Let me be perfectly clear: I think we put on a good graduation. Let me also say that I think everyone's motives are good and this is certainly not the most pressing issue we face in education. Having stipulated that, I still think the following is worth spending some time thinking about.
We just graduated the Class of 2014. As most of you know, this was a difficult year at my school, but students, staff and the community came together, persevered, and finished strong, and graduation was a fitting culmination for that effort. You can even watch video of our graduation if you want, as our student broadcast club streamed it live.
But each year I get a little more bothered about one part of our graduation (this is twenty-third AHS graduation I've attended). Our graduation starts with the graduates coming in, some opening remarks from students and staff, an amazing performance by our choir and symphonic band (starts at 27:30 of the video), and a keynote speech by a student speaker (who, as usual, was great - starts at 50:30 of the video, note the selfie she took). Then we get to the part where we read the graduates' names and they receive their diplomas. This is the part that increasingly bothers me and, while it's not the most important issue in the world, I still wonder if we should revisit how we do this.
We start by asking all of the honors graduates to stand and be recognized collectively (no names are read yet, this is at 1:07 of the video). These are students with GPA's between 3.50 and 3.79. They then sit down and we recognize the High Honors graduates, those with GPA's of 3.80 and above.
The high honors graduates names are then read first, individually, by the Assistant Principal in charge of Curriculum, with their college choice (or occasionally some other destination) read after their name (at 1:08:10 of the video). We start with the Valedictorian and Salutatorian, then all the other high honors graduates are read in alphabetical order. They come up one by one and receive their diplomas and then return to their seats. (Before I go on it's important to note that all of these students - both honors and high honors - were recognized three days before graduation at our Awards Convocation).
Now all the rest of the students names get read (at 1:28:25 of the video). They are read by two faculty speakers, who alternate reading names one by one from each half of the alphabet so that it goes faster. These students have their names read, but no college choice or other destination, although the honors students get a "with honors" appended after their name.
We end with some closing remarks, the moving of the tassel, and then they exit. All in all, it's a wonderful ceremony. And yet . . .
I have very mixed feelings about the special recognition of the honors and high honors graduates. On the one hand, we are an academic institution, these students have worked hard, and it's nice to be able to recognize their achievement and hard work. I don't mean to discount that at all, I just wonder why we feel the need to raise their accomplishment above others on the day of graduation?
Part of my concern is over how honors and high honors are determined. They are based on grades, of course, with AP classes counting more. ((All of our classes except AP classes are worth 4, 3, 2, 1 for A, B, C,
D, and AP classes are 5, 4, 3, 1, so we have a significant number of
students above 4.0.) I've written frequently before about my concern with grades, so I won't dwell on this here, other than to say that I have serious doubts about how well grades reflect learning, and I also question the wisdom of determining both the honor and the additional recognition at graduation partially on whether a student decides to take AP classes or not.
While my concern with grades is certainly a part of my concern over this custom, the main focus of this post is not on the relative worth of grades. It's more about whether it's appropriate at graduation to elevate some students over others. (Again, keeping in mind that these students were all recognized three days before at a special awards convocation that was held just for them, their friends, and their families.) After all, part of our graduation ceremony (all 23 of them I've been at), is our Principal saying she certifies to the Superintendent that all of these students have met the graduation requirements of Arapahoe High School and Littleton Public Schools. And then the Superintendent states to the Board of Education that he certifies the same thing. So assuming we believe that our graduation requirements actually mean something, all of these students have met the requirements we have put before them. So then why do elevate some graduates over others?
There are some students who graduate from my high school that from the day they start as a freshman know they will not be an honors or high honors graduate. Now, before you accuse of me of the "soft bigotry of low expectations", I'm a firm believer that each student can achieve and has amazing potential. I'm also a strong believer in Dweck's concept of Growth Mindset. It's not that I don't think all students can learn, or that they can't be successful, or that they can't achieve, it's just that I think we as educators put a premium on a very small subset of what it means to be successful. Students that can't - or don't want to - fit into that narrow band of school-based, school-defined success are somehow deemed less worthy.
Everyone who has been an educator (or been around kids at all) knows of students who work incredibly hard, who learn and achieve and go on to do great things. They typically have a growth mindset, and they constantly challenge themselves to achieve their own goals. But often that doesn't translate into an A in school, which means they won't get special recognition at our graduation. Just because a student's GPA is 3.79 or below doesn't mean their achievement is worth less recognition, or that their future plans are any less worthy than the high honors graduates' plans.
If we believe that school is for all students, and we believe that what we offer and require of all of our students is meaningful, and that students that meet those requirements have accomplished something, then when and how they receive that diploma shouldn't be differentiated by their cumulative GPA. We should celebrate all of our graduates, and not be silent about their plans for next year simply because they didn't reach an arbitrary number on a dubious scale. They shouldn't be last among equals.