“Certification”: What Does Your Diploma Mean?

“Sometimes I wonder whether the world is being run by smart people who are putting us on, or by imbeciles who really mean it.” — (accredited to Mark Twain, but not verified)

Recently, a terrible scandal came out about some widespread cheating in schools.  Was it students cheating on tests, or plagiarizing research papers?  No.  It was about teachers and school administrators changing the scores on standardized tests in order to make it look like they were doing a good job.  When the news of this broke, and the evidence came pouring in, I was heart-broken over the long range harm it would do to the children, and to our nation as a whole.



This is not to say that cheating is not also at the student level (see links below).  I’m not talking about looking at crib notes, or copying someone’s homework, but participating in fraud to get a high SAT score, or hiring a ghost writer to complete your term paper, thesis, or dissertation.



But the main concern here is that things have gotten so decadent that even teachers and principals cheat.  Of course the dishonesty is unconscionable, but what jumped out at me was something else.  The students aren’t actually learning what they are supposed to be learning, but our system was willing to say they were.  Furthermore, by some of the confessions, many of the reported scores weren’t even close to the truth.  What does that say about the value of high school diplomas these days?  How long and to what degree has this been going on?

Sometimes I listen to people talk on television that are supposed to be leaders and pillars of the community.  And, when I hear evidence of incredibly fuzzy thinking in their poorly structured statements, I suspect the disparity between what we say we teach, and what has been taught is huge.  Doesn’t it sometimes make you want to question their credentials?  It makes you wonder if not only should they be removed from any office of responsibility, perhaps they shouldn’t even have a driver’s license.

Maybe the real questions we should be asking is what do we need to certify, and what might we need to just verify in some other way?  How good are we as a people in doing the things we say we do?  Have you ever received a certificate you considered rather meaningless outside of social acceptance within the circle of those who gave it to you?

That statement was not intended to imply that social acceptance is not valuable.  Of course it can be.  And it begins in early childhood.  I’m sure a lot of what I learned was discovered on playgrounds at recess, which is a thing of the past at most schools nowadays.  Times change, and today the world seems a bit more paranoid than it was when I was a kid.  But, I could be wrong.  Maybe children could benefit from a little time to decide on their own how to interact with others.  But some feel allowing that freedom would just be courting disaster.

Maybe it is freedom itself that is feared.  History seems to suggest that whenever decisions get regulated, the regulators don’t easily give up their rigid controls.  Besides, freedom is not always predictable where behavior is concerned, especially in groups of people who have no internalized commitment to the intent of your rules.  I will admit to being fearful at times if I’m surrounded by people who are controlled by little other than gravity.

So, while we give lip service to freedom, and at the same time to rigid social control, how do we intend to shape the future generations, and by what standards will we measure our success or failure?  What is it that the children need to know, and be able to do?  How will we (or they) know when that is accomplished?  Put some kind of a label on them?  Check it off the list?  One of the differences between a man and a squirrel is that the squirrel must find the acorn, and would never check it off the list if he has not actually done so.  People do it all the time.  Trucks, trains and planes crash and we find out later that some “required” safety inspection procedure didn’t actually happen.  Oil rigs fail, and once in awhile, somebody gets shot with an “unloaded” gun.

Sometimes, people (and groups of people) will lie to themselves about some accomplishment when no outside objective opinion is needed.  And whenever it is easy, whatever might be better viewed objectively might give in to a subjective evaluation.  But in life, some things must be known, such as time, distance, and the correct dosage, and cannot be left to speculation or to some self-serving opinion.  Some things must be measured, and some things really need to be certified–not just checked off the list.

To be “certified” in many trade and professional career skill and understanding levels from welding to practicing medicine, a person needs to successfully complete tests.  These tests change over time as the social and legal demands, or as the other professionals in the chosen fields raise the bar for approval and acceptance.  Training programs, and the teachers in them, teach to the test.  The teachers don’t singularly make the test for their students, nor do they grade them.  In other words, if you pass the bar exam, it means more than your teacher just liked you personally.

It is important to note that those who have a high rate of success preparing their students to face certification board exams are in great demand.  But in our public and private schools for our children (K through MBA), the teacher who gives the “easy A” is in great demand.  The result is that a high school diploma, and now many college degrees might be viewed to “certify” less than the journeyman skill levels of craftspeople in the work force from plumbers, electricians, welders, and construction mechanics.  Even doctors, dentists, nurses, accountants, and attorneys (who’s “board certifications” may be more important than their university degrees in order to be licensed to do business) know this is true.

Instead of operating schools where every child is required to attend, open learning centers where any child (or adult for that matter) that wants to learn can attend.  Under such a system, the cost of tuition for families in need of help would be no different than the mess we already have.  But it would be shameful for any culture to not want to educate their own children, and especially if those children want to learn.  Maybe those who do not want to be there, and those who do not wish to learn should be allowed to leave, and go do what they want to do.  Of course invite them to return and be welcomed should they change their minds.

