Sunday, January 6, 2013

The "High School Diploma" Has Outlived its Usefulness

Last night I was researching the international acceptability of various certificates called, in British English, "group awards". These are qualifications, like the French baccalaureat, that signal both the completion of secondary school and the admission to higher education. I was researching what are in general some of the strongest universities to be found in the world outside of the United States: I looked at the entrance requirements and policies for the University of Cambridge, ETH Zurich, and McGill University, for example. While looking at the admissions requirements for the National University of Singapore, I was struck by something: after seeing the assessment of that leading university, one of the tops in Asia and in the first rank of the world, of entrance qualifications such as A levels, the IB, the Abitur, and so on, I saw listed, under "Other Qualifications", the "American High School Diploma". This wasn't surprising, but its classification with its neighbours was: the American high school diploma is classed, in this educationally leading country, with qualifications from the third world countries of Bangladesh, the Philippines, Myanmar, Thailand, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, and West Africa!

This Singaporean assessment of our graduates may be a bit extreme, but the truth is, as one compares the various admissions policies of different countries and universities around the world, one sees that in no developed part of the world outside of North America is our high school diploma regarded as adequate preparation for university. The Common Core effort is an ongoing attempt to ameliorate this problem; but because it attempts to simultaneously address preparation for careers with preparation for college, and because it only focuses on the basic skills developed by the usual two subjects, English and mathematics (although a third, general science, is on the way), it has essentially no chance of bringing about much of a difference in closing this gap in secondary leaving standards between those American high school graduates achieve and those in much of the developed world, especially Europe.

The high school diploma, like the culture of our comprehensive high schools in general, is a residual artefact from the 20th century high school movement, a successful effort to raise our educational attainment until we were first in the world by the middle of the 20th century. It served its purpose: our high school graduation rate rose from less than 10 percent near the start of that century to around 70 percent a half century later. But we haven't changed our approach to secondary education since then, and our approach is now badly out of date.

We need something better, if we want to regain the leadership in education that we long enjoyed.   

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