What Good is a High School Diploma?

There are two ways one could read the title of this blog post.  One, as a legitimate question seeking a legitimate response, or as a rhetorical question dripping with sarcasm.  I'm taking the former on this time around rather than the latter, though perhaps there may portions of this post that will address a cynic's views as well.

First things first, graduation rates are up, and are at their highest level since standardized reporting began in 2011.  Granted, there are some questionable things that may be contributing to this.  For example, as per the Washington Post,  "Some districts have used questionable methods to get students to the finish line, including softening grading scales and using credit recovery programs, which allow students to take abbreviated versions of courses to make up for failing grades."  There is a fine philosophical argument around some of these approaches, and for my purposes, I'm not going to dive in; though, they do beg the question of what end (or ends-plural) is being met.  On one hand, the schools and districts are able to keep out of trouble if their numbers are up--which ultimately isn't positioning the student as the primary purpose.  On the other hand, how much of schooling is absolutely necessary to students when preparing them for post-graduate life?  That depends on who you ask.

The chart below is more for your consideration than anything else.  However, what is it we are looking at when considering the purpose of schooling?  Numbers tend to get the lion's share of attention when we're talking graduation rates, money a graduate makes, number of college acceptances, test scores, and so on.  This is a system by which people are made valuable to the economy.  It seems a cold purpose to me, but when the metrics are quantitative and focused on school survival, how else can a system proceed?  I wrote back in December about the purpose of education, and came to see education as a process by which the individual and the world reconcile themselves to each other's existences.  I think that is the purpose as a student.  From the systemic viewpoint, it's ostensibly about jobs.

BLS chart.png

So it is that we get to the point.  Over the course of my time in schools, I've come to wonder about the reasons that there are so few options for high school graduates when it comes to employment.  The old saw about getting a good job because you have a diploma doesn't really hold up anymore.  Instead, it seems as though a student gets a diploma so they can get a degree.  There are some exceptions, for example, the trades.  I've had two students who came out of high school with multiple certifications in welding, and of those two, one dropped out and a year later was working up and down the east coast making a significantly higher salary than me, the other was hired on by a Fortune 500 company.  So why can't we replicate these types of experiences?

Germany does.  They have a robust apprenticeship program that has options like welding, but not everyone who doesn't see themselves as a college scholar wants to work with their hands.  In Germany, there are bank jobs that have apprenticeship programs.  By the time the students graduate, they've already been working in their field enough that they are ready to transition into full-time.  As per an article from NPR, there are upper management levels in huge companies that are staffed by people whose education into the field was apprenticeship.  Furthermore, the completion of an apprenticeship is viewed differently than the way we view Vocational Technology work here in the USA.  From the NPR article:  "If, for example, someone gets a meister [trans. master] title, it would be published in the local newspaper and there's a huge celebration. It is an important event," Rauner says. "No one in Germany is interested if someone gets a master degree in a university."  As a sidenote, Germany also offers free college education--even to international students.

I'm not going to go into why their system would or would not work here, but what I do want to do is to suggest that if we were to take some of the less esoteric fields of work and create educational opportunities at the K-12 level that would allow for students to transition confidently into their careers, we could perhaps be able to honestly say to kids that they have the ability to really do something great with their diploma--instead of perpetuating a mere fiction.