To the Editor:
In reference to your Feb. 8 article “States Mull Obama’s Call to Raise Compulsory-Attendance Age,” I would like to note the minimal exposure to classrooms of such famous Americans as Thomas Edison (three months) and Abraham Lincoln (less than a year). In an earlier letter, “Compulsory Schooling: Was Edison Right?” (Nov. 1, 2006), I pointed out that Edison, Lincoln, and many other accomplished Americans grew to adulthood before compulsory-attendance laws became the norm. I asked a question: “Could it be that both boys’ parents and their indifferent state governments were on to something?”
With President Barack Obama’s plea for all 50 states to raise their compulsory school-attendance age to 18, that question is still relevant. Other questions also ought to be posed and answered:
1) Why did these youngsters accomplish so much despite scant contact with classrooms? Edison, who was working full time by age 12, would eventually hold 1,000 patents.
2) Would President Lincoln and Edison have fared better—or would they have been harmed—had they been forced to attend school until age 18?
3) Are there youngsters today who would excel if allowed to start work at a much earlier age?
4) What if children today were allowed to “test out” of their compulsory-attendance obligation by demonstrating a high minimum proficiency in basic academic subjects?
5) What if we then let these capable children go to work?
Paraphrasing Russell W. Rumberger, an education professor at the University of California, Santa Barbara, and the director of the California Dropout Research Project, the Feb. 8 article states: “In spite of billions of dollars in government and private spending aimed at well-intentioned and ambitious efforts to stem the tide of dropouts, the national graduation rate is worse now than it was 40 years ago.” Maybe that is because for many youngsters, “dropping out” is not a bad thing. “Staying in” is a bad thing.
The writer is a retired public school teacher.
A version of this article appeared in the March 08, 2012 edition of Education Week as Dropping Out Should Be an Option