Columns 2000

Is education really about self-esteem?

In a May 18th news article, the Superintendent of the Klawock School District is quoted as saying, “We do not want to give a certificate of attendance. We are very concerned about everyone feeling successful.” Further on in the article it states, “Although Robertson said the Klawock teaching staff supports the state’s efforts to implement graduation standards, the district is concerned that the certificate of attendance will negatively affect student’s self-esteem.”

Let me start by saying what a great way to teach these children the reality of the world they are about to encounter. Which of us doesn’t know a company whose policy is to give everyone a promotion and raise no matter how poorly they’ve performed so that no one has their self-esteem negatively affected. Let me also say that, as someone who has had to interview and hire recent high school graduates who have come from this particularly bizarre school of thought, I have come to regard a high school diploma as worth little more than the paper it is written on. I know that no standards were required, that whether you scored straight A’s or showed up only on days when a movie was being shown, you got the same diploma.  In fact, I sometimes find myself putting more weight on a GED than on a high school diploma because I know the person sitting in front of me had to earn that GED by passing a series of tests. No one gave it to them because they got out of bed enough times to qualify.

But what bothers me the most about the statements emanating from the Klawock School District is the idea that this is somehow being done for the students.  Do you really think those students have greater self-esteem because they were given something they didn’t earn.  Keep in mind that accommodations have already been made for those students with disabilities who are working to their fullest potential. We are speaking here about capable young people who, for whatever reason, couldn’t pass the test to graduate from high school.  I don’t think we’ve enhanced their feeling of self-esteem by giving them a fake diploma. I think we’ve just taught them that you can get something for nothing.

I also think we are lying when we say we do this for the students. They know what they have and haven’t earned.  No, I think parents and educators do this for parents and educators. I think the only people whose self-esteem they are worried about is their own.  If too many kids fail, they look bad. So let’s pass everyone.

Now let’s look at the self-esteem of the students who worked hard for four years to achieve that diploma.  My, haven’t we done wonders for their self-esteem. We have told them that while hard work may be its own reward, it may also be its only reward.  We have taught them that striving for excellence is OK, but you could have gotten just as far without striving at all.

Every time we give our kids something for nothing, we do them a disservice. We teach them a bad lesson.  As educators and parents, we need to acknowledge our responsibilities for our children’s education and when they don’t make the grade, we need to ask why. Then we need to redouble our efforts to make sure it doesn’t happen again. What we don’t need to do is create a multi-hued series of diplomas that fool no one.  Our children deserve better than some silly scheme we dream up to keep us from feeling as though we failed them.