Bookends: Early Childhood Development and Diploma Inflation


I’ve been trying mightily to unravel the education -> workplace prep knot one thread at a time, not like any establishment experts will listen to an outsider. But it only takes a little common sense and experience in both sectors to see the disconnects. If you step back and look at the big mess it’s a massive, systemic Gordian Knot. Socio-economic issues, human development ….in my opinion, together these are survival issues as much as environmental concerns.

     This blog addresses the bookends of (1) secondary and post-secondary education and (2) early to middle childhood development. Not separate topics, because they are part of the same systemic mess. We have significant issues in between the bookends too. You have to start somewhere, right? If you’re in a hurry or are only mildly interested, you may not want to even start reading. But if you follow the roadmap of links, a few light bulbs may come on. Please comment: what do you think?

Current State: High School and Post-secondary Education. Young people leave high school woefully unprepared for what awaits them whether it’s college, the workplace or life in general. Employers sing the blues about the skills gap / inadequately prepared talent pool. A college degree is the new high school diploma, with “degree required” stipulated for even entry-level jobs. Young people pile up a lifetime’s worth of student loan debt to earn the ante to the workplace poker game. The kicker for me personally: the education system is proven to cause incredible levels of stress in young learners, leading to mental and emotional problems, drastically increasing levels of self-harm and suicide.

A recent NPR report started with a big “woo-hoo” but went downhill from there. HS graduation rates are nationally the highest they’ve ever been! But there’s a problem: diploma inflation, and it applies to both HS and post-secondary. Simply, a diploma is too easy to get and everybody wants one—employers and learners. A diploma’s real value is diluted, secondary education system upkeep and post-secondary diploma attainment costs are sky-high, and the cost is artificially inflated rather than market-driven, by true demand.

Check-the-Box. In the “good old days” if a student struggled they’d take the dreaded summer school or get extra tutoring. Now, failing students are pulled out of the regular class and are allowed to catch up online at their own pace, typically completing diluted coursework to pass the course and get full credit! It’s not just material issues but the method / system that are also the issue. And the kids know how to work the system.

Here’s a quick example of how online self-paced makeup work goes. Students must spend “x” time in each section before the online course allows them to take that section’s quiz, typically ten multiple-guess questions. More often than not, students can (and do!) goof off for the required time then click through the quiz. After a few rounds, I finally asked “don’t you need to study the material?” Response (laughing): “Why? When you miss a question, they show you the right answer and let you re-take the question.” Each chapter requires 50% to “pass”. Further, if the student has a good enough grade so far in the course some don’t even care if they get the 50% section minimum. Why bother? Just do the time, check the box and move on. No exaggeration, I’ve seen it over and over.

Confession: I’ve taken my share of online re-cert courses. Pricey but at the time it beat the commitment of time to attend the classroom alternative. They were set up the same way…lots of no-brainer material so I’d let the mandatory time clock run while doing more urgent stuff, then take the quiz when allowed. Moral of the story: a “bad” system will tempt good people who are under the gun to short-cut so they can check-the-box when that’s the only expectation that matters.

You get what you pay for…schools get evaluated based on graduation rates. So they’ll graduate people come hell or high water, pushing kids through and out of the system if necessary—we’re done with you, get outta here, ready or not. And under-motivated kids don’t mind the easy checkout express lane either.

You get what you pay for is an old expression in goal-setting and performance management. Measure grad rates, get graduates. I’m not an academically credentialed expert, but I’ve been around performance management most of my professional life. We need new education goals, new metrics, a new definition of “success” beyond Diplomas ‘r’ Us! A few example goals quickly come to mind from this non-expert. Input?

Upon graduation, learners demonstrate their preparedness for:

  1. A post-secondary education in a carefully chosen academic field based on the learner’s goals, which may include a trade or vocational field; or
  2. Entry into the workplace, with a solid foundation of appropriate workplace skills that ensures their employability, then success in an entry-level position where they have the ability to grow within the field.
  3. Most importantly, graduates possess the knowledge, skills and abilities to a make meaningful, positive contribution to society, and to live a successful and satisfying life by their own definition of “success”. Priority!

The real measure of success is assessed two and four years after high school graduation, by tracking:

  1. Enrollment in a post-secondary course of study, two or four year or trade school, with a “C” or better average. Or,
  2. Grads are gainfully employed, measuring ratio of total time / time employed, length of current employment, current hourly earnings and +/- earnings history.

