What does it even mean – “on-time graduation”? It is earning a standard high school diploma in four years; it means graduating by age 18. It assumes a student has advanced through each class, in order, in exactly one school year each, while learning at least 60% of the associated knowledge and skills (or at least doing 60% of the work, but that’s a different issue).
“On-time graduation” means nothing because it disregards learning – real education – and focuses on the amount of time a person spends schooling. If we truly care about the quality of a student’s education, we should consider learning, strong literacy and numeracy skills, and achievement of individual goals long before worrying about the exact timetable. Teachers and administrators love to say that they’re “creating lifelong learners,” but if that’s true, why shouldn’t we offer a little extra support to those who need it? In fact, if we truly care about the quality of education, then shouldn’t we push for “under-time graduation”? That would be respectful of both students’ time and taxpayers’ dollars. What good is “on-time graduation” if a student can honestly and effectively master the content and skills in less than the standard 13 years of public school? And if literacy, numeracy, and some worldly knowledge are actually important, then why should we fire faculty and penalize school divisions if it takes some students longer?
And what about special populations? Graduation timelines have obvious implications for some in the special education community, which is already granted exceptions in most states, but what about immigrants? I have taught dozens of English language learners (ELL) in my career, and many of them are among the hardest working and most capable students I've known. The only limit on their academic success is the rate of English acquisition. So if Americans are truly supportive of legal immigration, acculturation, and assimilation, shouldn't we be willing spend a few extra bucks to provide the educational services necessary to grant full access to our society's best opportunities? Even some of the wealthiest and most progressive school systems in the country can't seem to answer that question right.
Don’t get me wrong – efficiency is important. I know that “over-time graduation” increases the likelihood of dropping out and decreases the student’s lifetime earnings. And it’s obviously a waste of tax-payer dollars – or is it? As it turns out, there is ample evidence to suggest that “over-time graduation” is actually beneficial to the student and society, as opposed to dropping out or even earning a GED, so maybe an extra year or two of school isn’t the worst outcome for some students. Maybe we should reduce the stigma of a fifth year of high school for students who need it. But if efficiency is important, as “on-time graduation” suggests, then we must consider “under-time graduation” as well.
I truly believe that many students can, and should, graduate early. Until the early 20th century, it was not uncommon for students to matriculate at university between 14 and 18 years old, and sometimes even younger. If the average person today is more intelligent than the average person of a century ago, as testing data and the Flynn Effect suggest, then it stands to reason that many teens today can be fully prepared for university in a fraction of the current “on-time graduation” target. Any person who absolutely opposes “over-time graduation” or “under-time graduation” is either an educational charlatan or a myopic traditionalist. Learning must come before pacing unless learning is not the primary goal.
In reality, the strict school timeline that politicians and administrators love so much has little to do with education and much to do with control. The push for “on-time graduation” is nothing more than a push to control the timeline on which we live. You enter school at age 5. You graduate and receive most rights and privileges at age 18. You retire at 67. There are intermediate markers along the way. This timeline is our feeble attempt to sort and organize chaos. It ignores the fact that people have wide ranges of skills and abilities, that people learn differently, that people have different interests and motivations. It ignores the fact that, although we often judge intellect based on speed, a person’s impact on the world has more to do with persistence.
Those who believe in “on-time graduation” regard high school commencement, whether they realize it or not, as a cultural rite of passage, an entrance into adulthood. They are not wrong. However, graduating students without the skills is akin to granting manhood to a boy who hasn’t made his first kill or womanhood to a girl who hasn’t danced or the privileges of church membership to someone who never experienced the sacraments. The purpose of these rites is that they are earned and that a definable act has occurred signaling a transition. It is a way of sorting the psychological chaos of human maturation. Giving a student a diploma that he can’t read is a kind of cultural degradation that doesn’t just hurt schools; it hurts people.
School should be about education, about gaining knowledge, skills, ethics, and wisdom. It should be about self-improvement. If walking the stage is more important than reading the books, then school is just pageantry, just signaling. If we want to make schools better, then we need to focus on education, not order.
Because no one else