The Rhode Island Department of Education has announced that its Council on Elementary and Secondary Education has put together new graduation standards, and the result is a disconcerting step toward dilution built on a faulty concept of the purpose of diplomas. Here’s the department’s erroneous notion:
“Our new diploma system provides a menu of options for students, recognizing that one size does not fit all,” said Ken Wagner, Commissioner of Elementary and Secondary Education. “The diploma belongs to the student, not us. The new Diploma System lets students personalize and own their diploma as it will better reflect their interests and strengths.”
Wrong. As much as public school administrators might like the fluffy requirements and metrics of higher education, secondary school is not college. The diploma does not “belong to the student.” Maybe one could say that of his or her transcripts, but the diploma belongs to the district, to all of its graduates collectively, and to the community it represents. It is a certification that the student met the standards of that broader group — that the district and community declare the student to have achieved a baseline of competence and knowledge that all graduates can be expected to match.
Instead, RIDE is attempting to put an inconsequential rider on diplomas called a “Commissioner’s Seal” that would indicate competence on the standardized tests that ought to be a requirement. This is backwards. The state government should not be devaluing diplomas and then giving those students who actually do perform at the expected level a little bonus phrase that means nothing to anybody outside of the Rhode Island education system.
But it gets worse:
Students can also earn optional Pathway Endorsements, such as a Seal of Biliteracy, by demonstrating their learning in a topic of personal interest (e.g., world languages, science and technology, public service, career-technical education). Following guidance that the R.I. Department of Education will develop, local school districts will establish lists of Pathway Endorsements that their graduates can earn, as well as the criteria for demonstrating learning (e.g., completion of a series of courses, completion of an advanced or experiential learning project, earning industry-recognized credentials).
Such “pathways” might be great as an addition to a basic standard, but in this case, they’re being floated as alternative replacements for the basic standard. Moreover, RIDE’s plan is for these various “seals” to become the metric by which the state government grades and compares schools, meaning that districts will have incentive to create wishy-washy programs that ensure that every student can earn at least one “seal.”
Additionally, take particular note of those phrases “will develop” and “will establish.” Everything is in the future and to-be-determined:
“Under a new accountability system, we may set goals to encourage schools to increase the percentages of graduates earning these designations,” Wagner said.
Meanwhile, the years will roll by, and one graduating class after another will come and go. These new graduation requirements will apply to the graduating class of 2021, and then the state will take another five to 10 years to determine that the system isn’t really working, followed by another decade or two of half-hearted bickering between politicians, labor unions, and other special interest groups before another inadequate system is designed to be the vessel for meaningless phrases like “the 21st century workforce.”
Unless Rhode Islanders, generally, and parents, specifically, begin demanding real accountability, real power, and real choices, this process will repeat and repeat until it becomes necessary to start talking about “the 22nd century workforce.”