Graduating from high school just is not what it used to be. The well-paying American manufacturing jobs that were once available to new graduates simply are not there anymore. In addition, a great proportion of high school diplomas now come in the form of a GED. Finally, as if there needed to be one more bit of bad new to come along with the handshake from the principal, those who study educational outcomes are not sure that recent increases in graduation rates—although still below the peak levels of the late 1960’s—have not come about by way of the simple expedient of lowering the bar so it is more difficult to fail.
From whatever angle you look at the numbers, it takes a fair bit of squinting to feel good about the job prospects of an individual entering the job market with only a high school diploma. Even before the recent global financial meltdown made everyone’s economic lives infinitely more difficult, a high school diploma could be counted on to open the door only to the “3 R’s” of low skill, low wage employment: retail, restaurant, and reception. There was once a time when well-paying manufacturing jobs with health and retirement benefits were readily available to those with a good work ethic and a diploma from a local high school, but those positions are receding further and further into a mythic past of middle class ease.
Moreover, as states attempt to show evidence of improved graduation rates at our public schools to an increasingly tax-weary and skeptical public, there is cause for concern—even as schools trumpet recent rises in the percentages of students obtaining a high school diploma. Unfortunately, the 15-20% of diplomas that now come as a GED are often rolled right into our national numbers on graduation rates, even though there is no proof that these diplomas confer any long-term economic benefit to the recipient compared to remaining a drop out. Indeed, given that the anecdotal and statistical evidence on traditional high school educations so often calls into question the efficacy of the curriculum and instruction, it is even more difficult to find credible evidence that current GED programs are doing more than simply putting a stamp of approval on lackluster academic skills in a world that demands much more.
Finally, we come to the question of whether the average high school graduate can write, read, and calculate at a level that will provide a secure foundation for future learning. It may be worthwhile for parents and loved ones to ask your newly minted high school graduates to do three things for you this summer: compose a thoughtful essay on what they learned in high school and their plans for the future, find a book of quality and read it aloud to you, and balance a checkbook to the penny for June, July, and August. I hope that you will read the essay, listen to the reading, look at the balanced checkbook, and nod approvingly. If, however, the essay is rife with spelling and grammatical errors, the words in the book become tongue-twisting obstacles, and the checkbook remains out of balance, it might be worth suggesting some remedial work be completed over the summer. Presuming higher education is in the cards for the next school year, remember that colleges are only too happy to take your students’ money and charge them tuition to learn the course content and skills that should have been the point of earning their high school diplomas.
Congratulations, graduates. Now build on the foundation of your high school diploma to secure a good future, be aware that a high school diploma does not carry the weight it once did in the job market, and sharpen any skills that need to be sharpened before you go on to the next stage of your education. This is the time to work harder, smarter, and more thoughtfully than ever in a world that demands nothing less than your best efforts for your sakes—and for ours.