On Graduating Humans, Not Cogs

On Graduating Humans, Not Cogs

I owe a few people an apology.

I’m overly testy with anyone who dumps on public education. Especially, if they claim that education is stuck in the Industrial Age. That schools graduate nothing more than compliant cogs.

From my perspective, a mom of one high-schooler and two middle-schoolers, education is far from stuck in a bygone era.

Since kindergarten, teachers have taught my kids to think critically and creatively, collaborate with their classmates, and solve way more than just math problems. They’ve been researching and writing since elementary school. And, they’ve been taught to harness the power of digital technology.

So, when I hear people blaming education for the development of an industrial era worker, I instantly think they should spend more time around a student, teacher, or school. I conclude that their opinions result from long-ago experiences.

But, I might be wrong. Maybe these critics see education through the lens of some employers.

Here’s an example.

There’s legislation pending here in Ohio that changes graduation requirements. Legislation proposed by business groups. If it passes, then it’s quite possible my kids, in order to graduate, will have to earn credits AND two separate “seals.” All to prove they are college or career ready.

One of these proposed “seals” already exists under Ohio law. It’s just not yet a requirement for graduation. It’s called the OhioMeansJobs Readiness Seal. To earn the seal, students must demonstrate proficiency in 15 separate skills.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not taking the position that a readiness seal, in and of itself, is a bad idea. 

We long ago created a sorting system. A way to assess a person’s abilities through credentials alone — GED, Diploma, Associates Degree, Bachelors Degree, Masters, PhD, etc.

To insert another sorting category between Diploma and Associates Degree is not an entirely horrible idea. That is, if you’re already okay with sorting people like this. 

My issue is with some of the required skills. 

Let’s look at the first skill. Well, actually, the first item isn’t a skill. It’s a “quality,” apparently equally important to employers as the remaining 14 skills.

What is this required quality? I’ll give you a minute to think about what you would put at the top of your list.


Ok, here it is. The very first non-skill is “Drug Free.” That’s right. What’s apparently most important for today’s kids to prove they’re ready for the workforce is to commit to being drug free.

It actually gets worse. In order to earn this readiness seal, the student must sign a “Drug-free Pledge” on the validation form. A student has to pledge to “be responsible and care for myself and others by speaking up and speaking out if help is needed.”

For many of Ohio’s kids, those who want to go right to work, not take the college path, this is what they may be required to “pledge” in order to graduate. Pledging something a variety of laws already mandate.

It’s incredibly demeaning. Asking kids to pledge to something wholly unrelated to how well they can do a job. Insinuating that all kids seeking a career over college are drug addicts in the making.

What else is on this list of 15 skills? “Reliability.” Followed by “Work Ethic,” and then “Punctuality,” and “Discipline.” 

A few decades ago, when I graduated from high school, earning a diploma signaled that you were reliable, punctual, disciplined and had a sufficient work ethic. It meant you did most, if not all, of the assigned work, and passed the tests. It meant you followed the rules well enough to not get expelled. That you were reliable and punctual enough to not be a truant. A diploma had meaning.

But, now, for some reason, certain employers believe diplomas have no meaning. It seems that because employers aren’t finding the employees they want, well, then it must be the fault of schools.

A high school diploma can have meaning. Just choose to give it meaning. Make the choice to accept graduates as they are and nurture their talents. Period.

Now, back to those critics of education. The ones who think schools have failed to progress beyond the Industrial Age. I’m sorry. 

I’m sorry that I failed to see how you could conclude that schools are simply producing cogs. Reading this list of skills. A list produced by the state’s top office of education. Well, that would rightfully lead you to your conclusions. 

It’s just that my experiences have been different. Experiences that allow me to conclude that schools no longer build cogs. That schools really do produce graduates who think critically and creatively. Solve problems. Collaborate. With diverse groups of people. 

Maybe it’s just that some businesses. Businesses that want compliant cogs. Those business spend money and time influencing law makers. Getting laws written that create lists of skills, like this one in Ohio. 

Maybe businesses like this see no other choice. They’ve chosen to not see people. They’ve chosen to just want cogs. So, they’re left trying to force their old-fashioned ideas onto teachers and students who, at some point, decidedly rejected them.

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