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Too Much Pomp for the Circumstance?


After the formal dance (complete with limousines), the elaborate class trip, and the catered parties, the students proudly cross the stage in their caps and gowns and shake hands with beaming school administrators. A typical rite of spring for high school graduates, right? Sure, except that this is a description of a ceremony for 8th graders. Across the country, reports the New York Times, 8th grade graduations are increasingly being treated with ever greater significance and leading some educators and public officials to ask whether all the pomp fits the circumstance.

In Arizona, legislators have gone so far as consider a bill to stop schools from giving out 8th grade certificates, worrying that the credential may lead some students to believe that 8th grade is the final academic goal. And no less a personage than Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama has questioned the practice of lavish graduation ceremonies. “Now hold on a second—this is just eighth grade. So let’s not go over the top,” he said at a June 15 church appearance in Chicago. "Let’s not have a huge party. Let’s just give them a handshake. You’re supposed to graduate from eighth grade.”

Others, however, say 8th grade graduation is a noteworthy milestone for many students and that there’s little harm in making the occasion memorable. “At least we have parents celebrating their children’s educational achievement,” said education scholar Diane Ravitch. “It says, ‘There are good rewards to staying in school.’”


It might be a huge milestone in high need schools filled with children from poor backgrounds and tough situations but from my personal experience most of the schools with lavish celebrations are ones located in areas with the highest graduations rates so one can imagine there is plenty of middle school completions. While I agree that it is a great feeling for a parent whose child finishes eighth grade, I do not agree that a prom, honors ceremony, graduation, and party are warranted.

I agree that some schools may be taking 8th grade promotion ceremonies a bit too far. However,it is an accomplishment and as such it would not hurt to recognize each student by name as they were promoted on to high school. A little recognition can go a long way.Too often, only the top students who excel academically or in sports, are often the only ones recognized at this academic milestone. Like it or not, there are many students who struggle just to keep pace with their peers to stay on track and get passing grades in school. These students come from broken homes, and other situations which can seriously compromise their efforts to get an education and graduate on time. A little recognition such as a simple promotional ceremony, may be all that is needed to encourage them to stay on track for a high school diploma, and be a bright spot in the life of a child whose home life is less than desirable. Think about it. Would an 8th grade promotional ceremony and after school social activity such as a dance (with guidelines), really make an eighth grader feel that they had completed their academic career in public schools. I think not!

As a former middle school principal, I have certainly seen this "trend." However, I saw it 10 years ago! I did not make myself popular with some kids by trying to get this whole elaborate celebration toned down some, but I did it anyway. I made sure I worked with a representative committee of parents as we examined what had happened in the past and how we wanted things to go in the future. We recast the formality into a much more informal party -- no caps and gowns, no fancy clothes, no limos, no hours at the beauty parlor, and no prom. Instead, we had a "completion ceremony" that was more sentimental than formal. It sort of reminded me of Brownies "flying up" to be Girl Scouts (but I didn't share that observation). When the gathering at the school was done, we took everyone to a local bowling alley/video arcade for pizza and games. It sounds awfully simple, but it worked! The kids certainly had a good time.

There are several things to think about when doing this. First, you have to get parents on your side. You cannot do this alone. No parent wants to the the one who squashes a "traditon." One point in favor of this change, however, is the expense for parents. Few 8th graders are paying for the limos, fancy clothes, and formal parties out of their own pockets and the cost can be a killer even for middle income families. A second was that parents worried that the kids would have nothing to look forward to if one pulled out all the stops for 8th grade. How could one make high school graduation a big deal if we made 8th grade so significant? A third worry brought up by parents was that a formal celebration pushed these kids into acting grown up too fast.

Our solution might not work everywhere, but it worked for our community.

When my eldest child's eighth grade class had a week-long series of activities for "graduation" I knew I did not want her to participate. To make an alternative more of a lure than a curse, I proposed to my daughter that we take a trip around the country. (As a teacher my summers are free, like hers.) When I brought out the atlas and opened it to the US, she was enticed. We saw the Grand Canyon, Mesa Verde, Mount Rushmore, Four Corners, etc. The entire trip was focused only on what she wanted to see, and we did not stop to see extended family. It was a perfect time for mother-daughter talk before high school started. As a bonus, she is the oldest of six children, so she was delighted to be away from her siblings. She never expressed any regrets about missing the eighth grade events and loves looking at the photos and souvenirs from the trip. (In case you were wondering, the next child got her trip the following year. That child wanted to go to the Mall of America, and she still talks about it. We saw Rushmore, Grand Canyon, and other places too. Next child, another girl, will be going out in two years with me. Dad will be taking each of the boys when they reach the end of eighth grade.) This prevents us from endorsing activities that we think not wise, and allows us single-child time at an important age.