When sufficient data history has been gathered (NOT ten years!), weak points are identified and resolved.

Plenty of Blame to Go Around

Educators and administrators are unintentionally part of the problem.  Most are fully committed to doing all they can and while they may see the issues (they’re living them!) they may be too close to and are swamped with unrealistic expectations, especially given their paltry resources. “But we do that…kind of” and “we do what we can” or other excuses from well-intentioned people, with an occasional admission that stuff is broken and needs fixed. No blame, that’s the reality of the environment.

Employers own a big chunk of the diploma inflation / workforce prep puzzle too–unrealistic “degree required” expectations, abdication of responsibility for the only way true job skills training can happen: at the time and place of need, in the workplace after placement when the skill needs are truly identified and can be immediately applied. Employers abdicating their role is not cost effective, not an efficient means to develop a workforce with the right skills. Alternative: hire high-potentials with the right skills foundation and work ethic. The education system must then shift its goals and efforts accordingly, to produce those outputs.

Diplomas ‘r’ Us. Wherever there’s need, something will fill it…if there’s money to be made. Enter education- for-profit. Lots of degrees wanted / allegedly needed = lots of providers. For a cost a degree can be obtained from the comfort of your home = more diploma inflation: low market value, high cost designer degrees.

Big Picture Impacts, Issues and Actions

Economic Issues: suboptimized productivity, weakened global competitiveness, overwhelming personal indebtedness for student loans used to purchase a worthless product. Social-emotional Issues: stress, anxiety, frustration, hopelessness, lack of purpose. All the above leads to mounting social issues, substance abuse, and harm to self and others from domestic abuse to suicide to mass murders.


Goals and Actions, to salt the mine. Comment with your thoughts, please!


  • Set realistic “degree required” expectations, especially for entry level jobs.
  • Adjust hiring practices and criteria to value candidates with the right hard and soft foundational skills and who show potential for quickly learning specific skills on-the-job.
  • Assume ownership of fine-tuning your workforce’s capabilities with in-house training at the time and place of need.


  • Help students find the right fit for either continued education or entry into the workplace, based not just on learners’ aptitude but also based on individuals’ values-based interests.
  • Provide foundational skills development course work based on projected employer needs.
  • Do not side-step social-emotional development!
  • Last, change goals! Graduation rates are meaningless if students are not prepared to “pass” the next phase in their lives, where a failing grade is devastating!

Community: support and collaborate! Education, employers, parents, civic groups all have a vested interest.

Especially daunting is the challenges we face in social-emotional development that must be met with a community wide collaboration. Young people need serious preparation to do battle with life in general….it’s a survival issue for young and old. But for now, here’s a quick look at the other end of the spectrum: early childhood development. Systemic issues impact our economic prosperity and global competitiveness, and more importantly our overall social-emotional well-being.

While this is a huge topic that people are content to leave to educators and other “experts” to resolve, we can’t take a “wait and see” attitude. The need is to minimize noise and weirdness, boost awareness of benefits and minimize confusion, barriers, conflicts….make any effort accessible to John and Mary Everyman.

The Other Bookend: Early Childhood Development

There’s way too much to address in-depth here, so you’ll have to shift into self-discovery mode. Please click and read the links that follow, as I’ve provided only a very high level touch on critical subjects.

(CNN April 18: two links below) After 0-6 the mold is pretty much already cast for life. We are far behind other first world countries in our attentiveness to the needs of those critical years, and guaranteed our short-sighted neglect will catch up to us.

US education system needs help….What needs help the most? The whole system is in disarray. But early childhood development (0-6yrs) is critical.

“Many developed nations now have more than 90% enrollment in pre-K programs, surpassing the US with just 66% enrollment for 4-year-olds. Rising superpowers are making significant commitments to expand access to early education over the next few years, with China promising to have pre-K for every 4-year-old and most 3-year-olds by 2020.”

In the US we choose to mostly ignore early development and, like our STEM obsession, our focus is wrong.

In just a year, New York City had nearly tripled its number of full-day prekindergarten slots. And before they entered their classrooms, Mayor Bill de Blasio crowed about his signature initiative — a key part of a campaign promise to fight inequality, but a goal that has had more than its share of skeptics…one of de Blasio’s comments: The city was planning to use the Common Core curriculum in prekindergarten. A child who’s had the benefit of a full day of rigor, he assured us, would be imbued with a great love of learning.

