Opinion
Education Opinion

Dropout Follies

May 01, 2003 3 min read
  • Save to favorites
  • Print
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

Events

This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
Budget & Finance Webinar
The ABCs of ESSER: How to Make the Most of Relief Funds Before They Expire
Join a diverse group of K-12 experts to learn how to leverage federal funds before they expire and improve student learning environments.
Content provided by Johnson Controls
Science K-12 Essentials Forum How To Teach STEM Problem Solving Skills to All K-12 Students
Join experts for a look at how experts are integrating the teaching of problem solving and entrepreneurial thinking into STEM instruction.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Sponsor
School & District Management Webinar
Modernizing Principal Support: The Road to More Connected and Effective Leaders
When principals are better equipped to lead, support, and maintain high levels of teaching and learning, outcomes for students are improved.
Content provided by BetterLesson

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Education Briefly Stated: April 27, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
9 min read
Education Briefly Stated: April 6, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
8 min read
Education Briefly Stated: March 30, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
6 min read
Education Briefly Stated: March 16, 2022
Here's a look at some recent Education Week articles you may have missed.
7 min read