The Wrong Message


When the compulsory age for attendance is lower than 18, it sends the wrong message to our youngest and most vulnerable learners.

This morning I sent out the following Twitter post: “Pres. Obama: States should require kids stay in school until graduation or age 18

A little later, I received this direct reply to my tweet, which I have quoted verbatim: “If a kid drops out of high school before he/she is 18? Do they get arrested? What if their working on their GED & an apprenticeship?”

From my experience, parents want their children to graduate. In fact, I never met a parent who wanted his or her child to drop out. However, to some people, what is completely unacceptable for their own children is totally acceptable when it relates to other people’s children. You wouldn’t want your own 16 year-old drop out. Why should we allow other people’s 16 year-olds to drop out?

Background: State of the Union Request

President Obama said in his 2012 State of the Union address that he wants states to change their laws to require that all students be required to stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18 years old. “We also know that when students aren’t allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma,” he said in the State of the Union. “So tonight, I call on every State to require that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn eighteen.”

According to a Washington Post report by Valerie Strauss:

  • The age at which students can legally leave school varies in the states.
  • Most states have set the minimum drop-out age at 16 or 17.
  • 15 states, plus the District of Columbia, that have set their dropout age at 18. They include Florida and Virginia.
  • Maryland allows students to drop out at 16.
  • In most countries, the age that students are allowed to leave school is the same as their minimum age for full-time employment.

A Nation of Grads?

President Obama has set as a goal that by 2020 all adult Americans would have committed to at least one year of higher education or career training and America would have the highest proportion of college graduates in the world.

Can’t Get There From Here!

The Post goes on to report “That isn’t going to happen, given the pace of the increase in high school graduation, according to a 2011 reported called “Building a Grad Nation,” (issued by Civic Enterprises, the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins University and America’s Promise Alliance). The report says that the national graduation rate increased from 72 percent in 2002 to 75 percent in 2008.” But it also says this:

The pace is too slow to meet the national goal of a 90 percent high school graduation rate by 2020. We must calibrate our educational system to the greater demands of the 21st century through a Civic Marshall Plan to make more accelerated progress in boosting student achievement, high school graduation rates, and college- and career-readiness for our nation to meet national goals and fulfill the promise of the next generation.”

Been There! Done That!

I worked for years in a state that allowed students to drop out of school at 16. In reality, when compulsory attendance ends at age 16, many students were disengaging from school at age 14 or sooner. When the state raised the compulsory attendance age to 18, it made a huge difference. I can’t imagine ever returning to a lower age limit.

From my experience, successful students never dropped out. When the age limit was raised to 18, instead of focusing on leaving school, students began focusing on succeeding in school. Raising the age forced everyone to work together find the right approach for each and every student. We were able to hold on to students, who previously would have dropped out and we were able to help them realize success.

I grew up in a manufacturing-dominated world in which an individual could make a good living through hard physical labor in the steel mills and coalmines. In today’s knowledge economy, most sustainable jobs require post-secondary education and training. Those who dropout are essentially relegated to a lifetime of marginal employment and second-class citizenship. In fact, the income of high school dropouts has continued to decline since the mid-1990s. Dropouts represent an economic and social anchor that our society ends up dragging around for their entire adult life.

Raising the age to 18 sent the right message to our students. Education is critically important!

Experience has taught me that sixteen year-olds lack the wisdom to make informed adult choices and that they all too often follow the path of least resistance. Making it easy to drop out encourages the very behavior that we want to discourage. We have a moral and ethical responsibility to make leaving school without a degree as difficult as possible. In the 21st Century, graduating from high school college and career-ready is not an option. It is an absolute must!

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