More Like High School Completion Than Graduation

“Graduation rate at Glendale’s high schools tops 90%” read the Glendale News-Press headline recently.  On the surface, this statistic is celebratory, something Glendale Unified should prominently display at the top of its website’s homepage.

Before we pat each other on the back for a job well done, keep this in mind:  many high school graduates are not ready to start college or get a job.

For too many, a high school diploma only confirms that an individual met minimum standards.

If the purpose of a high school graduation is to give a thumbs up for job accomplished, i.e., you attended school kindergarten through 12th grade, then we should call it “completion” rather than “graduation” because disturbing trends lurk beyond high school.

There is a high remediation rate in colleges.  Some surveys say 20 percent of those attending 4-year colleges and 60 percent attending community colleges take at least one remedial class, meaning that whatever knowledge and know-how students were to absorb and practice through their high school career is not evident.

Such retraining often continues when college graduates enter the workforce.  According to Washington Post reporter Jeffrey J. Selingo, employers say that young people lack “problem solving, decision making, and the ability to prioritize tasks,” skills needed to excel on the job.

Somewhere in the education pipeline, especially in high school and college, young people are just getting by with underdeveloped abilities that delay future success.

Much of the hype surrounding the Common Core standards is that its higher expectations on what skills teachers should be teaching at certain grade levels will produce a higher caliber of student.  In reaching for an elevated learning level, we should see a drop in graduation rates due to students struggling with the more rigorous work.  So what accounts for the rise?

A push to ensure that every last senior crosses that stage at the end of the year.  No district official or principal wants a less than stellar grad rate for it darkens the reputation of a school.

At the high school level, there is pressure on teachers to pass students (a grade of ‘D’ or higher).

Some administrators contact teachers who have too many students with failing grades.  In other words, the teachers are questioned why they are failing the kids rather than the kids being questioned why they are failing the classes.

Then there is the wide variation among educators on how they evaluate student work and calculate grades.

Teachers are permitted, rightfully so, to determine their own amount of work to assign, and what percentage of a class grade is based on participation, homework, and tests.

But when some ingratiate themselves with their pupils by grading easy, the result is that an ‘A’ in one teacher’s class does not signify the same level of achievement as an ‘A’ in another.

Years ago when California developed the High School Exit Exam its original intent was to make a diploma not attainable but meritorious.  It didn’t work.   Soon after piloting the test, results showed more than half the students not passing it.  So, the test was whittled down to the point that it would merely rubber stamp the diploma not elevate it, adding a bureaucratic hoop for students to jump through, wasting millions of tax dollars and hours of classroom time.

School should not be the place where kids survive but where they thrive.

All of us—educators, parents, children—need to accept the challenge and work towards meeting higher expectations so that more young people finish college and perform well on the job.

Maybe if students knew that there was a realistic chance they may not cross the graduation stage, more effort would result so that the diploma would not simply be a piece of paper.


A 2016 Student Superstar

Too often educators get caught up in negativity.  Like a peace officer who mainly interacts with the worst citizens in society and forms an overall suspicious attitude towards anyone he encounters, teachers often generalize about all students especially when they have several who misbehave or don’t do their work.

When a teacher, however, gets the opportunity to know brilliant students, it more than makes up for others who aren’t.  With high school graduations on the horizon, I’d like to devote this column to one such remarkable senior.

I have had the privilege of working with Kamilah Zadi for the past three years.  In addition to having her in the 10th grade honors English class, Kamilah has spent nearly all of her high school career in journalism working on Hoover High School’s newspaper The Tornado Times.

In the 23 years I have been teaching journalism, she may be the most passionate editor-in-chief (EIC) I have ever met.   She cares so deeply about social issues that she continued as opinion editor this year despite her EIC duties.

In addition to her column, Kamilah writes the staff editorials for the newspaper, often writing about national issues that she thinks teens should have an awareness of.  If she had her way, the opinion section would appear on page one.

The qualities she exhibits resemble those of a seasoned professional in the field.   Commitment to excellence may be the Raiders’ motto but it’s one that Kamilah adheres to, and it bothers her when she does not see it in her peers.

I asked her why more students aren’t involved in school beyond the classes they take and she matter-of-factly responded, “They don’t care.”

“They don’t seek something to be passionate about and people don’t encourage them to get involved,” she said.

Kamilah’s parents, food historian and writer Susan Park and chef Farid Zadi who has appeared on Cutthroat Kitchen, encouraged her to get involved beyond her own world, to experience other cultures at an early age.

Before she attended Hoover, she was homeschooled—by herself.

“My mom stayed at home with my brother and I and put a lot of energy into talking to us about the world and requiring us to know three languages,” she said.

After her mother laid down the foundation, she attended weekly meetings at Verdugo Academy, but did “everything on my own.”

She decided to attend a public high school “to explore my passions and figure out what I wanted to do.”

Even though she felt ready for college last year, she finished her senior year because she wanted to be EIC and lead her peers in the endeavor of producing an outstanding publication.

In terms of how schools could be improved, she thinks that “teachers are too lenient, coddling the students.”

“When the bar is raised higher, you’ll get higher.”

To prove that Kamilah follows her own advice, look at what this 17-year-old has accomplished and plans on doing:

  • created the SAGE club (Students Advocating Gender Equality).
  • member of the Gender Spectrum National Youth Advisory Council.
  • started a feminist newsletter/club, From Margin to Center, named after feminist Bell Hooks.
  • has an internship with political activist and CNN commentator Van Jones this summer.
  • works at her parents’ taco restaurant Revolutionario in Los Angeles.
  • plans on starting an online vintage clothing store with her mother called BAMN (By Any Means Necessary). Its purpose:  to provide clothes and funding for women in prison so that when they get released they have what they need for successful job interviews.

Such an industrious individual is the type of student that inspires even teachers.  Energetic, ready to take on the world, Kamilah enters UCLA this fall majoring in Pre-Political Science, feeling “pretty confident” about her future.  So should we all.