There will be a huge cultural change under such a system, with the biggest paradigm shift being that the students will be seen a s the customers rather than just the products.  The irony is, that the tough teachers who are good at facilitating learning will have long lines of parents and students seeking their help, and those teachers will be able to demand respectable compensation.  The weak ones, as it is with many other professions, will either have to get better or eventually suffer having no customers at all.  You would never have to fire a teacher for not being any good; they’d just go out of business like any other service provider that couldn’t attract customers.

So, as a culture, and in so far as we as individuals can influence change, growth and development, what do we really want our schools to be?  What do we want them to do?  Be a social rite of passage (which is what they are now), or become centers for learning where students can prepare for the exams that “certify” various levels of accomplishment?

Should this begin at a local level?  Why not?  But no matter where it begins, for it to spread, the certifications will have to be verifiably meaningful for people outside the local area to accept them.  To accomplish that, the tests will have to be substantive.  They will probably need to come from, and be protected by a trustworthy outside source. Otherwise, it will be likely to become tainted with local urban myth, dogma, superstition, and populist ideological nonsense.  When that happens, it will become meaningless to others.

Since we have set arbitrary (archaic) time limits on learning, something ironic is happening:  The more our storehouse of knowledge grows, the more we feel we have to cut out of the curriculum.  A present day problem is getting the funds allocated to keep schools open, much less expand them.  Arguments surface over what is vital, and what is superfluous, and the polarization on issues always seems dogmatic.  Some of the arguments are as stupid as saying you can only afford one shoe, so which foot should you cut off?

Cut things from the curriculum?  Cut things from the storehouse of knowledge because we don’t think we have time to address them?  We already do that, and the dumbing down results should be obvious.  So much of what is stretched out over years could be taught in weeks if we would learn how.  In college some of us found out quickly that a lot of what we spent years trying to memorize wasn’t even true (ex: the mythology that our founding fathers were a bunch of single-minded religious fanatics, which is not true, but widely believed).

What would happen if we asked the students what they wanted to know about?  Might that be a little chaotic?  Well, it could be if nobody is prepared to answer their questions, or help them find the answers.  If students don’t want to learn anything the school is prepared to teach, perhaps we should let them leave.

We need to ask ourselves if dispensing knowledge is the goal, or is it regimental patterns and controlled social habits that we’re after.  If compliance is the hoped for result, we might want to recognize that one of the greatest enemies of compliance could very well be education itself.  What if everybody could, and did think for themselves?  I’m sure some children are taught (according to what we’ve institutionalized) what they have to do, and perhaps many more don’t even learn that.  But what about teaching them what they can do, and opening up their minds to so many of the unanswered questions about this universe?  Would having an open mind to ideas and discussions be a worthy accomplishment for a student?  Perhaps it would not seem so from the point of view of those who would want to teach without one.

As a nation, do we need universal standards in a lot of areas of expertise that we can trust to be valid?  Probably so.  But maybe in some areas, we might need the lack of standard to be a guide: perhaps even an allowance for creativity.  Sometimes, “standards of excellence” can get whittled down to a target that the “average” can reach for, thus become boring to the brilliant child, and impossible for the challenged.  Besides, a lot of children are just not average.  We have to address the needs and wants of the very bright, and also those who, by circumstance, have little hope of even competing with “average”.

Perhaps some things that go on between teacher and student can be very valuable, but difficult to grade or test outside of how the student and the teacher see it.   But if the community is expected to pay for it, the community needs to be able to see benefit or value, so some kind of measure needs to determine success or failure.  So how do we do it?  From talking to people in the field of special education, I get the feeling that, as a group, they have a high degree of commitment for wanting to do the right thing.  Maybe we should ask them.

So am I proposing we destroy or dismantle departments of education?   No, but we might want to demand some re-direction of emphasis.  Do we not claim to be a “government of the people, for the people, and by the people”?  But even if we only define ourselves as a culture, how can we continue unless we care about, and take action to participate in the growth and development of each generation within it?  No culture seems to be able to survive without doing that–not even yeasts or bacteria (though they may not do it consciously).

But do we even need to change anything?  Are things just fine as they are?  Right now, we live in a country where every state in the union issues driver’s licenses to people who do not know how to safely operate motorized vehicles, but we do increase the number of laws that require padding to protect them when they collide with each other.  Do you realize how unnecessary posting a lot of our traffic laws would be if every driver actually understood the reason for them, and was committed to the intent of them?  Oh, you wouldn’t eliminate all errors, because now and then, even some intelligent people make stupid decisions.

I wish to state my opinion that we should want to educate all of our citizens, and for a very selfish reason: uneducated people are usually made subservient to educated people.  That makes me suspect of anyone who does not want us to become an educated population.  What, or who do they wish us to be subservient to?

By this, I don’t wish to imply we should only fear the powerful.  Some people are just afraid of universal scholarship.  Why?  Maybe subconsciously they see themselves as uneducated, and may not be able to compete.  But more likely, it is because they have some rather narrow-minded beliefs that may not be able to hold up to the pressure.  And, as you well know, folks get nervous when you start messing with their beliefs, whether what they believe is true or not–it doesn’t matter.

