Recently I have found myself in the unintentional, and unenviable, position of final stumbling block to a young lad’s high school graduation. It seems he’s been managing to meet all the minimal requirements for a high school diploma, save one: a grade 10 general science credit. After three years and as many attempts, he is no closer to receiving a passing grade, and convocation is just a few months away.

He is not a scholar. His transcript is a string of numbers ranging only from the low- to mid-50s. In education it is generally understood that a student with a final grade of exactly 50% (he has several of these) has received a gift. Due to backlash from parents — “You’re going to hold him back for X%, are you kidding me?” — most schools have adopted policies that discourage close-but-no-cigar final grades. 45% is defensible it seems, but 46% is not. And so, for some teachers, 45.5% (subsequently rounded up) has become the new pass.

Even now, this is fast becoming an open secret, so that resource staff and students in the know now make spirited arguments that a 42 or 43 ought to be good enough, “just this one time”. After all, if it were just a few percent higher, it would be a “pass”. It’s only a few away from being a few away from what was traditionally considered barely satisfactory. So, what’s the problem?

The problem, my principal recently told me, is that our education system is not serving the needs of all our students. If 10% fail grade ten science the first time through, there is something wrong with either what we’re teaching or the benchmark we’re setting for success. With an even higher failure rate in grade nine mathematics, the same argument applies. Why are these early courses so much more difficult than all the subsequent courses required for a high school diploma?

Indeed, it is the math and science teachers who seem to face these political and philosophical quandaries almost exclusively. It is the math and science teachers who are constantly told that their chosen and much beloved subjects are “holding students back”.

So is the case here. And I, a humble teacher in the trenches of public science education, have been asked to justify not only my decision not to award a credit to a student who hasn’t met the necessary educational outcomes, but even the existence of a science graduation requirement in the first place. This is no longer academic, it is not an abstract question of educational philosophy; a kid’s diploma is on the line. So what do I say?

Let’s tackle the larger issue first: why should a secondary education require any general science credits? Why, indeed, are there any “core credits” in graduation requirements, rather than letting all students study only what interests them? Why are all students required to pass the same required English courses throughout most of their high school career? Why the courses in geography and history in subsequent years? Why at least one math course each year right up to grade 12? Although these are all very different subjects, the same answer applies to each of them: literacy.

Let’s dissect the word literacy. From the Latin litteratus, to be marked with letters, it has traditionally denoted the ability to read and write. What is it that makes reading so important? Because no one can know everything, but we can all have access to an almost unfathomable store of human knowledge, if only we have a library card (or maybe an Internet connection), and the ability to read. It’s no accident that, while in high school, English may receive equal time with physics or auto mechanics, for the first six years of any child’s education, reading and writing make up more than 50% of instructional time. At the elementary level, the only other single subject coming close is mathematics.

But the current understanding of literacy has expanded beyond just the ability to read text. It’s come to represent a baseline of knowledge and skills that can a) engender lifelong learning, and b) allow us to function as citizens by understanding those subjects that are most relevant to our daily lives.

Understanding of geography, both national and international history, our political system — every day millions of Canadian citizens pick up their local newspaper or switch on their evening news to see what’s happening in the world and in their own community, and how incomprehensible it would all seem, without an education in social studies.

Financial crisis or no, people worry about money: rent or mortgage payments; gas prices; their RRSPs. How in the world could one possibly function without the basic mathematical skills learned in their very last required math course? Percentages, fractions, the ability to read a graph, and yes, some basic algebra. I use these in my own investment decisions every day, and my portfolio’s stronger for it.

And just as we live in a political world, and a world of numbers and letters, so we live in a scientific world. The technology already ubiquitous in our lives notwithstanding, how many of the major global issues so prominent in the news today are not science-related? Try making a list. I expect it will be a short one. And how many of the personal decisions we face in our lives could not benefit from a scientific perspective?

I’ll answer this one for you: exactly none. Our “baloney detector”, as the late Carl Sagan described it, is one of our most important tools. When it comes to deciding whether or not to vaccinate your child against deadly childhood diseases, to purchase a new hybrid or get one of those severely marked-down SUVs, or whether to eschew your general practicioner in favour of alternative medicine, the ability to distinguish between good and bad sources of information is invaluable.

This perspective informs our intentions for these core courses. Only about 10% of students go on to university after high school, and elective courses help to prepare them for that. But core courses, though they can lead into further and more specialized study, must primarily be a satisfactory answer to the larger question: if this is the last history/science/math/English course this student ever takes, what do they absolutely have to know?