Considering the substantial numbers of students not completing high school today, I sense what I feared when I first encountered 8th grade graduations 15 years ago, is now a reality. I have always maintained 8th grade graduations were absurb and that there was only one graduation that counted, high school. In particular, I was concerned with the inner city schools' reasoning (I'm an African American 20 year plus educator), they felt that this might be the only educational celebration many of the students would experience. This attitude concerned me because research shows that teacher expectations have a significant effect on student learning. Many of these graduations resulted in unbelievable expenses on superficial extravagant services such as $100 hair styles, limousines, tuxedo rentals, after parties and expensive gifts.

I feel it is now time to stop setting low student expectations and honor the traditional high school graduation.

I just ended another year of teaching eighth graders, and was faced yet again with all the "graduation" hype that has been mentioned. What concerned me the most was the directive our principal gave: "Make sure the last month of school continues our instructional pattern - quality intruction, not fluff." Of course I continued to plan quality lessons. However, more than a fourth of my students missed multiple days during that time period because they had to get prepared for prom, the end of the year field trip to Busch Gardens, and our graduation ceremony itself. Many students had several missing grades for work not completed when it came time to give final grades for the year because of the time they had missed. I weigh in on the "school as usual" side of the issue, even though I know that for some, this will be their only option to attend what should rightly be "senior" activities. However, at the risk of sounding inflexible and unknowledgeable about all the situations that affect our students' desire to stay in school, it generally is their choice to drop out before becoming seniors, instead of staying to genuinely "graduate." Let's acknowledge another milestone of achievement, but save all the hoopla for twelfth graders.

As a ten year teacher in an alternative High School, I have witnissed this trend in the majority of our low-income students. These families seem to be celebrating as if there won't be a High School graduation in their future. It sadly goes hand-in-hand with the out-of-place celebratory behavior surrounding teen pregnancies in our population. I'm not just talking about peer reactions - I'm speaking of family behavior. If they do make it to High School graduation, these are the families that hollar and scream over the next three names being announced, again, as if they will never have another bigger event to celebrate. I have no answers, just an observation on what seem to be related behaviors.

ROBIN - your idea is WONDERFUL!! That is a great, creative idea that definitely show what a parent's attitude should be like! My husband and I do not have any children yet, but this is definitely something I will file away for use when my own children get to this scary, crazy age. What a wonderful way to keep them grounded, well-rounded, and out of the superficiality of this trend. BRAVO - more parents need to be like you! As a former teacher, I have seen too many parents quick to just give in to "what my child wants" and the "I don't want them to feel left out" mumbo-jumbo. You have given your kids a gift in more ways than one!

Bottom line is....you don't GRADUATE from the 8th grade...you get PROMOTED. I think that the transition and accomplishment should be acknowledged, but not in the same way. You send a message that they have completed something of significance that will not translate in real world benefits. Moving past the 8th grade should be an EXPECTATION. That is what I believe is the biggest challenge we face...we have stopped EXPECTING certain behaviors of our students and children that should be considered as a given, and not necessarily REWARDED. It won't change over night, but we have to start to EXPECT certain student behavior, and respond appropriately when it is not performed.

I'm a 7th year teacher in a struggling school who has always considered this matter a perplexing one. The arguments that support this practice have never justified nor outweighed the cost and impression that these activities exact and leave. I also lament the message that it sends when colleagues and administrators express the notion that the 8th grade ceremonies 'may be there last shot" at something triumphant in their educational experience. It is a sad and limited perspective on part of the school.
I know that the understanding of graduating from the 8th grade should be an expectation, not the exception, and ask teachers/administrators to consider whether what is gained truly expresses this understanding to the students and families when the various celebrations and graduation ceremonies equals or sometimes surpasses the pomp of the High School graduations?
Alt Teacher began to draw a significant connection between the trend and family. The family response to such ceremonies plays a crucial role in there practice in schools. It doesn't help to promote the idea that "it is expected that one graduates the 8th grade" when the family treats/supports the lavish expense and conduct that betrays a finality of the educational experience as opposed to it being the stepping stone to the next level.
Here is where the schools should improve the communication to parents and provide them with the understanding that the middle school experience is simply the transitional stage to the next, larger step in their child's hopefully long educational experience.

I need to close with this last encouraging thought. As educators, we should express this belief constantly. We should not sit silent as planning for these events goes on under our tenure.
If we want to change, we should voice the rationale for the change. I have felt ignored during such planning meetings when I have raised my opinion on this matter, but have felt better for it. I also talk to my students about the implications for such activities. Many disagree but some have 'got it.' Let's get more students to 'get it.'

keep up the good teaching.

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Recent Comments

  • Sang Park: I'm a 7th year teacher in a struggling school who read more
  • mrscj: Bottom line is....you don't GRADUATE from the 8th grade...you get read more
  • dmm: ROBIN - your idea is WONDERFUL!! That is a great, read more
  • Alt. Educator: As a ten year teacher in an alternative High School, read more
  • Katrina Short: I just ended another year of teaching eighth graders, and read more




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