How do we stop cheating students and start fixing our public school ‘diploma mills’?

Just as any other teacher, I send my students out the door at the end of the school year with my hope that they are able to take what they have learned and make good lives for themselves—but I know I don’t succeed with every student.

Students may struggle in school—and later life—for a variety of reasons that are unrelated to their innate ability to master the subject material at hand.  Any teacher who has, for example, had a student crash because of death or divorce in their family will attest that the messiness of life sometimes impedes learning.

However, it is not at all unfair or unreasonable to assert that students sometimes don’t learn for a more basic reason: We don’t bother to teach them.  If, as is typically the case, I am the first person to tell a first-year college student that you cannot join two complete sentences with only a comma or “I should of locked the front door” is incorrectly written, I have to wonder what was being done during those thirteen years of public schooling.

Given that more than half of community college students nationally end up with at least one remedial (read: middle or high school level) course placement, poor academic preparation seems too common a problem to explain away as happenstance.  I still find it remarkable that my colleagues in the math department need to teach a portion of our freshmen about number lines and multiplication tables in the remedial courses that they offer— this should not be happening.

Life can be, as I pointed out earlier, rather messy for many students; we should not make these messy lives even more difficult by neglecting to help our students prepare for fulfilling and productive lives.  No matter what someone decides to do with their life, reading, writing, and some basic math are going to come into play at some point.  If our public education system simply passes students along from grade to grade with a total disregard for their actual learning, these graduates can look forward to little but burning their financial aid or scarce cash trying to learn the material that they should have mastered before being handed a high school diploma.  

What an incredible waste of money and time.

Anytime we award a young man or woman a useless high school diploma, we are cheating them out of most of life’s richness and opportunity.  Given how few well-paying and secure job openings exist for graduating students who cannot read, write, or handle even the most basic math, this deception is truly criminal.  If our nation’s public schools were operated as private enterprises, the Attorney General of the United States would have no choice but to charge them with operating as diploma mills. However, because they are government-operated entities, it is apparently no problem that they continue to defraud so many of our students—for generation after generation after generation.

The ongoing problems that our public schools have with fulfilling their basic function—educating all of our children to their greatest potential—have been documented in excruciating detail for many decades now. But little or nothing has changed because to actually reform the system would collide with another of its basic sub-functions: providing well-paying jobs for those with good intentions but questionable competence.

Our public school system is perhaps the most startling and infuriating example of the broken promises of our government.  Weaknesses in our public schools cut across our nation, but if a child is poor and/or minority, our broken system acts as a primary and powerful agent of “social immobility,” condemning those most in need to the worst educations.   It is the cruelest of canards to insist that those on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder can pull themselves up by their bootstraps when we continue to saw them off at the knees in glorified daycare/holding facilities masquerading as schools.

None of this is new information and little of it has not already been thoroughly studied and documented until our heads are near to exploding, yet what little progress we have made over these many years of effort and expense is hard to discern unless one is willing to squint very, very hard.  One of the most succinct explanations of the dangers of continuing to do nothing to get to the root of the problems—instead of continuing to talk and nod and nibble around the edges—was contained in a report published in 2012 by The Council on Foreign Relations.  They noted the following:

“…the United States cannot be two countries—one educated and one not, one employable and one not. Such a divide would undermine the country’s cohesion and confidence and America’s ability and willingness to lead. Opportunity and promise for all Americans are bedrock principles upon which this country was founded.”

I could not have said it any better myself, but we must be willing to step on a great number of politically-powerful toes if we hope to ever make any progress when it comes to ensuring that every child in America has access to a high quality education.

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Andrew Wilk

Andrew Wilk

Andrew teaches both English and English as a Second Language (ESL) at Parkland College in Champaign, Illinois, and during the 2014-15 academic year he was nominated for the Teaching Excellence Award at the college in recognition of his work in the classroom. In addition to teaching at both the secondary and college level, he worked for many years in the private sector, holding professional and administrative positions in advertising, journalism and healthcare. Andrew has published over 100 commentaries on topics ranging from politics to education, and he has also published a novel, “A Day at the Fair with Chili Boy.” He writes on his blog, Common Sense. He is the dad of two grown children, who attended public schools in Urbana.

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