And this brings us to more practical matters: when a student doesn’t meet these basic requirements in one or more subjects, what do we do about it?

Student population varies considerably from school to school, though in frequency of student types, not in kind. Lower income neighbourhoods do tend to have higher drop-out rates and less per capita university attendance. This is an endemic social issue that I hope, perhaps over-idealistically, will be largely eliminated in my lifetime. In the meantime, however, there are adjustments.

The obvious ones are automatic: less students sign up for grade 12 physics, so less sections of the course are offered. The decision to create alternatives for students whose needs aren’t otherwise being met, however, must be a deliberate one.

One inner-city school I taught at previously had a very successful work experience program. Students in this program were at a very high-risk for dropping out and/or joining gangs. The program allowed them to find work and get through at least a modified curriculum in their core courses. Although they weren’t able to receive a provincially recognized high school diploma, the school offered their own diploma for completion of the program.

This is a compromise. It’s not to say that a high school diploma isn’t a desirable goal for everyone, only that, until our society grows all the way up, we don’t want it to be an all-or-nothing proposition.

What of my lad? My current school, situated as it is in a more affluent neighbourhood, and particularly the school’s resource department, is ill-equipped to deal with unconforming students. Parents of most students in the school are professionals, putting a strong emphasis on education at home. Post-secondary enrollment from our school is high. Drop-out rates are negligible. But sometimes students with all the economic and family advantages still struggle. The young man in question could possibly use an alternative educational plan, but the best our resource department is able to come up with, I’m afraid, is pressuring me to change his grade.

Despite all my talk about how important education is, in fostering media literacy, numeracy, and, of course, science literacy, I do understand how it feels to fail, and don’t wish him to feel bad about himself. I also realize that even if we managed to drag him over the finish line, drill him and drill him and drill him, until he was able to squeak by on each of his tests, he would end up no better-equipped to apply a scientific perspective in his daily life, and probably even less enthused about science.

My principal said to me, he’ll never, ever use chemistry, and he’s probably right. Not because it isn’t relevant, but because knowledge without the ability to recall and critically apply it may as well not be there. Further, my principal has argued, this student’s lack of appreciation for the atom is not holding him back, while his lack of a high school diploma is. Left unsaid was the obvious implication, that the best thing I can do for this kid is just give him the credit. But here I can only return a vehement “no!”

Education is important, and while I can appreciate the perspective of the soft-hearted resource teacher who doesn’t want the kid to feel bad about himself, diplomas aren’t just self-esteem boosters, they’re a certification, proof that a person has met certain standards of competence and knowledge. A person with a high school diploma should be able to claim to be an educated and informed citizen, or at least, he should have the necessary tools to become and remain an educated and informed citizen.

This kid, in the short time I knew him (just a few weeks, as I was a late-semester replacement), came to class each day and stared at the wall. No notes taken; no assignments completed. He would ask to use the washroom and then wander the halls for most of the period. What’s holding this fellow back is not my refusal to grant him a credit, but his refusal to work hard at something that doesn’t come easily.

I understand he’s done the course three times now, and he’s probably rather sick of it, so I’m probably not seeing his best work this year, but given that his best work only amounted to a 35%, I’d say I haven’t missed much. So how can I make an assertion, patently false, that he has demonstrated that minimal degree of scientific knowledge and understanding we think every high school graduate should have?

It’s probably no surprise, with a science background, that I chaff at the prospect of recording bad data. I think carefully about each answer during government phone surveys, in consideration of the statistician’s task. But it’s not just about future employers being misled about the abilities this young man may bring to bear. It’s also about his opportunity to meet a challenge legitimately.

I think this young man is capable of being a fully formed and educated citizen, with all the rights and responsibilities that entails, but perhaps not now. Maybe, as I’ve seen others do, what he needs is to enter the real world for a little while, and then, with a little more maturity and a bit more mental stamina, he can give it another go and this time finish what he starts. His unfinished graduation requirements could be the thing to bring him back to school when he has the perspective and determination to see the task through.

Or maybe, if this never comes to pass, it means that even with all traditional economic and family barriers removed, still there are some who, while capable, don’t get to be high school graduates. Maybe there will always be a few who do not strive, who achieve less than they could, who quit, and they have to live with that. It may seem harsh, but what can we do but let them?

Education is a right: the opportunity to learn, to grow, and to gain the skills needed to fully participate in the world. But the recognition of a diploma is earned. If someone chooses to be a non-participant, that is their decision. But I don’t see much gain in giving someone a piece of paper, when the very process of giving destroys any genuine value it might otherwise have had.