Rigor for 4-year-olds? What about their social-emotional development, which goes hand-in-hand with cognitive skill-building? What about play, the primary engine of human development?

Unfortunately, it seems like we’re subjecting our young children to a misguided experiment.

See the many articles published in Psychology Today written by Dr. Peter Gray, a psychologist / education expert and long-time proponent of alternative, self-directed education. Here’s your starter: Biological Foundations for Self-Directed Education.

Stuck in the Middle Too

In between the bookends is a plethora of issues and opportunities. See Real-world Prep SchoolThe world is kicking our ass in creativity and critical thinking skills. What happened? It’s not only the how-to job “skills” but our ability to think that is tanked. Read it and weep. US youth’s level of creativity and critical thinking is plummeting as Peter Gray examines in As Children’s Freedom Has Declined, So Has Their Creativity, This was first posted Sep 17, 2012. It’s even more relevant today, and the gap is widening. But education has developed a 21st century skill set, and creativity and critical thinking are well-represented. It’s a start, but there’s a long way to go.

Students can be lost outside of providing canned responses, reciting memorized answers. Creativity and critical thinking are the two most essential new universal workplace skills and by global standards the US is not doing so well. We’ve lost our innovative and economic competitive edge, our ability to even keep up in the global marketplace is in serious danger. The private sector guy in me says that’s unacceptable, it can be resolved. The grandparent in me says it must be resolved.

(from Gray’s blog-above) If anything makes Americans stand tall internationally it is creativity.  “American ingenuity” is admired everywhere. We are not the richest country (at least not as measured by smallest percentage in poverty), nor the healthiest (far from it), nor the country whose kids score highest on standardized tests (despite our politicians’ misguided intentions to get us there), but we are the most inventive country.  We are the great innovators, specialists in figuring out new ways of doing things and new things to do.

In the business world as well as in academia and the arts and elsewhere, creativity is our number one asset.  In a recent IBM poll, 1,500 CEOs acknowledged this when they identified creativity as the best predictor of future success. It is sobering, therefore, to read Kyung Hee Kim’s recent research report documenting a continuous decline in creativity among American schoolchildren over the last two or three decades.

Education is aware of the need for real-world skills development, especially critical thinking, problem-solving and creativity. But those things are outside the academic wheelhouse. Education also seems to be more aware of the power of self-directed learning. Enter project-based learning (PBL). But there are a few hitches, most notably a lack of teamwork skills and project management, among teachers and learners alike. And there is a project management tools and techniques and methods gap between education and the work world. The easiest, most common-sense resolution: enlist subject matter experts from the workplace to work in the class room. Employers need to take ownership of developing their own future talent pool.

Again, reference Real-world Prep School

Early childhood development is a major socio-economic need. It will do no good to focus on secondary and post-secondary improvement without ensuring that our very young learners are being fully developed and are ready. The most important thing we can do is to ensure our children have a fighting chance to survive the challenges of what awaits them, not just workplace skills / employability but social-emotional strength and resilience.

(from Kids Bully, Big Kids Harass) Too many young people suffer irreversible long-term harm, even commit suicide because of pressures they can’t handle. Key triggers: education demands, bullying, growing up in a vacuum. Too many adults are in pain too, suffering from isolation, lack of purpose, workplace pressures, big kid bullying a.k.a harassment. Society is a mess, we’ve forgotten the importance of treating each other like human beings, human life itself is de-valued and there’s a huge void in ethical leadership to help pull us out of our funk. Current social-emotional development efforts in schools aren’t effective–not deep enough, not frequent enough, no ongoing adult coaching. Hit and miss at best. And we need to reach out to the adult population too, in the workplace and at home.

     Stress, anxiety, formally diagnosed mental / emotional illness, self-harm, and suicide are increasing across all ages. We have no purpose or meaning in our own lives,. We’re far too often killing ourselves and each other. Harsh? Reality usually is.

A related CNN story, Are we hurting kids at school?

Leave it to Peter Gray to provide a perfect closing statement:

OUR SCHOOLING SYSTEM was designed for a different age, a time when jobs required rote performance and unquestioning obedience, where innovative thinking was considered to be unnecessary or even a liability for the majority of people. Ironically and tragically, rather than adapt our educational system to the needs of our modern times we have doubled down on the old system, so it is harder today than ever before for young people to retain and build upon their natural curiosity and creativity. For the time being, I think, employers may be well advised to seek out those who have bucked the system rather than those who have kowtowed to it. More and more employers are beginning to do so.



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