Education Opinion

Dropout Follies

May 01, 2003 3 min read
If policymakers are worried about teenagers dropping out, they should first find out why so many of them leave school.

Do you ever wonder what politicians are thinking when they make decisions? They are living proof that conventional schooling doesn’t always foster higher-order thinking—even among “well-educated” people. I could fill this column with a list of bad policy decisions in education alone. But take just one current example: In an effort to increase graduation rates, officials in half a dozen states are pushing to raise the mandatory school-attendance age from 16 to 18. (At least 14 states and Washington, D.C., already demand that kids stay in school until they are 18.)

The policymakers and educators pressing for this change argue that adolescents should attend school for an additional two years because a high school diploma is a prerequisite to a good job. But the assumption that staying in school will increase graduation rates is groundless, unless a school has low standards and supports social promotion. And it certainly doesn’t guarantee that students will learn more.

If policymakers are worried about teenagers dropping out, they should first find out why so many of them leave school.

Statistics show that about a quarter of our high school students drop out between 9th and 12th grades. The rate is significantly higher among poor and minority students, especially in urban districts. It would be a mistake, however, to think that the dropout problem is limited to poor and minority kids. Most dropouts are white kids from two-parent, English-speaking families. They maintained a C average and never repeated a grade. Nearly half attended suburban high schools.

The research suggests that dropping out of school is a process. Students don’t just suddenly leave after turning 16. They begin to disengage much earlier, which usually gets them into academic trouble. It is not uncommon, in urban schools, for students to “pile up” in 9th grade, repeating it until they turn 16. They leave school for various reasons, including problems at home, persistent poor performance, personal crises such as pregnancy, unstable school conditions, and boredom. Not one of these problems is addressed simply by keeping kids for another two years.

It is a mistake to assume that most students drop out because they don’t want an education. According to one study, dropouts are often brighter and more motivated than many of the students who stay in school and do only what is absolutely necessary to graduate. They leave because they feel they’re wasting time. In fact, about half of the students who drop out go on to complete high school—usually within the next five years. Most of them pass the General Educational Development exams, and most outperform at least 40 percent of today’s high school seniors on standardized tests.

When I was a university administrator in the 1970s, students began to “stop out” of college for a year, much to their parents’ dismay. My own son chose to take a break so that he could try acting for a year, and I encouraged him, figuring he’d get more out of college after he returned.

For all of these reasons, I believe that lowering the compulsory attendance age to 14 or 15 makes more sense than raising it to 18. Students who’ve begun the process of dropping out in middle school, for whatever reason, are probably not taking their academic work seriously or doing very well in it. Many of them are not motivated and become disciplinary problems. Perhaps the best way to convince these youngsters of the importance of education is to let them enter the “hard, cruel world” of work. I believe that most would return to education within a few years and be much more highly motivated.

Of course, that won’t happen because our public schools have become a national custodial system. While they would never admit it, too many parents are as concerned about keeping their kids off the streets and supervised during working hours as they are about their education.

—Ronald A. Wolk