Whose Diploma and What Accountability?

Watching the center-ring clowns of Rhode Island’s education establishment blow reform bubbles at each other provides numerous opportunities for incredulity from the watching public, but this statement deserves to be on the big-top’s central screen:

[RI Education Commissioner Ken] Wagner says he is trying to maintain rigorous standards without sacrificing students. To do that, he wants to offer two commendations beyond the traditional diploma: one for high academic achievement, the other to recognize individual expertise, say, a concentration in the arts.

“Students told us, ‘This is my diploma. Let me show you what I’m good at,'” he said.

If the state’s top education bureaucrat echoes that particular student inanity, I’d recommend anybody with the means should flee the public education system in this state.  (Rather, I’d re-up my recommendation to do that.)  A high school diploma is worthless if it’s little more than a marker that a child has occupied space for a minimum amount of time and proven that he or she is capable of finding something at which he or she doesn’t fail.

In a crucial way, it isn’t a particular student’s diploma.  It’s the system’s diploma.  It is a signal that the student has fulfilled the requirements of the education system, and those requirements define the value of receiving their final approval.  Moreover, inventing new levels of higher achievement (because we lack the guts to devalue participation awards) will be a Rhode Island quirk that most individuals, colleges, and employers will glance right over.

And then there’s this (likely) meaningless talking point:

Wagner wants to eliminate the state’s latest standardized test as a high school graduation requirement. The state would continue to test students but the districts would be held accountable, not the students.

How exactly is the state going to hold districts accountable?  Take away money?  Contractual pressure and economic reality make that little different than placing the consequences on students.  Do something that ensures that administrators and teachers receive some sort of professional or financial penalty?  The unions and their elected puppets would never let that go through.  Let parents take their kids out of the district and send them to private school using the money set aside for them?  That move would have to come straight from brave, determined elected officials (who don’t currently exist in sufficient numbers).

These are all smoky promises and hollow threats, and Rhode Island’s children deserve better.

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