When Graduation Feels like Failing: A Diploma of Completion, but Not Competence

I remember looking from one staff person to another. I saw confusion, anger, outright indignation and then I found my own face, hiding in the expressions of a few—a deep sense of regret and shame that came with an acknowledged truth. Just moments before, in the privacy of my office, I had practiced all that I wanted to say but it was even harder than I imagined to say it aloud.

“If we have not failed him now, we’ve just failed him later. Please, do not ever put me in a position where I am asked to stand in front of our community and our students’ families to award a diploma to someone who is not ready.”

I’d said it. While I’d thought it countless times before, and expressed my concerns to school leadership, this was the first time I said this to my entire staff at Shearwater High School, a public charter school in St. Louis, Missouri, that reengaged and worked to graduate youth ages 17-21 who had previously dropped out or disconnected from school.

Why was I so upset? Because just the day before, I had smiled and hugged a beaming high school graduate who believed that with his new diploma, life would be different. And yet, I knew (as did many on staff), that he lacked some of the most basic skills that he’d need to navigate life—and now, he’d have to do it without us constantly challenging and supporting him.

My worry about this student’s future began one year earlier when he sat in my office determined to prove his college readiness. I asked him to start by writing a five paragraph essay—a good starting point, but admittedly an assignment that I used to work on with my fifth graders. Deeply motivated and earnestly focused, he sat in my office for more than three hours. He wrote several drafts, some dumped in the trash, others shown to me. In the end, he turned in no more than a paragraph and a half, saying that it was the very best he could do. While he was proud of his work, those eight lines wanted to be so much more; they were riddled with spelling and grammar errors. Some sentences were short and made sense, while others wound around without a central point.

This exercise exposed abilities and skills he needed that the GED wouldn’t test for and that his classes could not fully prepare him for—things like higher-ordered thinking, organization and communication skills. He would need these life capacities as an adult, in order to meet his demands, confront his challenges and lean into his opportunities.

His transcript said he was a 12th grader.
Below that was a downpour of partial credits and incompletes.

I pulled his transcript. At the top it stated that he was a 12th grader. Below that was a downpour of partial credits and incompletes. And yet, he had been pushed through year after year, grade after grade. I pulled out the documents that described his special education needs, wondering if those could bring clarity to this readiness experiment. They didn’t.

Here he was—a young man of color and a parent. He was often homeless and struggled with deep sadness and trauma. If I were to pull up some social emotional transcript, would I also see a slate of partials and incompletes?

How, one year later, he could have passed the GED and gotten through his course requirements is beyond me. Yes, we had dedicated teachers; sure, some students made two or three years of academic gains in a year. But, with the level of growth that he needed and the life stress and situations that he was up against, it just didn’t seem possible.

He had purpose but wasn’t always wise when it came to practical matters. He was driven but disorganized. Moral and social but sometimes careless and reckless—he was, after all, barely 21.

Unlike some, he didn’t have the luxury of time and safety where these life capacities could be learned, practiced, developed and mastered over time. To him, the world was a dangerous and harsh place. Life had consistently reinforced this as his truth. This meant that he would need even more competence in many areas than other kids might—more resilience and optimism, more mental agility and healthfulness.

But we weren’t teaching those things. Our students came to us overage and under-credited, with big, blinking, heavy clocks hanging around their necks. The state of Missouri stopped paying for public education on students’ 21st birthdays. Our students were all working against time and at-risk of aging out of a system that they weren’t yet ready to leave.

He graduated because he somehow met the requirements
of a system that requires completion but not competence.

We had lots to teach and test—-not just what they had missed in high school but in the years before—and little time in which to do it. With our obligation to teach to the standards, we had precious little time for anything that didn’t relate to core content areas. In those moments, we jammed in case management and fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants job training skills. We were reactive:  bringing in healthcare workers to talk about STDs and college access programs to work on FAFSA and college applications.

And so, in some ways my anger should not have been directed at my staff that day. He graduated because he met the requirements of the system, one that requires completion but not competence. There’s no measurement accountability for the capacities that you need in order to effectively “get on with your life.” Instead, you are measured by the time you have served and the courses you’ve finished with a passing grade. My staff had done exactly what they were trained to do: they’d brought a kid to the finish line before his 21st birthday. A kid who, smiling brightly in his graduation photos, thought that this meant he was ready.

It’s been almost two years since that moment. Recently, I was driving down the road and saw him at a bus stop. By the time I turned the car around, he was already gone. I don’t know if life has been good to him since that day he walked across the stage. I don’t know if our diploma gave him the boost in morale and credibility that got him into a college’s door or an employer’s heart. What I do know is that we failed him and so many of his classmates. We convinced them that if they followed us and made it to graduation, then it meant that they were ready for college, work and life.

But there is a distinct gap between what it takes to make it to graduation and being ready for adulthood and what that takes.

Here at the Forum for Youth Investment, we are launching The Readiness Project. It is an initiative that is committed to defining and promoting exactly what it takes—which capacities and at what levels of competence—to be ready for the transition into adulthood. And then, in dedication to the many students and graduates like this young man, we plan to work with the smartest people we can find to identify the many settings and ways in which these capacities can be learned, practiced, developed and mastered.

While I still feel I failed this this young student by making a false promise that his diploma meant readiness for the world, I remember his story and his beautiful belief in a better life. It is my hope that one day soon in this country, a diploma will mean more than simply completing high school. It will mean competence for life.