Are Your Students Ready For Their Graduation Handshake?

I had the honor of being a keynote speaker at iNACOL’s 2017 conference. Having attended this conference for many years, I was thrilled to be asked. I knew my message needed to be important and sticky because I believe in my gut and my heart, after 40 years as an educator, principal, and coach and consultant to schools and state education departments, that our school system needs to change. The future of our country depends on it. Here’s what I had to say:

We are at an important crossroad in education. We can choose to take a path that brings our learners into the present and future or continue the road travelled for the past several centuries in education.

I would like to ask you a simple question: Who is your graduate? What does it take to earn that handshake at graduation at the end of senior year in your school system? Is it based on a discrete number of credits earned (sometimes with a grade of D) or is it based on a set of performance criteria that each graduate must demonstrate?

Several years ago, I mentored a new high school principal. The day after graduation, he asked to meet with me. On a day that should have been filled with reflection and a feeling of accomplishment, he was sad. As we talked, I began to understand his melancholy. For the first time as a principal, he was handing diplomas to every student who walked across the stage, and he confronted the reality that many of the students who shook his hand were not graduation ready. They had earned the credits, but some were simply not ready for the next phase of their lives. This blindsided him. And, it blindsided me also.

Let’s think about this, think about all the parts of our lives that are touched by people in different professions. Our medical teams, our car technician, our accountant, our trades people, like carpenters, plumbers, electricians. We put our trust in them when we use their services — the doctor will diagnose our illnesses, the car technician will fix our car, the accountant will prepare our tax returns, and trades people will keep our homes safe and secure. These professions create performance standards on which candidates in their profession must demonstrate competency before being awarded their certificates or licensure. They simply aren’t licensed until they demonstrate competency. The world works this way…that is in most places, except perhaps education.

Can we say a high school graduate holding one of our diplomas is in fact competent? How can we know this when the grading and the requirements for a high school diploma differ from school to school and is rarely based on performance criteria. And we wonder why education has come under such scrutiny?

What does college and career readiness really mean? Ask your parent community, your students, your teachers, paraprofessionals, custodians, and cafeteria workers. Ask your local politicians, your business community members. If they are like the many focus groups I have conducted, they will say this:

Academic Proficiency: problem solving skills, literacy and listening skills, critical thinking skills, apply knowledge, budgeting and personal finance

Personal (self): self direction, self-reflection/awareness, ethics and drive, perseverance, collaboration, integrity and honesty, responsibility, empathy, effective communication, time management, reliability, compassionate, passionate, continual life-long learner, happy

Global and Community: social responsibility, leadership skills, 21st century tech-ability and responsibility, historical perspective

As you examine what many people think is needed for that graduation handshake, you need to know that many of the characteristics in italics represent common answers across multiple audiences in many communities. This also lines up with the current research on college and career readiness. What is equally important is that this information is in stark contrast to what is found on a high school transcript. But if we need to rely on report cards and transcripts to communicate college readiness, they would need to report on a different set of proficiencies wouldn’t they? I call these Personal Success Skills — a term that resonates far better with parents and community members than the terms dispositions, soft skills, or non-cognitive skills.

It is time to ask this question:  Do our schools teach and assess what we value in preparing students for their future?

We may look back at the No Child Left Behind era in education as one of the darkest era’s in our education history. Teaching and learning were reduced to coverage of standards with widespread paper and pencil testing taking away the joy of teaching and learning. We have essentially been trying to fix the kids so that they fit our conventional architecture of grade-level curricula.  But the system can no longer be fixed. We should ask ourselves if the time has finally come for us to transform or fundamentally rebuild the system that supports student learning.


Remember that we have built the systems that produce our graduates, but we also have built the systems that produce our dropouts.  


As educators, we can and should do more to make our diplomas signify that anyone holding that certificate has met a standard of performance. For that reason, we need to shift from the traditional approach to teaching and learning to a new approach where we design nimble systems in which students learn at their pace and demonstrate competency throughout their personal pathway to graduation.  

For the past 10 years, I’ve worked with educators in building competency education systems. In doing this work, I came to realize that the pillars of traditional education — curriculum, instruction, assessment, and grading no longer ‘fit’ the design architecture of competency education. The new architecture for competency education includes high quality competency design, a system of performance assessment, personalized learning pathways and dynamic grading. 

This is really a new ecosystem of learning, paced to the learner, and not a fixed curriculum. It forces us to take a serious look at how we shape time, and how we use our professional resources. Such school redesign is complex and it is hard work!  Many of you have begun this work and can share its challenges and its value. Each school has different professional and learning cultures, different student profiles students and a different developmental arc to your work. For others, who are just beginning your work, look to these models to help you design your schools uniquely suited to your learners.

A new architecture in education is evolving nationally. Will you be the architect of the future of education? We can’t lose a generation of students simply because we lack the courage and the fortitude to dig in and do this work now. It does seem daunting yet we can continue to innovate in designing personalized, competency based learning systems 

What will competency education look like 10, 15, or 20 years from now? If we do this right, it will have evolved and grown to be more responsive to society’s need for an educated work force. Our educators will be using a toolkit of resources that today, is just emerging. Technology will be a part of our industry in the same way it is in others while we provide greater equity and access to the learning resources our students need.

If you will be telling your story in five, eight, or 10 years, what will you have to say? Join the many school leaders and teachers who firmly believe that personalized, competency based learning is our future unshackled by the past.