Cross-posted on The Education Capital Project:
Lately I've been having some very inspiring conversations with passionate people who are working to establish equity in our public education system. Topics have included the importance of ensuring that job availability and job-readiness are part of the college readiness conversation; reducing disproportionality in gifted and advanced placement programs; teacher accountability; the success of STEM programs; and other fascinating issues that inquire into the substance of this educational equity work we're all doing.
In the midst of these exciting conversations I've also found myself in the middle of a graduation bonanza--no weekend has passed by without a friend, mentee, or relative graduating from something. I've found myself often drawing back to the education equity conversations I've been having, thinking about the value and the importance of education and reflecting on all of these ceremonies and parties to commemorate graduations. It has me wondering how we can duplicate the successes that happen every year (evidenced in part by these graduation ceremonies) in a way that produces systemic progress? How can we look at what's being done well and what's being done right in education, and duplicate it in a way that advances an agenda for educational equity?
I think to do so, we have to change the graduation conversation. We have to recognize and state out loud something that I know we all already know, but something that gets lost in the excitement of graduation. Namely, this work is not simply about conferring more degrees to more people; it's about transforming minds and equipping people with tools for life.
So to go to basics, I looked at the definition of "graduate":
Graduation, grad·u·ate (grj-t)
v. grad·u·at·ed, grad·u·at·ing, grad·u·ates
1. To be granted an academic degree or diploma.
a. To change gradually or by degrees.
b. To advance to a new level of skill, achievement, or activity.
I was really struck by definition 2b. If we think of graduation as advancement to new levels rather than cap, gown, diploma, and if we see it as simply one step along the way, then maybe we change the way we do the process of getting people to the ceremony. And maybe in doing so we necessarily address the factors that get folded into graduation data, like intrinsic/extrinsic motivation of students, teacher expectations, core competencies, etc.
The obvious truth is that we all know it's not really about just getting the piece of paper, that instead it's about getting to a new level of awareness, competence, and skill. And we know the degree is not the end, nor is it a guarantee that a person is prepared for the work they want to do. Everyone knows that person who graduated from the elite university but couldn't think his/her way out of a paper bag, and conversely everyone knows the whiz kid who didn't go to college but is an amazing intellectual force. That piece of paper, however, is important. It's what gets many of us the opportunity to put our new skills and knowledge to use. It's also a tool that helps mitigate the racial and socio-economic biases that exclude many people from opportunities to use their gifts/talents.
Graduation is often necessary but not necessarily sufficient to equip young minds for what they want to contribute in this world. I think it's important that we all remember this. We've got to work and study hard so that we can "graduate," or advance to a new level of awareness, about the value of education. We must be willing to constantly test and challenge our notions of what education is for, what works in education, and what the work looks like to increase access to it for all people.