, but as of late, many are leaving feeling more anxious and less prepared for the world in front of them.

By katie wills evans     Mar 6, 2024

Why Old Arguments for Earning a Diploma Don't Resonate With My Students — and Which Ones Will

For years, I’ve worked with young people during one of the most significant transitions of their lives. After 12 years of compulsory schooling, they approach the edge of the nest — and many feel unprepared, realizing they are about to lose the comfort of seeing their friends every day, the support of trusted adults outside their families and the predictability of a daily school schedule. Some can’t wait to leave, others get nostalgic, and some feel paralyzed, unable to make plans for what they want to do next.

Of all the demands placed on seniors, meeting graduation requirements is an acute source of stress. Each year, some students do not meet these expectations, and as a result, they are told they have not earned a high school diploma and aren’t able to walk across the stage with their peers.

There is anger, disappointment and tears that they have been denied this degree, but what does it mean to earn a diploma, and what does the diploma itself represent? Having taught and worked with seniors in high school for over half of my career, these questions are always present, rarely asked, and, for me, often remain unanswered.

Today, as our children leave high school and enter the so-called “real world,” they are facing a world changing at an unprecedented pace. The competitive, one-size-fits-all, industrial model of American education has persisted for over a century, but it feels increasingly outdated and even irrelevant, at times. Given that we have no idea what the world they are entering will look like in just a few years' time, how should we be spending our time with students preparing them for it? If a diploma means we have prepared them, shouldn’t we be asking students what they want to be prepared for?

What Happens When Students Don’t Receive a Diploma

Culturally, graduation is a right of passage and a source of immense pride. For many families, a high school diploma is a huge accomplishment that not everyone has been able to achieve. It is a moment to celebrate a young person’s transition into adulthood and all the care and support that has been poured into them during their 12 years of formal education.

When I asked my students what a diploma means to them and if it’s important, the idea of “making it” is what they mentioned the most. They look forward to a moment of acknowledgment for their hard work and all they’ve overcome, including a school system that has failed them. One young woman I spoke with felt like she was one of “the lucky ones” because many young people in her community don’t live to see graduation day.

Indeed, I’ve been to more than one commencement ceremony where a family member walked in place of their beloved who passed before they could graduate. Even in their physical absence, we create a moment for them because of how important this recognition is.

In our current educational landscape, you have to either receive a traditional high school diploma or pass the General Educational Development exam to access most postsecondary schooling options, including trade schools and community colleges. As such, the decision to deny a diploma has a tremendous impact on a student’s current and future career opportunities.

A recent graduate who I am still close with told me that students who don’t graduate don’t just lose opportunities, they also face social stigma, saying that our society “takes away from those who don’t have [a diploma].” Many of my students who are already successfully applying their extensive knowledge and skills on class assignments and extracurricular activities are told that because they cannot demonstrate mastery of academic content through a specific set of conditions, they have failed.

I worry for them, not just in terms of their career prospects, but for the impact that being told they have failed will have on them. How will it shape their self image and how their loved ones see them? Will it diminish or overshadow the other myriad accomplishments they have achieved?

How the Value of a Diploma Has Changed

Theoretically, a diploma indicates that you have learned a broad variety of information and skills across many disciplines and that you are in some ways prepared for life and work after compulsory schooling. Graduation requirements, including the number of credits, types of assessments and graduation pathways, vary widely across America’s 50 states.

Louisiana, where I teach, is one of eight states in the country that requires a passing score on standardized tests to receive a diploma. Standardized testing has long been protested by educators, parents and students due to its racist origins. Passing these exams is especially difficult for our students who are recent immigrants and are still learning English. Currently, only 41% of these students graduate, largely because they have not been able to pass these standardized tests.

This high degree of variability and lack of agreement on what students should learn to be considered educated is complicated and arguably cruel, so much so that many of my students are taking matters into their own hands to determine their future. One of my seniors, a brilliant and ambitious young woman who offers hair, esthetic and social media management services, is already making significantly more money some months than I am. Another recent graduate, a talented, multidisciplinary artist, was recently featured in one of the most prominent art spaces in the city — and is currently publishing his first magazine.

Other students I’ve taught who have been academically successful their whole lives and graduated with honors are struggling to find work, many taking low-wage jobs while they try to figure out their next move. Still, more of my students have absolutely no clue what they want to do or what path would be most financially viable for them. Just as teachers are navigating all the changes happening in education, so are students. Admittedly, I find it hard to counsel them when the value of a diploma and the future of society keeps moving before I have time to adjust.

Why Our Approach Must Change

I am tired of practicing approaches to multiple choice questions and breaking down unnecessarily confusing writing prompts at the expense of project-based assignments relevant to my students’ daily lives, or deep discussions of texts that provide windows and mirrors to validate and challenge their experiences. If we want a different world, we must educate differently. If we want students to be prepared to build that world, we need to re-evaluate what we require them to do while they are in school.

If we embrace a diversity of career possibilities and the fact that we don’t know what the future holds, how can a diploma reflect that? What skills do we actually want all our young people to enter the world with, and how can educators help build this world? These questions are at the forefront of my mind, questions that I wish more of us educators could spend time discussing and planning around.

Unfortunately, as long as there are rigid requirements for graduation, teachers’ most precious resources — time and energy — will be devoted largely towards those requirements instead of preparing our students as best we can for life after graduation. Until we change what a high school diploma requires, we won’t be able to meaningfully change how students value what a high school education provides.

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