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The Hewlett Foundation Blog




Does a High School Diploma Really Matter? 

July 10, 2014 — By Monica Martinez

Monica R. Martinez, PhD, is a former president of the New Tech Network and was previously vice president of Knowledge Works.

I have a confession to make: although I love my nephew, Benjamin, I actually didn’t go to his high school graduation last month. In fact, I also skipped out on my niece Danielle’s graduation ceremony last year. My parents, brother, and sister were not too thrilled. I offered reasonable excuses for my absence but, truth be told, deep down I don’t think the occasion should be treated as that big of a deal any more. I see high school graduation as only a small step toward success in today’s economy and complex lifetime. I am much more excited about the time when my niece and nephew eventually graduate from college since that, in my mind, is the new starting line for success as an adult.

Data and prominent education leaders support my thinking. As Hewlett Foundation Education Program Director Barbara Chow wrote in her last post, Graduation Day, if high school graduates “do not go on to postsecondary education, they will likely move very quickly from celebrating commencement to struggling to find a job and keep it.” In fact, every report out there, several of which Barbara referenced, validates the importance of postsecondary enrollment and success.

My laissez-faire attitude about even my own family’s high school graduations can be coupled with work on my new book on high school reform, Deeper Learning: How Eight Public Schools are Transforming Education in the Twenty-First Century.  This forced me to stop and think. When did I decide that the traditional high school diploma lost its value? And what would it take to get it back?

What many people might not know is that an initial principle of what we think of as “high school” was a means to reduce the barriers to secondary education so many more kids would enroll. That way society could then identify the  few select students with the necessary “finite talent”  to be prepped for college. This created a system of “tracking”, wherein some students were set on a course towards college and others were not.

In my own experience I felt the effects of tracking. I was one of the few Mexican American students in my school in Denver, and despite maintaining a good grade point average and the fact that my parents and I had every intention that I would go to college—I was not placed into the college preparatory track. Despite that setback, I did go on to college but, because my high school education lacked rigor, I failed miserably during my freshman year. My experience made me realize that secondary education needed to change so that all students will be set up for success. My experience led me to earn a PhD and to research and lead education reform as a career.

As I visited high schools in my various professional roles I began to see that this was a problem all around the country, and not just where I grew up. Because of school reforms that required a curriculum “a mile wide and an inch deep,” teachers were forced to focus on passive learning, leaving students to learn through rote memorization. Students then seemed to view high school as simply a rite of passage. Even college-bound students saw their studies as meaningless hazing—the real learning would happen in college. I met a high schooler at Avalon High School in Minnesota, who said:

“My goals were superficial: all I wanted to get out of high school was a good GPA.  [M]y whole high school career was going to culminate in a number on a piece of paper that won’t really mean anything to me… but just something I had to do to get in to college.”   

Here was a young woman who expressed exactly why I—after all these years—couldn’t get excited about a high school graduation any more.

But there is hope: the eight schools I profiled in my book shared a single-minded resolve to create curious and passionate learners of all students—not just those who fit some outdated stereotype of “talented.” With a focus on deeper learning outcomes, the students understood core academic content and concepts, were critical thinkers and problem solvers, effective communicators and productive collaborators who  were persistent and believed in their abilities (known as an academic mindset) and were able to direct their own learning.

The culture of these schools is one of trust, respect, and collaboration. They promoted camaraderie and professional development among teachers and, most importantly, they shifted control from government administrators back into the hands of teachers and students.  The teachers shared a sentiment summarized so well by Susan McCray, the eleventh grade Humanities teacher at Casco Bay High School in Portland, Maine: “Everything is integrated; [students] can see and feel the meaning and purpose of what they are doing.” The barriers between school and community have been blurred.

I saw students and educators in twenty-first century classrooms that empowered students to learn through projects that interested them, whether it be developing smart phone apps or participating in lively debates. These schools incorporate technology purposefully to enhance, rather than simply automate, learning. Their principals and teachers value technology —“part and parcel of everything we do,” according to Chris Lehmann, Principal of Science Leadership Academy.

We need to purposefully ensure that high school graduation is not simply a rite of passage where students receive a “certificate,” but rather where a diploma guarantees students are capable of being leaders of their own educational lives and are able to apply their knowledge and skills to succeed at whatever they choose to pursue.   

The eight schools in my book—and the many others like them around the nation that are part of what has become known as the Deeper Learning Network—are examples of what  a meaningful high school diploma could look like. Deeper learning must become the new normal.

Then, maybe, the schools that I spend time researching and documenting won’t feel like the exception; I will be able to happily visit any high school on graduation day, knowing full well that all students were placed in the “deeper learning track”. We all need to make sure that students get an education and a degree that is more meaningful. We should all be asking if our kids are attending schools that deliver knowledge and the skills and dispositions they would need to take charge of their learning and succeed in college, career, and life. Schools like the case studies I’ve written about. I know that’s what I would have wanted for my niece and nephew.