Philosopher Bertrand Russell once wrote that “We must have some concept of the kind of person we wish to produce before we can have any definite opinion as to the education which we consider best.” So when it comes to determining what we as a community want from our high schools, the first thing we need to consider is what kind of persons we want them to produce.
In conversations with parents, educators and community members over the years about the kind of adults they hope their children become, it has been common to hear characteristics such as happy, curious, compassionate, thoughtful, responsible, confident, self-directing, etc. The list goes on, but rarely have I heard a parent say they want their child to grow up to be submissive, alienated or standardized.
If this is truly the case, then it leads us to consider whether what we are doing now in our high schools is really consistent with what we say we want? In spite of all the rhetoric about developing schools for a creative and flexible 21st-century world, it seems the traditional high school experience is becoming more rigid, more standardized and more narrowly focused.
For example, starting with the class of 2019, students in Washington state will be required to earn 24 credits (up four from the current 20) with only one being in the area of career and technical education. This neglect of practical vocational skills and other creative course options is making school less engaging and less relevant for the two-thirds of students who have no plans to attend a 4-year college, but who will nevertheless be living and working in our community as adults.
Rather than allowing the requirements for a high school diploma to unnecessarily restrict students, schools and districts, perhaps it is time to look beyond the traditional diploma to something that can actually produce the kind of persons we want our children to become.
Instead of a diploma based on standardized achievement goals, why not have students leave high school with a portfolio that truly reflects who they are and what they can do? This portfolio could include things such as courses taken, personal strengths, interests and experiences, life and career goals, and specific skill certificates they have earned such as computer programming, graphic design, basic construction, organizational leadership or conflict mediation.
Yes, each student’s portfolio would be different from all others, reflecting their unique combination of gifts and talents. Each student could pursue a more personalized high school experience that was engaging, productive, and even inspiring. Graduation would take place the year a student turns 18, accompanied by portfolio presentations where each student shows how they are prepared to become a contributing member of their community. High school graduation would be a true rite of passage instead of the abstract ticket to nowhere it has become for far too many of our youth.
There is much nostalgia surrounding the traditional high school diploma that will be difficult for some to give up. But let’s face it — a 21st-century education cannot be one that is impersonal, standardized or imposed. It must be an education that honors the diversity, dreams and unique passions of our children; an education that produces the kind of caring, connected and contributing citizens that our world needs.
To paraphrase Thomas Jefferson, whenever any form of education becomes destructive of the ends for which it was created, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it. Could it be that the time of the standard high school diploma is done?
Jim Strickland is a teacher at Marysville Pilchuck High School.