Why a diploma is never just a piece of paper
Since the 1940s, in the US, you’ve been able to get the “equivalent” of a high school diploma by dropping out of school and writing some tests (the General Educational Development test, or GED, as it is ubiquitously called).
So if you are a kid who is bored with school, feels too smart, and drops out, it’s no problem. You can still get the necessary credentials to go on to college, or get a good-paying job that requires a high school diploma.
The alternative, of course, is staying in school, spending four years dealing with different teachers and peers and assignments and tests, getting your credits, and graduating the old fashioned way.
Logic would predict that Student A, who is smart enough to write exams without even needing to learn all the material first, will be much more successful than Student B, who takes four years to learn the same information. That Student A, we think, he’s clever. He’s got what it takes to make something of himself.
It turns out, when you look at income, employment rates, and health, people who passed their GED have significantly less success than people who graduate high school the traditional way. Being smart enough to pass the exam does not mean you’re smart enough to succeed in life.
In fact, perhaps it indicates the opposite: if you’ve elected to drop out and go this route, there’s a good chance your life will be filled with similar events of you dropping out, quitting, and not being able to persevere long enough to finish a challenging, long term task (akin to the K-12 school system). Angela Duckworth would say you lacked grit.
So does this mean school matters? Or more specifically, what about school matters?
Because we can see it is not the content knowledge, or the random facts drilled into people’s heads. Both GED students and traditional graduates have those.
No, the benefit of school is that it’s hard. It’s hard to go back to the same place every day, to do work when you’d rather sleep, and to deal with people you don’t like.
But those same things are required in almost any job. And in almost any family.
Doing well in school doesn’t mean you’ll have success in life because you’re smart. Doing well in school means you’ll have success because you have some ability to make yourself do things you don’t want to do.
We would do well to remember this when making decisions about the purpose of school.