It seems North Carolina’s High School Graduation Project (HSGP) doesn’t have many friends. In early April, the North Carolina State Board of Education delayed, by one year, the HSGP requirement. Last week, the House Education Committee approved a bill (HB 223) sponsored by Rep. Jimmy Love (D-Harnett) that delays HSGP until 2011. The bill also requests the legislative program and evaluation unit study the project.
These actions spell relief for juniors, teachers and parents whose confusion and anxiety over the additional requirement helped to bring about the delay. However, a close review of HSGP suggests a permanent delay might be a far better option.
What is HSGP? According to the Department of Public Instruction Web site, “the graduation project offers students the opportunity to explore a topic that they care about, to demonstrate what they know and can do, and to interact with adults in a professional way. These are skills that high school graduates will need as they pursue further education and go into the workplace.” In brief, HSGP is designed to ensure that all students can address a topic of interest to them, create a product related to the topic, complete a research paper about the topic and present their work to a panel of community members.
While I’m in favor of a challenging and relevant curriculum, I’m not in favor of what amounts to – for many — a “make-work program.” The bottom-line, there is nothing inherently unique about HSGP. A rigorous upper level science, English or social studies class can and should provide students with similar benefits and experiences.
HSGP’s lack of clarity is at the root of the problem. Consider comments from Howard Lee, former chairman of the State Board of Education, on the North Carolina Graduation Project Web site:
“Students should be building 21st Century knowledge and skills throughout their public school education in order to experience competency and success in the world of work or post high school endeavors. By involving students in the NC graduation project the state Board of Education’s goals are to assure all students’ ability to operate in an ever demanding, challenging global world. The NC graduation project represents a beneficial addition to the exit standards and is designed to increase student achievement and prepare more competent and productive citizens for the 21st century.”
The paragraph, larded with “edspeak”, says nothing. Is it clear to anyone how HSGP accomplishes the lofty goals it proposes to meet? Yes, “21st Century knowledge and skills” are the tools the state school board is hoping to develop in each student. Still, a recent issue of Education Week highlighted how educators are struggling with the very meaning of the term 21st Century skills. Most educators view the phrase as merely a buzz word that lacks clarity and definition. If educators can’t even agree on a concise definition of 21st Century skills, how is it possible for faculty to effectively teach these skills?
State education leaders sell HSGP as an exercise that allows students to demonstrate the knowledge and skills they have learned and display these abilities to teachers, parents and members of the community. It is essentially an audition for the working world. On first glance, such projects may seem laudable. However, if the State Board of Education finds they are necessary to demonstrate or validate the usefulness of one’s education and skills, the larger problem may be — not the students — but the curriculum. Why do increasing numbers of students lack a mastery of basic skills, knowledge and workplace requirements? Does the excessive fragmentation of our current curriculum contribute to these problems? In my view, answers to such questions are more useful than the HSGP.
HSGP shortcomings aren’t limited to the theoretical. Unfortunately, the requirement also creates practical problems for school districts. Among other things, HSGP would require school districts to hire project coordinators and mentors to assist students. For example, the Wake County Public School System (WCPSS) has to provide criminal background checks on all potential mentors and also print up project guides. Administrators say the county has already spent over $500,000. That’s a lot of money. Where do smaller districts, many of which are already strapped for cash, find the resources to cover such expenses? Another significant issue is dropouts, without a doubt one of the biggest problems facing public education in North Carolina. Teachers and many law makers fear HSGP will provide students at-risk of dropping out another strong reason to quit school. Unfortunately, many of these kids lack the effort and discipline required to complete such a project. HSGB may only serve to drive them away from school sooner.
There are over 2,400 public schools in North Carolina. Like the communities they represent, these schools are filled with different students, faculty, challenges and opportunities. The schools, like the families that fill them, are all different. While HSGP has numerous shortcomings, some school districts may have their own reasons to support HSGP. Others may have strong reasons to oppose it. Still, because of the vast differences between school districts, the decision to adopt HSGP is best made by the local school district – not the State Board of Education. A compelling case for all public schools to adopt HSGP simply cannot be made.