Student Well-Being Commentary

A Second Look at Compulsory Education

By Dennis L. Evans — April 11, 2006 5 min read

So often it seems that well-meaning efforts toward improving education not only do not succeed, but, in many cases, actually make things worse. In medicine, “iatrogenic” is the word used when treatment worsens a condition. Examples of this iatrogenic phenomenon in education include certain aspects of policies and practices like achievement-level tracking, the assignment of homework, the standards movement, and compulsory education.

Because of its universality, compulsory education is perhaps the greatest mischief-maker. Certainly, there is little dispute that education is a virtuous endeavor, and that it is essential both for individual development and, collectively, for our democratic society’s stability. Given such unanimity of support, it is understandable that we have defined engagement in education as a compelling state interest, and thus have made it mandatory for our children.

But compulsory schooling has little to do with education. We can bring children to the schoolhouse (in 2002, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 98.7 percent of youngsters ages 7 to 15 were involved with some form of schooling), but that does not mean that education is occurring. Indeed, recent figures from the NCES suggest that only 68 percent of 9th graders will graduate in four years. Observers contend that many of these apparent dropouts eventually will obtain a high school diploma, and thus the statistic is not as dismal as it might appear. Regardless, we do know with certainty that many high-school-age students are simply not engaged with school-site education. In reality, they are dropouts who are still in school.

—Laura Costas


In itself, that lack of engagement is bad enough, but exacerbating the situation is the fact that many of those non-engaged students manifest their negative attitudes toward school in ways that may result in classroom disruptions, interfere with the learning of others, and waste teachers’ time and energy. Moreover, costly programs related to dropout prevention, responses to truancy, and other services targeting student non-engagement drain schools of resources that could be better spent on students who want to learn.

For many problems, the best solution sometimes is to do the opposite of what is being done. Instead of trying (usually futilely) to get non-engaged teenagers to view school and education as good things, and concomitantly trying to force them to attend, it would make more sense to tell them that after a certain age, they no longer must go to school. But we should go further than simply lowering the age of compulsory attendance. We should tell these students that not only do they no longer have to attend school, but that they can’t: They will not be allowed to continue to waste teachers’ time and effort and interfere with the right of other students to learn.

At what age should such a policy be invoked? I would suggest that compulsory education (and the efforts to enforce it) should be maintained through the first year of high school (age 14 to 15), rather than age 18 or graduation, as it currently is in many states, including my own state of California. That would allow youngsters a chance to gain maturity and to evidence changes in their negative attitudes about education in a new school venue.

Several other considerations should be part of such a plan:

• Our goal is to get youngsters to want to attend school and to engage in their own education. With that in mind, we must position school as a good place to be, and as a place where students can’t be if they won’t make appropriate decisions and efforts. To that end, we should remove current approaches that use school as punishment, for example, detention, in-school suspensions, and Saturday school, and simply and clearly tell non-engaged or disruptive students, “You can’t be here.” Some students, of course, will initially greet such an edict with pleasure. But for most, the pleasure will wane as they begin to miss the companionship of their in-school peers.

We can bring children to the schoolhouse, but that does not mean that education is occurring.

• As part of this “easy out” policy, parents and community agencies will need to assume the supervisory responsibilities that schools now perform. Parents will need to ensure that these easy-out students are in a safe environment during school hours. Perhaps such students could accompany parents to their workplaces. Perhaps a government agency other than the schools could provide custodial supervision during school hours. The latter might take the form of the New Deal-era Civilian Conservation Corps, with the easy-out students engaging in work activities that benefit the community. Perhaps the police or military could provide boot-camp regimens and training for such students.

• Accompanying this easy-out policy, there should be an “easy return” policy. Once a student who has opted out, or has been dropped from school, decides that he or she wishes to return, that return should be made easy and expeditious (unless the student was expelled for a criminal or other serious offense). The return should be accompanied with a contractual plan detailing both the student’s commitment to engagement with his or her education and how the student will make up the missed time and work.

Here is where extra effort will be required from the student. Perhaps Saturday school—not structured as it is now for disciplinary purposes, but rather for the make-up of missed learning—would be appropriate. Perhaps summer school would be necessary. In any event, it will be the choice and responsibility of the student. This easy-return policy should be considered as a one-time opportunity. If the student falls back into non-engaged patterns, then “easy out” should be invoked by the school, with no further right of return.

Since this idea is a sharp departure from current approaches to non-engaged students, it is likely to be deemed unworkable—and even undesirable—by many readers. I would suggest that what is unworkable and undesirable are the current conditions in many high schools, and the daunting challenges that face teachers who must deal with non-engaged, nonresponsive, and often rebellious students. We know that adolescents, in terms of their development and progress toward adulthood, need to make decisions and break away from adult authority. When adults tell them they must do something, their natural inclination is to resist. Sometimes that resistance is manifested in nonresponsiveness or rebellion.

This plan removes the adult mandate and replaces it with the teenager’s choice. By telling students up-front that school is a “good place to be,” and that only those who abide by reasonable rules and make conscientious efforts to learn can attend, the plan also appeals to the adolescent’s concern with fairness and justice. Adults are not telling teenagers what they must do, only what the consequences of their decisions will be.

The ultimate goal is to cause students to understand that they must share in the accountability for their own learning and progress.

A version of this article appeared in the April 12, 2006 edition of Education Week as A Second Look At Compulsory Education


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