The problem for far too many students in public schools around the country is that we have awarded them a diploma under false pretenses. A diploma should mean that a student has completed high school and is adequately prepared for college coursework, without needing remediation. It should also mean that they are equipped for a career of some kind.
I was one of those students whose diploma did not amount to much. And it shocked me.
In elementary school, I started my first business. I named it Crittermins (vitamins for dogs and cats) and was out marketing my healthy concoction, along with catnip-stuffed mice that I had made from scraps of fabric, to local pet stores after school.
I couldn’t grow up fast enough and I looked forward to the endless possibilities that awaited me once I headed to high school.
All of that enthusiasm and wide-eyed anticipation quickly faded to disenchantment when I finally entered high school only to find myself in what felt like an endless lunch line. I could see what I wanted but couldn’t quite reach it fast enough, and the hurdles and congestion felt unnecessary.
Each day, I sat through my classes, patiently counting the days until I could escape what felt like educational purgatory.
There was biology, my first real science class. I remember the nearly 200 extra credit points that padded my grade, mostly from spending “learning time” scoring the teacher’s papers for her.
There was my language arts class. We “read” all the great works and discussed them deeply—except we focused mostly on the details of the story. There was no exploration of the characters’ souls, nor the students’.
In fact, I never picked up a book that was assigned, yet always earned high scores on my papers, tests and other assignments.
To Be Saved
Thankfully, I got a teacher to sponsor an independent study class during my senior year. It saved me. It might have been the only profound and insightful part of those four years of high school.
I traveled to the state capitol every day to lobby for an environmental organization and had a chance to see first-hand what problems the real world would bring.
But for all of my frustration and discontent, I knew in my mind that I was attending a “top-rated” public high school. My school was supposedly a model in an exemplary school district with students graduating and attending top Ivy League schools. I had good grades, so that meant I was ready for college.
I had been accepted to a top-rated private college on the west coast and thought I would be fine because I excelled in high school. I felt prepared and looked forward to the freedom of quasi-adulthood away from home for the first time.
Not Worth the Paper It’s Printed On
But I’ll never forget my first class, or my first semester for that matter. I, a capable graduate of a top-flight public school, nearly failed all of my classes. I showed up to every class, tried to participate and asked loads of questions during office hours.
I didn’t struggle because I was an out-of-control freshman. The problem was that I was not as prepared as my diploma indicated. All of those classes in high school where I earned good grades and turned in “excellent” papers did not stack up to what was expected in college.
I felt betrayed.
I was told by my public school leaders that if I got all A’s and volunteered and played sports that I would be a well-rounded kid who could go to any college I wanted. So I did all of that and was left considering a transfer to another school.
As a result, I was conservative in my choices about classes and major and took very few risks. I spent countless hours in the campus tutoring center, took remedial level math during the summer and felt that I was always slogging away while my peers floated through with ease.
I think that I was able to be successful and graduate with a 3.4 GPA because I didn’t want to fail at college. I wouldn’t let myself. I gave up some of the fun to learn.
I know it would have been easier if my high school experience had been more rigorous.
Paving a Path to Success
Our obligation to students is to send them into the world fully equipped to make decisions about what they want to do. If they choose to go to college, we must ensure that they leave with the skills and knowledge they need.
That’s not to say that their path will always be smooth. The reality, however, is that we tell kids they are ready when they are not. We teach to sub-par standards and prepare them for easy tests and then pat them on the back and hand them a sheet of paper saying they have succeeded.
But a high school diploma does not bestow success. It needs to be a marker of future success. Education should bring forth endless possibilities, not stifling limitations.