Shortcut to a dead end street
One of my favorite sci-fi authors was Robert A. Heinlein, who used the following acronym in his masterpiece The Moon Is A Harsh Mistress:TANSTAAFL, which stands for "There Ain't No Such Thing As A Free Lunch." After reading the following article, one wonders if he was right.
By the time Spencer Taiti graduates from [Salt Lake City's] Woods Cross High School, he will have spent hours of school time doing everything but learning. An inveterate class-skipper, the junior guesses he has failed or will fail as many as 10 classes, often because he didn't bother to show up.
But he will graduate, the teen says. If he has his way, Taiti will make up all those failed classes by completing packets provided by private companies such as Layton's Northridge Learning Center. The course packet his friend Meleana Otukolo completed in about five hours earned her the credit she should have gotten attending nine weeks of class for about 90 minutes every other day. At Northridge, that "quarter" credit costs $45.
"I want to get done with school the easiest way possible," he says.
At a time of increasing academic standards in Utah, teachers report an epidemic of students making up classes they couldn't bother to attend by buying course packets or going to workshops offered by private educators. Students say cheating is simple and happens frequently. It's easy to copy a buddy's packet, and not all students have to take a final test, they say.
Many educators have long-standing doubts about the quality of education provided in these programs. Dixie Evans runs one of the schools that provides credit packets described in this article, and defends the service she provides as necessary:
Evans said the school can show how it has met all the requirements of accreditation. Programs like hers fill a need, she says.
"What about students who aren't successful in a classroom situation? What do you do with those?" she asks. "Public education is mandatory in our country. We have to find some way to help these people succeed."
I imagine young people like the young man at the start of this article would have been able to succeed if he's been able to bestir himself into actually showing up and paying attention. One Utah high school counselor in the article states that he thinks the programs are a good thing:
"If a kid can get out with a diploma, the rest of their life is better for them," said Orin Johanson, a West counselor. "If we have to send them to some less-than-appropriate make-up [program], I, for one, think it's OK if a kid is dealing with certain circumstances."
He points to major life crises and changes such as pregnancy, death and divorce. Some kids work and are unable to attend an after-school make-up credit option.
Though he doesn't want to see the system abused, Johanson remains practical.
"Until we as a school system set up a larger variety of school-sponsored options, then we should be open, in the best interest of kids, to other options to help kids get diplomas," the counselor said.
I highly recommend reading the entire article.
Here's what troubles me about the whole thing: Apparently people have forgotten why we go to school, and what an education actually is. Schools are not merely places to pick up credentials. Pell-mell granting of diplomas which are hollow and representative of no actual knowledge in recent years is what has gotten us into the current mess we are in in education.
I have had students plead for extra credit so that they could raise their grades at the very last minute. I do offer extra credit projects which require a lot of thought and effort to complete, and only to students who have done all of their regularly assigned work. The purpose of this extra credit is to increase the student's understanding of the subject, not merely to plump up a lackluster grade. But basically, as much as I can establish a system within the parameters of school policy, grades in my classes are evaluations of the level of understanding students demonstrate. I require that students who are dissatisfied with their grade come for extra help outside of class time or during some other time when I can give them some one-on-one attention. But the time to get concerned about your grade is when you see those low quiz or essay grades and realize that you are not demonstrating "A" level work, or whatever grade it is you wish to receive.
There's a mistaken notion in the situation described in the article that if a kid has a paper labelled "Diploma" in their hand, they can know absolutely nothing, but having that paper will still open all kinds of doors for them. And the impression of public schools as failing to accomplish what should be their only goal-- to help create an educated populace-- will be further enhanced.
To me it's not about the grade, it's not about the credential-- it's about the learning. Otherwise, why are we here? I know this sounds somewhat naive-- to many parents, students, and, sadly, some teachers and administrators, it's the grade or the diploma that matters. I have told my own children that I would rather see them get a C in a difficult class that challenged them than an A in a class that did nothing to further their education.
The door may initially open for these ersatz high school graduates, but as soon as it becomes obvious that the "graduate" does not possess basic skills, unless their family owns the company, they will be shown that very door out in the real world. And besides content knowledge, there are other skills that are valued in the real world, like: showing up on time, showing up regularly, being willing to do mundane tasks in the achievement of a greater goal, and being able to sustain effort for longer than a session of DOOM on the ol' Playstation.
Many schools have turned to contracting with these easy credit factories in a frantic attempt to lower their drop-out rate so that their accreditation may not suffer. Generally, I think we can agree that there's a delicate equilibrium between drop-out rates and academic standards in a school. Make earning credit too hard, and kids will drop out. Make earning credit too easy, and you will produce graduates who are ignorant of even the most rudimentary knowledge, and even honors classes will be watered down as a result. God knows we've all known people with graduate degrees like MBAs from Harvard who didn't seem to know what a civil war is.
Is the system a game or are the students gaming the system? Ultimately, an education is only as good as the real work each of us puts into creating it for ourselves.