For nearly twelve years I have been openly discussing the need for educational reform in our public schools and within higher education. Each semester it seems more and more college students are enrolled in remedial and developmental courses that will not transfer to other colleges and do not count towards the degree’s requirements for graduation. Students who take these courses must either pay out-of-pocket or with their federal and state financial aid. Almost all of these students that take the remedial courses have one thing in common – they hold a high school diploma from a public high school.
The legacy of the high school diploma
For the longest time in our nation’s history, the high school diploma was considered as the highest level of education needed to secure a good paying job. I have heard many stories from the older folks in the towns I’ve lived in discussing that even as late as the early 1980s, a high school diploma meant you had the basic skills needed to either go to college or find a decent blue-collar job. Many of those older folk had the academic background and the desire to attend college but because of the cost of higher education and the needs of the family, college was not considered a necessity but more of a desire. Most high schools offered the traditional education courses one would expect but also offered vocational courses that were designed to give the student a rudimentary understanding of a vocation – a career path. It was understood that college was not for everyone. It was not seen as derogatory but as a fact of life.
Since the early days of public education in this nation it had always been demanded that schools prepare the youth of the community to become contributing members of society. It was also understood that as long as the student learned the basics – reading, writing, and arithmetic, the student would be well-prepared for adulthood. In the mid-nineteenth century, most school boards began incorporating recess into the curriculum as a means to address the student’s physical and emotional needs to run and play with classmates and the fine arts to stimulate the development of critical thinking and discipline in a growing mind. Although the schools of the Freedmen were nowhere near equal to the quality of the average urban or small town school, it followed the same programs of study and resembled the frontier and rural schools that educated the white populations living within their communities. Some statistics show that by the end of the 1880s, 7 out of 10 male students not yet 18 at least had an 8th grade education. For women, this number would be roughly 8 out of 10 would have at least a 10th grade education. The small one-room schoolhouse of that century accomplished what American schools today cannot – a nearly 74% literacy rate (defined as literate at the 8th grade reading level) and general competency in earth sciences, math, and history.
Again, these schools had been tasked by their community to educate the student to become a productive and contributing member of society by the 8th grade level. The only students that continued on to actually receive the high school diploma were those who were either planning to go into rural education, apply for admission to college, or were the children of middle class merchants living within the township. In any case, nearly 3 out of 9 students would meet high school graduation requirements by the end of the nineteenth century. By the end of the first decade in the twentieth century, 8 out of 10 students in metropolitan and urban areas were completing the high school diploma and in the more rural areas of the nation, it increased to nearly 6 out of 10. Although there were efforts made since the days of the Jefferson administration to nationalize education it was understood that a one-size-fits-all approach would not work within the United States. The demands of the labor market and economic conditions differed greatly from location to location. Education was tailored to meet those demands and conditions.
The high school diploma would remain the benchmark for many decades until the late 1980s and early 1990s. Being awarded a high school diploma was considered a rite of passage from childhood to adulthood. It meant you had attained the basic skills needed to enter the blue-collar workforce or that you had met the academic standards to continue into higher education. Sometime in the mid-1960s the blue-collar job fell out of favor with those who were entrusted with overseeing the nation’s fractured educational system. The new goal would be that every student would be seen as a potential college student and vocational training in many parts of the nation were phased out over time. During the Clinton administration, Goals 2000, a new federal educational program, called for schools to use the “least restrictive environment” for students needing special educational support. The results have been disastrous as teachers were prohibited from advancing faster than the slowest student in the class was capable of learning. The end results of Goals 2000 and the Bush administration’s No Child Left Behind hastened the collapse of public education within the United States.
Although both programs are lauded by the National Education Association and other teachers’ unions as successes, they have not delivered the promise to the American taxpayer. The high school diploma, once considered the pinnacle of academic achievement for the average American, now is seen as proof that a student has endured public education for thirteen years. Where once it meant that a student had attained a standard of academic literacy this is no longer the case. Too many students are allowed to graduate with inadequate job skills for the workforce or with inadequate academic skills to enroll into college without being funneled into the remedial or developmental courses. This failure should not be blamed on the student alone but is shared with the local school board, yet while the school boards are not held financially accountable, the student and their family is. In an age where many school boards are attempting to justify property and local sales tax increases, they have failed to provide an adequate education to nearly three decades of students.