I have a confession. It’s one which may surprise you. Please bear with me and read it through.
I, a 20 year veteran high school teacher, think state mandated high school graduation requirements are a crock. Yep, there I wrote it. And once I click publish It will be out there for the world. I admit to some trepidation.
You see, from the ivory tower of the education, I like many of my peers was raised to believe in education as the single most powerful difference I could make in social justice. A diploma is a gateway drug to higher education, employability, citizenship and all manner of addictive responsible behaviors. Diplomas make us stand up and feel counted, members of a larger club with privileges. As such I have been guilty of being an edu-snob and pushing every child I have ever met to reach that graduation goal the traditional way.
The problem, in my mind, is not the goal. The problem is the benchmarks by which we decide how someone meets that goal. Is a child with 4 years of high school english really more employable than one with 3 who also worked in a woodshop? Is an young adult more likely to reach productive society member status because they took 3 years of PE?
I’m ok with these things being benchmarks by which a student prepares to move to higher education, but I have come to believe that the edu-snobbery movement in this country is designed to impede social justice rather than encourage achievement.
“Mike” at summer school
A former student of mine, we’ll call him Mike, first came into my class when I was covering a summer “bridge” program for middle school. He had failed two courses and could not proceed to 8th grade without a makeup. Mike’s requirement for the “bridge” was show up, every day, on time, and do as I asked.
Luckily as an ethical sort, what I asked was for him to read a little, compute solutions a little, write a little, and investigate the arts and athletics a little. As such we got on well. He was a bright enough child. Mike like so many others was a child of impoverished separate parents. When he left my room, he often had no idea where or if he would sleep, if he would be safe , if he would eat. Mike’s parents were educated. His father lost his job in the recession and still is working for minimum wage. His mother had returned to the workforce to find that her skills had lagged while she raised her young children and bounced from temp job to temp job until very recently when a workplace education initiative has finally made her employable at a level just above the poverty line for a single woman, not for a mother of 3. So, Mike like so many of his generation was shown early the hard lesson that working hard in school no longer means what it meant in my parents generation. Its no longer a pathway to security except for a very small sub-sector of skillsets. Moreover, his mother heard “overqualified” so many times that Mike learned, sometimes too much education means the employers are afraid they’ll have to pay you more, and will not even interview you for an entry level position.
What Mike wanted, more than anything, was to have an hourly job so that he could help his family. I watched him struggle through the 7th and 8th grades forced to do summer school at each. At age 15 he started applying for jobs and was told over and over again that the job market was flooded and they would not hire without a high school diploma. Mike needed that paper so that he could begin his life, so he stayed. Through freshman and sophomore year he worked hard, and then junior year they lost their home. He lost weight, he became withdrawn, I was scared for him. I stopped working there and went to full time online in this timeframe, but I always looked for him when I was there.
State law said that he could not take the GED until his classmates graduate. Local ordinance said he could not work during school hours or after 10 pm until he graduated. One day I arrived to find Mike had slept in the school doorway. He was trapped and the odds were so stacked against him he wasn’t going to pass any classes, meaning the ever elusive piece of paper was slipping further from his grasp. Education requirements were literally killing this child. It is worth noting that “alternative programs” in Illinois had by this time lost all of their funding because we live in the worst state economically in the Union.
Now, prior to that moment, I had tolerated credit recovery programs. I had however ethically felt they were fundamentally wrong in philosophy. They were short cuts, and they were not the best we could do for students. But there I was, having given Mike my granola bar and an orange faced with a child who didn’t need my best. He needed enough. He needed better than what was happening to him. He needed to be set free from my predisposed edu-snobbery that had confused high school graduation with college preparation. He was 8 credits away.
Mike’s district required students to pay for any credit recovery program they take. It was $70/course/semester. $1120 and his work ethic would set him free of this purgatory. I decided to pay for the first course, on the caveat that when he passed I could pay for the next. I opened my classroom early and stayed late bringing dinner, and he poured through curriculum like his life depended on in. In 10 weeks, He graduated, and was immediately hired at a local store.
Mike is now the store manager. He is getting married next month and lives in a house he will have paid off in the next year. He is taking additional classes at community college sponsored by his store.
So, where is the social justice is forcing everyone to a college entrance standard of achievement? Whether it is ordinances requiring a diploma for employment, or policies that insist that accelerated learning paths based on competencies are somehow less deserving of moving on, current policies are anything but social justice for kids in poverty. Children were not massed produced in a lab, and do not all need to meet a liberal arts standard. Some of them simply want to have the opportunity to live and survive. We need to be careful that in our quest to provide the best for kids, we don’t overlook providing for their basic needs.