A lot has happened recently to make us understand that the high school diploma isn’t especially useful anymore as a certification.  What do I mean by that?  What it comes down to is what does a high school diploma mean?  What does it certify?  There was a time when we thought a high school diploma certified that you had mastered the basic competencies to be a competent adult who’s a part of a community who’s ready to learn whatever was necessary to earn a living.

There was a time when a high school diploma meant that you were ready to move on to college and get additional higher level training to pursue a career or to explore ideas at a different level.  But unfortunately neither of those is true anymore.  Most of the kids who get a high school diploma, especially in urban districts, are not ready to do college level work as evidenced by the fact that they need remediation in college in reading, in mathematics or in both.

If you ask anyone who hires entry-level employees they will tell you that the existence of a high school diploma does not mean necessarily that the employee is trainable, that the employee has a basic grasp of math or communication skills either.  And if the diploma doesn’t mean that anymore then I think the time has come for the society to ask what it does mean.  And sadly, the only thing that you can consistently say about someone who holds a high school diploma, especially one issued in the last few years, is that they come from a family stable enough to get them to school most days for 12 years.

That’s not enough.  That’s not useful to institutions of higher learning.  It’s not useful to employers.  It not useful to fellow citizens.  And so I think that the time to think about what we expect of someone at that level of education has come. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

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