July 20, 2010
One of these days, a libertarian billionaire will create a museum of failed government policies. Most exhibits will be generic boondoggles, but there will be a terrifying section called Inferno (After Dante's Divine Comedy) -- the Eighth Circle, to be exact -- for advancing policies that were known to be wicked but still imposed on those unable to resist. In anticipation of opening day, let me play curator-in-waiting and offer once such policy for Inferno: the current mania to press academically challenged students, usually blacks and Hispanics, to obtain a high school diploma. The do-gooder logic seems impeccable: High school graduates out-earn dropouts, so up the pressure to graduate, and both students personally and America itself will reap handsome rewards.
Reality is just the opposite -- this is a fantasy that will not bring personal riches, let alone boost the U.S. economy. The policy provides employment only to craven professional educators willing to exploit clueless kids and gullible parents.
What does "a high school diploma" signify to a potential employer? Beyond a modicum of literacy, numeracy, and assorted textbook knowledge, the diploma certifies sound work-related habits. That is, a persevering youngster must have been punctual, regularly shown up, ably followed instructions, respected authority, and demonstrated diligence when confronting unpleasant tasks, plus similar "good employee" traits. Moreover, the more arduous the pathway, i.e., draconian grading standards, the greater the diploma's utility to the prospective employer. Non-academic traits are especially relevant, since many vocational skills are typically acquired on the job -- provided, of course, that the employee promptly appears, follows instructions, and so on.
Here's the great paradox: the tougher the requirements for the diploma, the higher the dropout rate, the greater the diploma's market value. If only 20% endure, these survivors are especially desirable. But inflate the number of graduates, and the market value of each diploma falls. This is elementary supply and demand. In other words, if every youngster owned a diploma, employers would ignore it when hiring and instead rely on pre-employment tests or other hard-nosed measures to weed out impostors. Beneficiaries of all-too-easily acquired diplomas will return to square one -- the bottom of the skill heap. To be blunt, awarding a diploma to the undeserving is a cruel joke, a readily discernible make-them-feel-good sham whose evil extends far beyond squandering billions.
If the diploma itself, not imparting the underlying non-academic skills, is the primary aim, just print up certificates. Compared to imparting Calvinist work habits, this is a snap: lower grading standards, dumb down courses, permit students multiple opportunities to reverse failing grades, substitute "soft" measures of academic accomplishments such as portfolios and "community activism" for tough coursework, and otherwise banish any intellectual rigor. If all else fails, just cheat by altering test scores or waiving rules.
More pernicious is to transform learning into Sesame Street-like "fun" experiences, where failure is avoided to shield delicate young egos -- no pain, all gain pedagogy. Prohibit harsh criticism no matter how ill-informed the answer while praising even the indolent for "trying." One educational treatise advises letting students choose their own spelling bee words so as to eliminate the stigma of failure. Skits and field trips replace dull lectures. Potluck multicultural dinners substitute for mastering World History. Fear can readily motivate lax standards -- why enrage violence-prone students or their thin-skinned parents with "Fs"? Better to hold one's nose, award gift grades, and keep the peace. The upshot is hordes of ill-educated "graduates" who live in a fantasy world of unjustified sky-high self-esteem.
And when these "helpful" interventions still come up short, just hire additional school support staff to guide even the most lackadaisical student toward graduation. That financial benefits flow to those who make the graduation rate numbers, and government itself is obsessed with manufacturing "graduates," guaranteeing ample funds. Schools with high dropout rates come to resemble luxury cruise ships with professional staff catering to every need. Hire learning coaches, counselors specializing in drug and psychological problems, mentors and role models, diploma advisors, and sundry other experts tasked with rescuing those who might escape prematurely. Los Angeles once allocated $200,000 on an anti-dropout marketing campaign targeting their students that included commercials on hip-hop radio, cell phone text messages, and YouTube videos.
The extent to which schools manufacture "a graduate" can be mind-boggling. A recent NY Post story told of a student, Tatiana Reina, who "graduated" from a New York City high school after six years despite never showing up her final year, who flunked every course except Spanish. But five days prior to the graduation ceremony, she appeared, took exams in health and chemistry, and Googled in her answers, but she still flunked. Nevertheless, thanks to administrative pressures, she and another half-dozen students were given "Ds," and this brought the diploma. In her words, "I got my diploma." Supposedly, such chicanery is commonplace in New York's schools, where administrators are intensely pressured to massage their graduation rates.
The national consequences of this "help" will be truly horrific. Inflating graduation rates guarantees a nation of dolts unaware of their own insufficiency. Smart kids will likewise suffer. Why should young Einstein toil long hours if a halfhearted effort brings an "A"? Why compete against fellow brains in AP Calculus and risk an "A-," which would cost you a perfect 4.0 GPA, in a school where dozens of college-bound rivals will have a 4.00? Better to just stick to Advanced Algebra and receive the customary no-effort "A."
Nor is this diploma/economic success link a scientific fact. Yes, high school graduates out-earn non-graduates, but this is not cause and effect. Conceivably, graduates are just smarter, and brains dictate earnings. Or, as we suggest, it's the underlying good work habits that generate higher incomes. Nor is this relationship written in stone. Nobel Prize-winner Gary Becker showed that the incremental value of a high school diploma greatly shifts as economic conditions fluctuate, and no reason exists to suppose an upward trend or even steady positive yields on investment. If anything, thanks to government-driven diploma inflation, the net value of the diplomas should fall as they proliferate.
The economist Eric Hanushek and associates further show that just spending time in school has no net economic value. While a small relationship exists between time spent in classrooms and economic growth, cognitive skill -- what is actually learned -- far overshadows just hanging around. Specifically, with high-achieving students in places like Korea, the GDP increases a percentage point per year for each year in school. Of the utmost importance, once actual learning is taken into account, the time spent in school has no value for GDP. Perfect common sense: Forcing the academically challenged to absorb learning beyond their capacity is futile. Better to hand out mail-order diplomas and save a fortune.
These "manufactured" graduates will also haunt firms foolish enough to hire them. Just try reversing years of regularly rewarded bad habits and sloth. The remediation costs, including inculcating decent work habits, will be enormous. Why locate in areas with these "graduates"? Imagine an employer accommodating dozens of Tatiana Reinas conditioned to expect endless top-down rescues? You mean I gotta show up? Further add the lawsuits that will arise when cracking the whip over those accustomed to being coddled. We will soon see armies of high school "graduates" truly puzzled as to why nobody wants to hire them despite all the assurances that their diplomas open the door to success.
The mania to give everyone a diploma sadly illustrates how America's "educators" have converted learning into a Great Society job machine, alleged beneficiaries be damned. This is more than fraud. These "educators" are evil, Eighth-Circle-level evil, and their malfeasance deserves to be exposed. Now, if the billionaire will only make the donation, we can hire a famous architect and begin work on our Inferno.
Robert Weissberg is Professor of Political Science-Emeritus, University of Illinois-Urbana. His latest book is Bad Students Not Bad Schools. badstudentsnotbadschools.com
 Weissberg, Robert 2010. Bad Students Not Bad Schools, New Brunswick, NJ: Transactions Press. Ch. 3.