How Homeschoolers Make A High School Transcript: Wes Beach Interview, Part 2

 Pat: Since completing high school is such an important box to check off for homeschoolers, especially those who want to get into an elite college, many view the GED as a bad option. Why does the GED have such a poor reputation among parents?

Wes:  Well I had my head turned around just a few months ago by reading some research that I took seriously. It was in a book I really like called How Children Succeed. Its basic thesis is academic background is not necessarily what's most important; what is most important are kids' personal strengths—which is something I have believed for a long time.  So, obviously I love this book.  Anything that agrees with me . . . And he cites some research that says that the long-term prospects that people who have GED's are not good in general.  And the reason employers and other people prefer a diploma is what a diploma represents at least is you can stick with something and complete it.  And the GED does not represent that.  But my feeling is that in any statistical result like that, there are always subsets of people who don't follow the general rule.  And so, if a GED will get you in where you want to go, then do it, because in the end it doesn't matter. I mean if you take the GED and then get a PhD, a Bachelor's, or even an AA, I mean, who cares how you got into the school? It doesn't matter how you got into the school if you wind up with a degree or even some college experience.  Your previous documents that got you there in the first place to allow you to build this record don't matter.

Pat:  So, why, if that's true, do so many people worry that even if they are applying to colleges and have community college courses or internships and other academic evidence on their transcript, if you don't have a diploma, you're going to get screwed somehow?  Does that come back to bite people, in your experience?

Wes:  Once in a great, great, great while.  I've now graduated 1,400 people from my school.  And the number of people who have run into any kind of trouble because after they have got a degree or college experience they don't have a regular high school diploma, I think maybe three of those 1,400.  I'll tell you the worst case ever.  And I want to emphasize that this is an absolutely extremely tiny minority of people who have been in this kind of a thing.  But I was here in my home office one day and a couple of Navy guys showed up unannounced and so, after I talked to them for a little while I discovered that they were concerned about one of my former graduates who had gotten a diploma from me.  She'd gone to a community college.  She had transferred to San Jose State University, and she'd earned her bachelors with honors at 19.

Pat: Wow!

Wes:  And they really wanted this kid in the Navy, but they could not give her what they wanted to give her, in spite of her degree, because she did not have a diploma from an accredited school.  That's the rules.  Now that rule strikes me as just crazy. I mean, who cares what anybody did if you've got a bachelor's degree, especially if you got it with honors at 19? And I said to these guys, —I said it politely, of course—but I said to these guys, “Look, I know you don't make the rules but this is crazy. I mean, you should give this kid some extra gold stars for what she accomplished, not penalize her because of the nature of her high school diploma. But the fact of the matter is once in a great while, and again I'll emphasize once in a great, great while it is an issue.  But, generally it is not.

Pat: In my experience it is usually really big state schools—such as the University of California college system you mentioned. I'm aware that the state college system in Georgia is very hard for homeschoolers to get in.  They require even more standardized tests for homeschoolers than of a kid coming from a public school. And so, again, I wonder if it goes all the way back to that very first comment you made, that observation when you were in high school, that this hand from the grave of schooling past is coming back to grab and torment you.

Wes:  Yeah. Right. Now, I honestly think, and I don't know this for a fact, but I honestly suspect that that may be part of what's going on at the University of California.  I mean they are after all part of the public education system in this country. And it may be the case they simply don't want to see the high schools undermined. They want to maintain the good relationships with the high schools. That may be part of it.  I don't know.

Pat: I know, it is all guesswork, but I think it is also just institutional sclerosis. The check boxes become more important than the people in front of you.

Wes:  Yeah.  Well, what really bothers me though is when they just lie about it. I mean I write about an instance in Forging Paths about a representative of the University of California going out and telling people they need a high school diploma as transfer students.  And that's not true.

Pat:  So, how did that resolve itself?

Wes:  Well, when I heard that, a mother called me up from San Jose and said she was really concerned because she'd heard this from a representative of the university.  And I said I don't think that's true.  And one of the things I did is I called three other campuses, and I asked them all straight out.  I said, “Does a junior transfer need a high school diploma?”  And without equivocation and without hesitation they all said, “No, they do not.” And I looked at the system website, and it mentioned nothing about high school diplomas for transfer students which has been the case for years and years and years.  I just wanted to make sure there hadn't been any recent changes.  So finally then I called the branch of the university from which this representative came, and I said, “Does a junior transfer need a high school diploma?”  And they said, “Yes.” And so I got off the phone.  I sent an email to the director of admission, who handed it off to somebody else.  And then she wrote this thing that's in my book about, well we want people to submit a high school diploma if they have one.  And then she went on to write a bunch of more stuff, and could never say straight out that junior transfers don't need a high school diploma when it was very clear from what she wrote that they don't. Even after she got pinned down she wasn't willing to just say it in a simple sentence straight out. I don't know what's going on with that.

Pat: Well right now I think education is in such flux that I feel that the institution is just circling the wagons and it just doesn't want to hear about anything other than business as usual.

Wes: Right.

Pat: Is there a difference between the CHSPE (California High School Proficiency Examination) and the GED or are they equivalent?

