‘Counterfeit’ Diplomas: We’re Killing Our Kids With Kindness

I recently had my Developmental English students complete an essay assignment that required them to read and respond to an editorial in The New York Times entitled “The Counterfeit High School Diploma”, which focused on the unsurprising relationship between rising graduation rates and sinking academic achievement in our nation’s public schools.  Because many of my students are recent high school graduates who are now paying to learn the college-level writing skills they failed to master, I presumed they could easily relate to the topic.

Many were quick to point the finger of blame at their high school teachers (“I feel teachers do not help nor teach high school students the proper education to help them in college.”), but some were insightful enough to recognize their own role in their failure to learn (“I didn’t too much take English serious.”).

However, one response truly resonated with me:

“I know going through high school was somewhat easier than I felt like it should have been.  Although I wasn’t the best student I was able to graduate with B’s and a couple of C’s and now that I have been in college I feel as though the curriculum should have been very much harder.”

Why this comment?  Perhaps because it spoke to what I believe is perhaps an under-recognized culprit in our high school achievement crisis, our misguided desire to “help out” students by passing them regardless of what they did—or did not—learn in class.  Although it goes against every kind-hearted instinct of so many “nice” teachers, I wonder if all our “helping out” is actually helping out our students?  Would we, in fact, be helping more if we helped a bit less?

This notion is, to be honest, a fairly radical departure from current educational dogma.  The current trend is install more and more support mechanisms into our public schools systems—more counselors, more aides, more mentors, more homework helpers, more intervention specialists—and to allow students an unlimited quantity of second chances.  These second chances take many forms: allowing the opportunity to retake tests until they finally pass, turning in late work without penalty, making up missing work with “alternative” assignments, and receiving a passing grade for entire academic years of coursework by attending brief “credit recovery” programs that, in exchange for the completion of a few worksheets, magically replaces the failing grade for classes that were never completed.

The question we need to ask ourselves is this: is all this wonderful support producing able and independent students who are ready for college and career, or do all our best efforts to help do nothing other than produce generation upon generation of young adults with no sense of personal responsibility or initiative—but an exceedingly keen sense of personal entitlement?  Has fifty years of progressive educational thinking in both our nation’s elite schools of education and public school classrooms created, at stupendous taxpayer expense, a national infrastructure of failure?

This does seem to be something we need to think about—and quickly.  However, given the number of educational careers and paychecks now inextricably tied to the notion that children and adolescents are intrinsically incapable of assuming any responsibility for their own successes—and learning from the consequences of their own failures—I am going to guess not.  I suspect we will instead put into place additional public school personnel, programs, and policies guaranteed to produce yet more fragile young adults who are going to fold and flee when they encounter the outside world with their own counterfeit high school diplomas tucked into their pockets along with their iPhones.

We must remember that a credential means nothing to a student who has not earned it, and awarding diplomas to unprepared students devalues the hard work of those students who actually studied and learned.  Failing grades can be a wake-up call for an adolescent who needs to learn responsibility and self-discipline, and there are worse problems in life than being required to spend an extra semester or year mastering the academic skills necessary for future success—this may, in fact, be the most important “help” we can give to a struggling student.

Also published on Head in the Sand (headinthesandblog.org) and Education Post (educationpost.org) on March 23, 2016

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