NJ Spotlight last week hosted a public conversation on the meaning of a New Jersey high school diploma for the 21st century, bringing together state Education Commissioner Lamont Repollet with three high school principals — all with strong opinions and experiences.
Held at Union County’s Academy for the Performing Arts, the forum — “Defining the Diploma” — was the first of four that will be held over the course of the year to look at both the broad questions and the specific challenges of what the state and local communities should demand for graduation from high school.
What should students be required to know and be able to do? How can that be measured, be it through tests or seat time or other gauges? And who should do the measuring?
Repollet tackled those questions along with Karen Bingert, principal of Hillsborough High School; Michael Parent, principal, of Passaic County Technical Institute (Wayne), and Akbar Cook, principal of West Side High School in Newark. The discussion was moderated by John Mooney, NJ Spotlight’s education writer.
Here are some highlights from the discussion.
One thing every high school graduate should be able to do?
Repollet: “We want to create thought leaders. Can young people be innovative, and creative and entrepreneurial? We want them to be able to tackle assignments and tasks based off their skills.”
Bingert: “I would like high school graduates to be able to walk into almost any situation and figure out what tools they need, whether an academic situation, a career situation, and know the process that’s required in order to get the task done.”
Parent: “What we take pleasure in when we meet graduates years later — and love hearing from employers and college professors — is our students are able to present themselves well, speak well and carry themselves with integrity. That is what I believe is a true indicator that they are mature and are ready to handle all situations.”
Cook: “I don’t know if it’s just urban education, but a lot of my parents and the kids think that the diploma is the finish line. I try to tell them it’s just wall art for your parents, your parents will take it and put it up somewhere and you’ll never see it again. You have to compete. I don’t think we’re teaching our babies to compete.”
What basic skills do they need?
Repollet: “We need to take into account all of our diverse population, and we need to create an assessment that will take all that into account. There are a lot of different things that affect the child than just reading, writing, arithmetic. We need to look at how do we create opportunities so they can go get a job. When you talk about the diploma, it needs to be a passport. Our diploma is not just pointed toward college; our high school diploma needs to be pointed toward careers and postsecondary success.”
Parent: “I think there is a great disconnect between what college expects a high school graduate to be able do and what a high school graduate can do. I want my students to be literate, but to what degree of literacy? Do you need to graduate with Shakespeare or as a mathematician? I don’t know that that’s necessarily true, and if you look at college students enrolled in math or computer science, it is not a majority of people.”
What about seat-time requirements?
Bingert: “One of the challenging things you face when adding a new requirement for all students is that the students are put in a position where there is something in their day earmarked for something very specific. While it’s great to have all students having access to something like computer programming, for example, for many students it will not be an avenue they will pursue. So it becomes a checklist item. We have to watch what we are washing out of existence. What we can never wash out of a high school student’s world is the joy, the coming into school every day and there’s that art class, the AP physics class, or that fourth or fifth year of a world language. That’s your joy in the day, and sometimes the more check boxes there are, the less joy there is.”
Cook: “I wanted to piggyback on what Karen said. Our high school babies don’t know how to write cursive. Somewhere along the line we took out handwriting. We keep adding stuff, but we stopped doing phonics. When did we stop doing phonics?”
Repollet: “You are talking about a total paradigm shift in education. How do we change that? We are sitting here with Hillsborough, Passaic and Newark and the conversations are totally different. We need to come up with a plan and disrupt the status quo.”
How does money enter into it?
Parent: “Does money matter? It absolutely does. If there are programs that are innovative and different, shifting paradigms, they have a cost to them. Every program and idea has some sort of monetary responsibility and attachment to it.”
Cook: “I can’t complain. The cards I have been dealt, I gotta play them. I go out to the community, I have an awesome alumni, I’ve been blessed. I’ve been resourceful and I will figure out a way. I can’t wait on the Legislature. I have to do it now.”
A graduation exit test?
Bingert: “I think the idea of an exit test is fine. PARCC became very politicized and went in a very different direction.”
Cook: “I’m thinking a portfolio that shows the whole kid. I do think there should be an exit test, but also something that shows the whole kid and all the different aspects of a child, what he is passionate about.”
What about testing students on a portfolio of their work?
Parent: “I can absolutely see there is no way that the Department of Education can handle tens of thousands of portfolios, I can see how that’s not feasible. But we are getting into the question of how the Department of Education would like to see you graduate and how your local board of education would like to see you graduate. Right now we’re just making sure state mandates are being met. How much of local control do you have over graduation?”
Repollet: “We have an opportunity. We are moving away from PARCC, and we are doing it methodically and getting input from everybody. We want to create the next generation of assessment, and what does that look like? This is our moment. We are talking about career and technical, and not just the focus on college. PARCC has been college ready, and we have not looked at the career piece.”
What do principals want the commissioner to help them with?
Bingert: “I don’t think there is enough time in our day for our teachers and administrators to collectively work together. It would be so helpful to have something that was built into everything we do, that these conversations and these opportunities to collaborate and share best practices be part of the actual workday.”
Parent: “I wouldn’t ask for anything but the continued support for career and techincal education to continue what we are doing. It is not the vo-tech we remember, it is a completely different species. But what I would like is the opportunity for comprehensive schools to offer CTE (career and technical education) to address the needs of their students.”
Cook: “My babies don’t get bus tickets unless they are 2.5 miles away from school, and you may know Newark is riddled with gangs, and a kid may live a mile away, but they have to navigate through the gangs and now it’s three miles. NJ Transit is just sitting there with these bus tickets that they throw away. Give us the old ones. These babies are missing first block, they got to take their siblings to school and then walk already back to school. I don’t know who to talk to, but I have here the commissioner.”
Repollet: “To anybody out there listening, we have an innovation office, and if anyone has anything, any out-of-the-box thinking, call us up… We understand the importance of this paradigm shift. This is our moment, this is our season.”