So how should we go about educating our citizens, and how should we “certify” that we have done so?  Is it just about compliance, or should we want some measure of commitment (or at least some validating evidence that it exists)?  I have a current valid driver’s license renewable every few years, and only compliance is required.  But my marriage license is renewable daily.  They all are, aren’t they?  And wouldn’t you agree that it is renewable by the evidence of commitments as well as contractual compliance?  The wedding was an event; the marriage (as is learning) is a process.  Well, learning can be an event, but we usually call that “trauma”.

While we consider our options, take a look at one system to see if it gives you any ideas:


The question of funding will come up.  At this time, public school is funded by taxes.  Whether taxes are fair or not is not the point of this discussion.  Right now, we have a system that pays the money to the schools.  Why not make the same monies available as “tuition” credits of those who want to go learn something?  And what level is it to be cut off?  What would be so wrong to have centers of learning where anybody at any age might go to get questions answered?  Maybe set aside a place (school) where folks could go to get some training so they might improve themselves.

With a little more knowledge and information, some of our fellow citizens might be able to improve their standard of living, or their quality of life.  Don’t you ever want to just know something even if it isn’t going to be on a test?  Curiosity does seem to be a strong motivator sometimes.  How many non-fiction books are sold every day to people not enrolled in any classes, and aren’t preparing for a test?  Some?  Lots?  Most of ’em?

Some people believe the government should not have any obligation or responsibility to pay for college or trade schools.  The argument is often about individual responsibility to seek and pay for higher learning.  Higher than what?  If it is immoral, unethical or unwarranted to pay for welding school or college, where is the rightful authority then, to pay for high school?  By that measure, what is the authority to pay for even the first grade?  But why not offer learning opportunities to every citizen regardless of age?  Should we continue to perpetuate the lie that the only necessary learning was done by the age of eighteen; twenty-two, or thirty for that matter?  There will be a cost, but I ask you to consider the tremendous costs we already pay for not doing it.

It is our combined and universal responsibility to adress these matters if we are to survive and do well as a people.  We need to adopt the idea that education is desirable, and affordable to everyone.  And we need to allow the individual student to decide what they want to learn, thus creating a market for qualified people who can facilitate that kind of learning.

Why is that so important to me?  Think about it: if you have an idea of what kind of skills, crafts, or professional abilities lead you to your pursuit of happiness, who other than you should be able to lay down your career path?  Further, if some state or national board must certify your competence by examination, wouldn’t you want to get the best help available to prepare for that test?  Of course you would!

So then, the students should hire the teachers (and with the help of parents and guardians who have an interest in the student’s well being) who can teach them what they want to learn.  And, the student should pay the teacher.  And the ability to pay tuition should be made available to every man, woman, and child.  I suspect it costs us more not to do that in the long run.

Obviously, citizens with little or no money should be provided with a way to get the tuition they need either by grant or by subsidy.  Keep in mind, that no funds would be needed to pay tuition for anybody that didn’t want to go to a school.  Also remember that the alternative is to not allow anyone to go to school, not even kindergarten, unless they are very rich.  That would certainly be a way to maintain huge cheap labor pools, but it would not be very culturally rewarding to society as a whole.  It will be, as it already is, up to the people to decide who gets help, and who doesn’t.  Under the current system, we more than pay for a benefit that, to some, seems to be producing something less than significant value.  I think we could do better.

Perhaps you don’t think we need a paradigm shift.  For those who would still defend the status quo, take a look at this video, and see if there are some things in it that resonate with you;


2 responses to this post.

  1. Very timely and insightful. If you really want to be scared read the following. The cheating, dumbing down and plagiarism continues well into graduate school.

    The Cheating Epidemic
    By Ed Dante* (a pseudonym)
    Reader’s Digest — May 2011 issue
    Page 174

    Mr. Dante, (pseudonym) discusses his career as a paid academic ghostwriter revealing the extent of student fraud in the academic community by undergraduate and graduate students. Colleges and universities have been well aware of new cheating strategies for years but this article goes into the scope, breadth, and depth to which student’s ethics have sunk in order to achieve not just a passing grade in a course but also to graduate not truly having earned their diploma.
    Mr. Dante works for an online company that assists students who barely have a decent command of the English Language, cheat by producing original essays. He cites actual poorly written e-mail messages from students who are usually on a deadline and willing to pay top dollar for such essays to which their only contribution is the supply of professor’s sources from their respective courses. The author goes into detail describing the desperate pleas he receives not just from students pursuing a BA but also Masters, and PhD programs. It would seem since Mr. Dante’s services are in great demand the level of incompetence appears to be increasing among college level students.

    And also….

    The Chronicle of Higher Education
    Plagiarizing Yourself
    By James M. Lang



  2. Great blog, Van. My daughter Andrea teaches Spanish in the public school system. She’s strict and demands excellence and expects her students to know Spanish before the leave her class. However, she’s been dismayed that not all of her colleagues feel the same way.


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