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Commentary: Not Everyone Needs an Academic Regents Diploma

Judith Gordon May 22, 2013

New York City schools today are shortchanging too many of our young people. The reality is that more than a third of students who enter NYC public high schools in the 9th grade do not graduate, according to the Schott Foundation for Public Education. And many of those who do graduate are not well served by the Regents curriculum which is geared toward high achieving  students bound for college.

A major reason for the deplorably high dropout rates is that our “one size fits all” college preparatory curriculum disenfranchises students who are not college bound. Teenagers are required to pass onerous and often irrelevant Regents-driven courses. Currently, Regents examinations are graded on a conversion table calculated to push everyone through the system, thus enabling more students to pass. For example, on the January 2013 Integrated Algebra Regents, students needed to score 30 out of 85 points to earn a passing grade of 65; on the Environmental Science Regents, students had to earn 40 out of 85 points to receive a passing grade. Despite this rigged scoring of exams, some students still fail.

The underlying assumption in the development of Regents-driven coursework is that everyone will continue on to college. However, we are failing to address the needs of those competent young people who would benefit from alternative course work that could provide them with options other than attending institutions of higher learning. As the NY Times recently noted, “Eighteen of the nation’s 20 fastest growing occupations will not require a Bachelor’s degree.” In addition, many  experts suggest that students should consider career paths that don’t require a college degree. 

The requirement that all students must earn a Regents diploma was motivated in part by the concern that we would create an underclass if we offered alternate diploma tracks. There was a negative socio-economic connotation that blue collar workers were only fit for manual work. This attitude reflects an outdated, elitist view of trades, and ignores the needs of students who have different abilities in a variety of areas. This is shameful. 

We believe that our schools must develop alternative course work for non-academically oriented students who possess other strengths. That way, disinterested teenagers will no longer be forced to sit through onerous courses they either cannot pass or can only pass when their scores are adjusted. Those who barely pass the Regents course work and who still don’t possess basic competency skills no longer will be destined to spend countless hours in noncredit-bearing remedial courses in community colleges. More importantly, many students’ futures will not be encumbered with the exorbitant loans incurred to satisfy the ever escalating costs of college tuition. 

We should work to dispel the stigma of a diploma that may lead to options other than college, and instead put our efforts into preparing students for success in the 21st century workforce. 

To accomplish this reform, we advocate a two-pronged approach for an alternate diploma track. The first prong would consist of teaching basic competencies: decoding and reading comprehension, written expression, functional mathematics, social studies (including basics in government, civics and ethics) and problem-solving strategies. Instead of emphasizing the rote memorization of facts and historical dates, the emphasis should be on pragmatic, practical information relevant in today’s society. In addition, teachers would work with students to develop organizational, time-management, self-advocacy and business communications skills. Creating resumes, writing cover letters, practicing job-interviewing techniques, and discussion of prevocational experiences would be integral to this approach.

The second prong should be the work component which would provide students with prevocational work experience in cooperation with public, private and/or nonprofit partners in the community. Students who participate in this two-part program may, upon graduation, have options such as trade-based jobs, job placement, continued post-secondary education which may result in licenses or certificates, or apprenticeships that may lead to future employment.

The impetus for change must come from parents, teachers, politicians and members of the New York State Education Department. We need to accept the fact that not everyone requires academic expertise or a college education, and that people possess different abilities, strengths, needs and preferences. Let’s recognize that some students would be better off spending valuable time in school preparing to earn a living wage rather than struggling through courses that will not benefit them in the future. 

Not everyone requires an academic Regents diploma to become a productive, successful, and worthwhile contributor to our society. We must offer all our students a menu of options to earn a high school diploma that will prepare them for the real world. 

Judith Gordon was director of The Summit School in Queens, NY for 40 years, and Joseph Coencas is a veteran educator and former teacher at the same school.

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