Dumping the high school diploma


by Jim Strickland

Imagine someone offering you a certificate for speaking a foreign language, or putting new brakes on a car, or playing a musical instrument, or some other skill.  There are three ways to get this certificate, they tell you: 1) learn and demonstrate the skill, 2) write a paper on the skill, or 3) pay a certification fee.  In this scenario, the option you chose would depend on whether you actually wanted the skill or just needed the certificate.  And by the way, they add, your future happiness and success depend on having this certificate, whether you want the skill or not!

A similar situation has developed with the American high school diploma.  A person’s future success has become tied to possessing the certificate regardless of the skills it is supposed to represent.  On the one hand we tell our kids that school is all about learning and growth and finding your place in the world, but on the other hand we emphasize the certificate itself and warn them that failure to earn a diploma is tantamount to economic and social suicide.

Just how ridiculous this can get is seen in many of the credit retrieval options available to students who are at risk for not graduating.  If a student is missing a required credit in, say, history or science, he or she is often given a packet of worksheets to complete to “retrieve” this credit and get back on track for graduation.  Do these students experience real learning and growth?  Of course not, nor are they meant to.  This is the kind of crazy hoop-jumping that we demand of young people when we emphasize getting gold stars over doing something that really matters.

School reformers have been trying to shore up the high school diploma for decades with ideas like common core standards, merit pay for teachers, privatization schemes, etc.  But maybe it is time we call a spade a spade.  The high school diploma is an antiquated tradition that has become the single largest obstacle to real learning, engagement, and connection in our schools.  We use it as a hammer to enforce compliance with a system that is failing to give life to countless young people who are in dire need of inspiration and genuine respect.

What would happen if we just got rid of the high school diploma altogether?  Would we have a mass exodus of uninspired and disengaged students who had just been going through the motions?  If so, then what does that tell us about the quality of the high school experience for these students?

Rather than inciting a stampede away from school, however, I predict that getting rid of the high school diploma would open the door for creating learning that is an end in itself – relevant, meaningful, and personalized.  This would result in places of learning that truly respect the diverse interests, aptitudes, and needs of our youth.

To make this happen, we need businesses, organizations, and postsecondary education to screen prospective applicants on the basis of real skills instead of a misleading and grossly discriminatory piece of paper.

One of my favorite John Dewey quotes is from his pedagogic creed written in 1897 – “Education is a process of living and not a preparation for future living.”  The habits of the mind and heart–like courage, curiosity, freedom and compassion–are developed by living them now, not by jumping through standardized hoops for some hypothetical use in the future.

It is time to take the next step in American education.  Getting rid of the high school diploma may be just what we need.

Jim Strickland is a public educator in Marysville, WA where he lives with his wife and three children.  He is a long-time advocate of democratic, non-coercive, and learner-centered education, and writes regularly on these topics.  Jim welcomes your comments and ideas at .