Award a variety of high school diplomas with different requirements, but honor them all the same

Jeremy Noonan

Editor's note: This post is a submission to Fordham's 2018 Wonkathon. We asked assorted education policy experts whether our graduation requirements need to change, in light of diploma scandals in D.C., Maryland, and elsewhere. Other entries can be found here.

Whenever I run across my former students in town, I am eager to find out what they are up to. Chris was a senior when I had him in my “e2020” class—a sham online credit recovery program that was being used to jack-up graduation rates. I don’t know how many credits he got from the program, but just weeks before graduating he was working on four courses from scratch. When I saw him recently at the local mall, he told me he was working in construction, continuing a job he had started in high school. He recognized that he did not need his diploma to get this job, and added, “they [the administration] did not care about us; they only cared about getting us out.”

They indeed got them out, and with great efficiency. In the year following the elimination of any kind of external graduation test requirements from the state of Georgia, the district’s graduation rate shot up an astounding 13 percentage points to 88 percent, exceeding the also increasing statewide rate of 79 percent. This happened due to many more students like Shawn getting a diploma, but at the expense of the district lowering the standards for earning credits systemically, mainly via its credit recovery program, and getting away with it in the absence of the checks and balances formerly provided by a graduation test (which Chris likely would not have passed).

Behind closed doors, school administrators defended such methods with a simple rationalization: “These students cannot even get a minimum wage job without a diploma!” The implication is then that we should do whatever we can to get them to graduate. A critique of this excuse will show the need for different types of diplomas as an essential component of a policy solution to graduation rate fraud.

Let’s first get out of the way the easy retort that it simply is not true that employers require high school diplomas for low-wage jobs. Plenty of students work these jobs part-time. If they don’t graduate, their employers are not going to fire them. Minimum wage jobs are there for the taking.

Furthermore, if all a high school graduate can do is unskilled labor and is not prepared for college, as we all know most are not, then what value does a diploma add? He ends up in the same place economically as the dropout. Recently, I ran across a former student who dropped out of high school last year, and then another the same week who had graduated a year prior. Both were working as cooks at low-end restaurants, making a pittance.

This anecdote speaks to the often employed consequentialist argument that high school graduates are better off economically than non-graduates. This is true historically. But doesn’t the difference in economic value result from public trust in the high school diploma—i.e., that a diploma consistently represents possession of knowledge and skills that are lacking in non-graduates? When schools engage in an “anything goes” approach to awarding diplomas, fewer graduates possess the qualities that the public expects. As employers come to learn that there is little to distinguish graduates from dropouts, public trust in the diploma erodes, and with it, eventually, the economic advantages of graduating.

Let us not suppose that the college-bound kids—the ones who do not need or want shortcuts to get them to the finish line—are unaffected by this approach. To graduate in Georgia, all students must earn the same number of core credits in math, science, English, and social studies. These are ostensibly “college-prep” courses, and the state administers eight subject exams that all students must take (though passing is no longer required!). That means that students bound for community college are sitting in the same classroom as students bound for McDonalds. When standards are lowered in algebra so that even students who are still on a sixth-grade level in math will get credits (lest we deny them a shot at that short-order cook job!), the other students who could and would master algebra likely will not. When their peers can get C’s just for showing up (or in the case of Ballou High School in Washington, D.C., not even for that), they know they can make A’s just by learning the bare minimum.

Perhaps that is why less than one-fourth of students in my district are proficient in algebra, and why upwards of 30 percent of those who go on to college have to take remedial math (both figures are worse than the state of Georgia as a whole). By doing “whatever it takes” to get kids to satisfy the math requirements, schools guaranteed that everyone else would learn LESS math in the process.

Should then these kids who will not master algebra be denied a diploma and gently shown the door once they reach a certain age? Since this is easily more than half of our students, no policymaker would support that. Nor is it just. Better instead to not require all graduates to possess skills that only the minority need to succeed at the next level, i.e., in a four-year college. The kids who do not need algebra to flourish in the construction industry would benefit more from more career-oriented courses. And the kids who do need to master algebra for college would benefit from math courses where everyone must attain proficiency to get the credit.

Fundamentally diverse graduation requirements need to be validated by the granting of fundamentally different kinds of diplomas. For example, one type would represent readiness for careers that require a specific skill-set and the ability to acquire new skills. Students focused on career and technical education should not have to meet the same standards as students preparing for college.

Politicians tend to resist such a proposal because they do not want to create “a second-class diploma.” But schools already have done this—not on paper, but in spirit, and without disclosure! We have a minority of students whose diplomas mean they are ready for college, while everyone else, a few successes in voc-tech or military aside, has a diploma that means they are ready for the local mall.

Different requirements are not weaker requirements. A different diploma does not have to be an inferior diploma. I am book-smart to a fault, having very little manual skills. I graduated well prepared for college, but if I had been required to replace a car radiator to get my diploma, I would have joined the ranks of dropouts. Difficulty and rigor are relative to one’s gifts and aptitudes.

Perhaps the root of the problem is a worldview that sees such work as “second-class.” Ancient Greek aristocrats, under the sway of Platonic idealism, viewed manual labor with similar disdain, leaving such work exclusively to slaves. This dualism persisted for centuries until the Protestants imbued manual labor with the same dignity as spiritual (abstract) labor. Thus, Martin Luther wrote, “the works of monks and priests, however holy and arduous they may be, do not differ one whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic laborer in the field or the woman going about her household tasks.”

Such a shift in attitude arguably laid the cultural groundwork for the scientific and industrial revolution, with the prosperity that followed. A similar shift in attitude is vitally needed today if we are going to have an education system that serves all kinds of students justly, honoring a diversity of callings.

Jeremy Noonan is a father of four school-age children and a certified science instructor in Georgia, who has taught for ten years in public school, private school, and home school cooperatives. He also runs Citizens for Excellence in Public Schools, a local education advocacy group.