DSM: Diplomas

From: Dawn Harkness (dawn@harkness.net)
Date: Tue Dec 11 2001 - 17:43:31 EST


I have been following the discussion on the value of a diploma with
interest, and would like to add my perspective. I have attended most of the
thesis defenses presented in the last seven years at SVS.

The SVS diploma stands for one thing only: that a sufficient majority of
Assembly members felt that "the student adequately defended the thesis that
s/he has taken responsibility for preparing him/herself to be an effective
adult in the larger community". Most of the time, students who want to be
granted the diploma do everything right, meet the deadlines, file their
motions with the Assembly, adequately defend their written thesis, and
receive the required majority of votes (75%) and ultimately get the diploma.
Sometimes students don't get diplomas because they fail to meet a deadline
or fail to file the appropriate motion with the Assembly, thereby failing
the few objective standards we have in the diploma granting process, and I'm
fine with that. However, just about every year there is at least one
student who will fail to get a diploma because they did not convince enough
of the Assembly that they have in fact prepared themselves as required by
our diploma policy. It's not that they didn't convince anybody that they
had prepared themselves, it's that they didn't convince enough folks. The
problem for me has been that over the years it has become increasingly clear
that each and every Assembly member has their own subjective view of what it
means to have adequately prepared oneself to be an effective adult in the
larger community. Therefore, it is unavoidable that we impose our values
and biases on the student in the course of our evaluation.

For example, we have Assembly members who will never vote against a student
receiving a diploma no matter what the circumstances are. They do not feel
qualified or comfortable judging anyone else. There are Assembly members
who feel strongly that if one hasn't obtained a drivers' license, or at
least taken the first steps towards getting one, that this is evidence that
the person has not adequately prepared themselves. How can you be effective
as an adult if you can't get from place to place in a community that doesn't
have a public transportation system? I know one Assembly member who places
great emphasis on what classes, if any, a student has taken at SVS,
especially if the student asserts that they are intending to attend college
in the next year or so. How effective can you be in college if you haven't
taken any classes or written anything other than a thesis? At least one
Assembly member has been clear that if a student has been suspended within
the last year for harming someone else, and fails to take full
responsibility for their actions, they will not get that Assembly member's
vote. How can you be an effective adult if you haven't even managed to
learn not to assault your schoolmates within the past year? I know this is
only anecdotal and I don't have any empirical evidence to support my theory,
but I think it is fair to assume that each Assembly member has their own
particular biases in this area and that's what we base our decisions on when
we cast our individual votes. This makes the SVS diploma standard very
subjective and Assembly votes are largely dependent on who shows up to
thesis defenses and Assembly meetings.

For the most part I have found myself voting with the majority of the
Assembly, so predictably, I agreed with the Assembly's evaluation. A few
times I have been surprised by the margins of votes, and it made me wonder
what others saw in a candidate that I did not see. There have been a few
times I have been surprised and saddened when a student did not receive
enough votes for the diploma. These cases raised many questions for me
regarding the fairness of our process. How fair is it if a student
convinces some but still not the 75% of Assembly members ultimately required
to be granted a diploma when there is no objective standard with which to
evaluate the student? I am not accusing anyone of intentionally acting
unfairly, but I am questioning the value of our collective biases in
addition to questioning my own individual biases.

I am interested to learn how other schools have been grappling with the
diploma process, and I'm wondering how you all have dealt with the problems
which seem to me to be inherent in adopting subjective standards to evaluate
kids. Have you ever had a kid not get a diploma that you personally thought
should have gotten the diploma? Have you ever had a kid get a diploma who
you personally thought should not have gotten a diploma? Has your school
ever granted a diploma and then had the kid return to school for the next
year, in a way signifying that the Assembly got it wrong when they thought
they had prepared themselves to go out into the larger community? When one
of these scenarios occurs at SVS, it makes me question if we couldn't come
up with a better system of evaluation for the diploma.

P.S. I'd have to disagree with Ann when she wrote: Also, this sort of
interactive evaluation seems like good preparation for the outside world
(and those college and job interviews!).

The SVS thesis process does not resemble any kind of job or school interview
I have ever been part of. I think getting a job or getting into college is
much easier than getting an SVS diploma, and being challenged and evaluated
by a committee of 50 to 75 people often in front of your extended family is
usually not part of the process.

Dawn Harkness

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