While checking e-mails this afternoon, I stumbled on an article from the Washington Post about online resources available for adult literacy students. You can find the link to this article at the end of this blog, BUT FIRST let me share with you the title of the article: “GED will soon have online guide for high school dropouts!” Am I the only person who had a visceral reaction to the use of the term “high school dropout”? Well, I did, and I did because that term feels so derogatory to me. It made me reflect on a conversation that I had with friends and colleagues during my dissertation study; a conversation on the stigma associated with GED and how that stigma leads others to look down on our students and not respect us as education professionals. The term “high school dropout” reinforces that stigma. I also thought about conversations that I have had with colleagues in the field about advocating for our students. I knew then that I had to say something to the author in defense of the men and women who are pursuing the credential, as well as the men and women who work tirelessly to educate them. My response to the editor is below. Please read it, and consider dropping that word from your vocabulary; consider taking away its power, and giving that power to our students.
Good afternoon Mr. Chandler,
I read your article via an e-mail blast from the GED testing service. Actually, I read the title of your article, because I never got past the title before I felt compelled to write. I am a GED/Adult Literacy Instructor, and I also do professional development for other adult literacy instructors. As an instructor and professional developer, I never allow my students and colleagues to refer to our students as "high school dropouts," and I really wish that you would refrain from referring to them as such. "High school dropout" has an incredibly negative connotation, reinforces students' feelings of failure, and more importantly, isn't an accurate term. Is it true that some students stop attending school? Yes. However, the term "high school dropout" implies that their decision to leave school was in fact their decision, and that it was not at all mediated by personal circumstances, or by conditions in our schools and our society that are not supportive of all students. For example, the fact that we know all students do not all begin school at the same starting line, but still expect them to finish within the same timeframe nearly guarantees that some students will in fact be left behind. The National Adult Literacy and Learning Disabilities Center indicated that as many as 85% of adult learners enrolled in GED/literacy programs have learning disabilities (1995). Many of these students were never screened and diagnosed during their K-12 careers, which means they were not receiving the accommodations and services that the law requires. Many of them probably blamed themselves for their struggles with learning, and our education system, by our failure to identify and accommodate their disabilities, validated their conclusions.
Beyond these reasons, continued use of that term does not honor, yes honor, our students for the incredible people that they are. Can you imagine how difficult it is to find employment, to support a family, to help your children with their homework, or just operate in this world without a high school diploma or its equivalent? Can you imagine how hard it must be to swallow your pride, face your fears, and go back to finish the task that you did not complete however many years ago? Can you imagine how difficult it is to make up for years of missed education (and mis-education) attending school a few hours a week around all of your work and family obligations? This is reality for any student who is seeking to earn his or her high school equivalency credential.
It takes a lot of courage to go back to school. It takes a lot of determination to complete these programs in the face of many barriers. As an instructor, I am powerless to remove many of those barriers, but one barrier that I can work to remove is the stigma associated with that horrible label, and you can help by refraining from using it in your future writings. I have a personal motto, "no suggestions, no veto" that I like to follow, that essentially means that I don't like to veto someone's idea unless I can offer an alternative. So in your future articles, here are a few terms that you might use as an alternative: lifelong learners, adult literacy students, or students pursuing their high school equivalency credential. My students, my colleagues, and I would greatly appreciate it. Now, I will read your article.