Wes:  Well now, in my opinion there's no difference in what they will do for a person. The CHSPE is more available to people because you can take it at a younger age.  And as a matter of fact the rules are such that you're eligible if you're sixteen by the day of the test, or you're eligible if you were in the second semester of the tenth grade or you have finished the tenth grade.  Well, this allows a home schooling family to just wave their administrative wand and say, 'I'm assigning you to the eleventh grade . . . and therefore you are eligible to take the test.'  But I have told this to people, many people, in talks here in this state.  And I know some people have done it, and I've done it.  My granddaughter took the test when she was twelve.  So there is a way to get people into this test . . . The test is somewhat different. Its not as broad as the GED, there's no social studies on it. Its mostly math, reading, and writing. You have to write a very short essay in a very short period of time and then answer a bunch of questions, math and English, and you know, like, is this word spelled right? Is this punctuation right? And that kind of stuff. When it started, it was just arithmetic, which makes sense. But now its got a substantial amount of algebra and geometry on it that, in my opinion, does not make sense. And I will never ever, ever, ever understand why you need to take three years of college preparatory math if you want to major in art. I mean, what's the point?

Pat: Ivan Illich, in Deschooling Society, wrote about how in 1971 they passed a law that in order to be a sanitation worker in Manhattan you needed to have a high school diploma.  Why? Why do you need to know Shakespeare and prove evidence of higher math skills to chuck trash?

Wes: Well, you might find good books to read in the trash, I mean.

Pat: Right! I like how you encourage people to develop a transcript that matches their academic background and experience as opposed trying to make it look like a standard school transcript. How do you decide what type of transcript to create for a self-directed learner?

Wes: Well, that is really hard to say. I am currently working on one for a young woman in Wisconsin. Its going to be different from any other I've ever written. Most of the ones I've written that have courses, grades, and credits and all that stuff on it start out with an explanation about, well, these symbols mean this, and this person did this, and this person did that. Real briefly the outset. And then that's followed by a pretty standard course list, grades, and credits. And that is almost always followed by detailed course descriptions and these are often written in the first person by the student whose transcript it is. That's pretty standard. In one case, recently, I wrote a transcript like that with the addition of some comments from some teachers at the school this girl attended as a freshman in high school. She had gone to a private high school for one year. It provided narrative evaluations and so I took some of those and included those as part of her transcript. In some cases I've included reading lists. In some cases I have included narratives that have been written by people they work with. So it just depends what's there.

Now the kid that I'm working for now, is going to write a course list as I've described it and then that's going to be followed up not by individual course descriptions, but by three lengthy essays of stuff that she has learned written in incredibly sophisticated English with a long, long list of very impressive references. And we're doing it that way because that's the way she feels comfortable presenting herself.

I say up front that there's two basic principles for writing transcripts. One is, there's no accepted format. You don't have to follow anybody's format, and I encourage people not to use a template unless its the best thing they can possibly think of. And the other rule is, there's an inverse relationship between how much work has been done at established institutions and how much detail you include. If everything has been done independently at home you need tons of detail. And some of the transcripts I've written have been 12, 15 pages of details. If on the other hand, as a homeschooler you've done your work at established institutions—I had one kid that did most of his work prior to the time he graduated, at the local community college—well, that doesn't need to be justified.

His transcript is just two pages showing course work. And mixed in with it is that he also worked at three distance learning institutions, all of which were accredited colleges. And there's a handful, three or four courses on his transcript, where he used tutors. One of whom is his mother, but in view of the fact that it was there, in the context of all of this other coursework, all of it done in colleges, all of it with A's and B's, I saw no need to justify his work with tutors, because it was a very small part of what he did. If on the other hand, a lot of his work was done with tutors I would have wanted detailed course descriptions, narratives from the tutors, and the tutors' qualifications to be part of the transcript.

Pat: What about someone, who isn't wealthy or doesn't have a lot of tutors? Who is just pretty much homeschooling the classic way, with love and a library card?

Wes: Well, then they write their own course descriptions. I worked with one homeschooling kid who did take a small number of community college courses and everything else she did was on her own.

First we wrote a description about what she had done. Then she took the SAT subject test in chemistry, and I don't remember what she got. It was in the high 700s. This shows that she has really learned her chemistry, and once there's a couple of really high test scores along with there, they can take seriously the other subjects that she did on her own without any test scores.

As long as there is some outside validation of what this kid can do—the level at which this kid is working—they're going to take seriously what's on the transcript, and even if there isn't such stuff, if the transcript is really detailed and convincing, it's going to be fine.

Pat: So it seems like sending the right signal—that you can do college level work—to the college that you're applying to or the employer that you would like to get hired by, is key.

Wes: Yeah, exactly.

Pat: What in your experience are some of the clearest signals that an independent learner can send to an institution that they've done, besides grades from a community college?

Wes: Clear writing, course descriptions. It's actually inappropriate to say “I write these transcripts”—I actually compile them. Small accounts are written by me, but most of transcripts are written by the students, and I encourage students to write them in the first person. "I did this," "I did that," "I read this book," and so on and so forth. Because after all, you are the person that the college is going to decide on, so you need to present yourself, not be presented by somebody else.

I ran into a really interesting situation. I spoke in Minneapolis to a group of gifted homeschoolers last April, and in preparation for that I did some homework with the University of Minnesota, to try and figure out what exactly their policies were, and they are the first school that said anything to me about not wanting things written in the first person. So I'm going to have to take that as a cautionary note, but I think that if I had somebody who wanted to apply to The University of Minnesota, I'd probably go ahead with first person anyway, because these things are so convincing.

So I think that's the first thing, is clear writing, really good writing. And then the second thing is just being able to cite high-level accomplishments, high-level reading, and significant things like working in a research lab when you're 12 years old.

I said to the kid in Wisconsin that I'm currently working with, "In my opinion, any admissions officer ought to be able to read any one of your essays and immediately admit you." I mean, that's not going to happen, but it should. And I think her essays are so convincing and so sophisticated and have such a long list of impressive references that admissions people really are going to be bowled over by what she's written.