Tuesday, May 31, 2005

The Counterfeit Currency Of A High School Diploma: A Letter From John S.

The Counterfeit Currency of a High School Diploma

When the "Founding Fathers" finally got the chance to run our young nation’s economic affairs free of dependence on England, they stumbled. A likely cause, they were mostly land owners, farmers and lawyers not experienced with handling money on a large scale. Alexander Hamilton understood money better than any of the “Founders”. Hamilton founded the US Bank and remedied many of the economic problems when he was appointed by George Washington to be the first Secretary of the Treasury. The United States did not however begin with a common national currency.

From the early days of the United States, with minimum regulation, over 1,600 state-chartered, private banks issued paper money. These State bank notes, with over 30,000 varieties of color and design, were easily counterfeited, and combined with numerous bank failures to cause confusion to say the least. With no common currency there was no confidence in the value of any given dollar.

After nearly 100 years of “festive federalism” the anti federal control politicians finally through in the towel. Teetering on the brink of bankruptcy and pressed to finance the Civil War, in 1861 the thirty seventh Congress authorized the United States Treasury to issue paper money and the US finally got what it desperately needed a common currency.

What makes any currency (or diploma) valuable? The perception and confidence in the currency based on the belief that the exchange value of the currency is at parity at the time of the exchange. Today one ten dollar bill has the exchange value of any other ten dollar bill, not so in 1860.

In the United States the power to define what “standards” a student must meet in order to receive a high school diploma has traditionally been assumed to be the responsibility of the States. This being one of the few things in existence both Federalists and Teachers Unions agree on.

These “standards” vary widely depending on the state. The MCAS in Massachusetts and the Regents in NY are at the top with Mississippi and California at the bottom. Do colleges have confidence a high school diploma from one school is as valuable i.e. required the same subject matter knowledge to obtain as any other? Do employers? Not likely. By any reasonable definition a high school diploma in the United States is a counterfeit currency.

Our most demanding high school standards or high school exit examinations aren’t demanding at all compared with many other countries. The new National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) advanced placement eighth grade math standards are the same as Singapore’s everyday Sixth grade math standards.

Last year California gave waivers to over 10,000 high school seniors who had never taken Algebra (a state legal requirement to graduate) so they could graduate on time. They might as well have printed those diplomas on toilet paper.

The majority of our economic competitors are not foolish enough to allow the issuance of counterfeit high school diplomas and instead rely on demanding national content specific standards and/or a demanding matriculation examination to graduate from high school. In some countries the amount of class time and subject matter covered by the end of high school is equivalent to what is required by a student receiving a bachelor’s degree in the US. In China the high school students don’t take the SAT they take the GRE and perform as well as our best college students.

The federal requirements under NCLB may prove to be unconstitutional which would allow the states to determine their own standards, their own definition of “progress” as well as how and who is to be measured yet still receive federal funds. A national disaster that would haunt future generations for decades.

The unbendable belief by many conservatives in always following the “original intent” of the founding fathers is tragically laughable in the case of the need for demanding, national, content specific, grade level academic standards. The “Founders” were among the greatest men in history but far from infallible, remember how well they handled the issue of a common currency for the first century.

Is there any chance the US Congress will address the lack of national standards let alone world class, national, content standards for core subjects at every grade level? The word snowball comes to mind. In addition to the fundamental constitutional issues, there are no campaign contributors on the side of world class, national, content standards. Installing national content standards is the right thing to do but this is a representative democracy where money talks, philosophical absolutism reigns and everything else falls silent. When those whose lives will be impacted most have neither money nor votes their voices are seldom if ever heard.

We don’t need to create our own world class standards for math and science; Singapore, China, Japan and much of Europe have already done so. Singapore’s standards (ranked #1 in the world in math and science) are already in English. Any parent with a credit card and an internet connection can benchmark their student’s progress in Math and Science against the world’s best by purchasing the materials online at www.singaporemath.com.

With NAEP participation now mandatory for all states who receive Title 1 funding, we at least know where any given state ranks compared to the other forty nine. With no consequences for a last place finish NAEP is a paper tiger. The use of both AP (Advanced Placement) and IB (International Baccalaureate) are growing as they become the “de facto” national content standards used mostly by the well to do and the lucky few. The IB program is recognized around the world.

Until we have world class national content specific standards, and a matriculation exam to match, High school diplomas in the United States will remain a counterfeit currency.

Top 15 Reasons for National Content Specific Standards.

  1. There is irrefutable evidence that national, grade level, content specific standards are a major component of the world’s highest achieving school systems and are a cornerstone of that achievement. Every country that outscores the US on TIMSS has national standards.
  2. Education costs are reduced significantly due to the elimination of a number of expenses including, pedagogic staff, and other administration.
  3. Teacher’s skills can be focused on how to teach a subject area not what to teach.
  4. Teacher’s skills can be employed to improve the instructional methods and classroom practice from the classroom up. In Japan this is called “Lesson study” and it has been ongoing for over three decades.
  5. Older, wiser more experienced teachers can be of help to younger teachers when they are allowed to collaborate.
  6. Instruction and optimal classroom practice become the focus.
  7. Teachers have more time to focus on each child’s needs in relation to how to learn the specific lessons.
  8. The entire curriculum is covered because all of it is known, understood and measured
  9. Parents can participate directly and conveniently in their child’s education. Parents tend to be less alienated from the school when it is very clear what their child needs to learn.
  10. The 15,000 school districts can be held directly accountable because everyone knows what a child is supposed to have learned at each grade level in each subject area.
  11. The application of technology is more economical because the development expense can be leveraged across a nation.
  12. The media could become easily involved in aiding education by providing educational assistance or enrichment at specific times over the airwaves (TV/Radio/Net)
  13. If a specific lesson in the curriculum designed to meet the content standards is incorrect or in effective it quickly becomes obvious.
  14. The US population is mobile; families move often and the lower the socioeconomic status the more often families move. The lack of consistency in standards creates chaos in the lives of school aged children.
  15. Bill Gates might actually hire your children after they graduate.

    John S

    Napa, CA

Note to readers: This letter is posted here for the convenience of readers who are visiting The Carnival of Education.

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