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Dropout age: what should it be, how much does it matter, and is there a better way?

February 17, 2012

Of the several big-ticket education issues taken on by President Obama’s late-January State of the Union address, the one that cried out loudest for ed policymakers’ careful thought and innovative answers was his proposed requirement to keep all students in school until age 18.  Though President Obama’s simple equation—     

                       [# of students considering dropping out at sub-18 bar] 

                                                      [option to drop out before age 18]


                                    [higher # of post-secondary-ready graduates] 

—results in a difference all educators would like to see, America’s dropout problem requires a much more complex calculus.  Some reports, after all (like this one, from the Rennie Center), cast considerable doubt on the idea that legal dropout ages are even the most crucial factor in determining graduation rates. 

Johns Hopkins University researcher Robert Balfanz, who published a 2010 report on the dropout problem, offered this nuanced view in The New York Times: “It’s symbolically and strategically important to raise the age to 18,” he said, “but it’s not the magical thing that in itself will keep kids in school.” 

Speaking in the same article, University of Toronto economics professor Philip Oreopoulos, agreed, urging schools to employ a “carrot and stick approach”: offsetting the stricter attendance rules by “providing wider curriculum options that might interest [the students forced by law to stay].” 

This, in other words, is where the ideal, clean equation gets complicated. 

In case it’s not enough that schools will bear the financial burden of enforcing such a requirement (and to fit President Obama’s proposal, fully 29 states would need to shift: only 21 states and the District of Columbia currently have age-18 compulsory attendance laws in place), they may also, to make their adjusted rolls work, have to entertain the possibility of expanding curricular options to accommodate reluctant students’ interests.

To some, this last idea is the part that makes the least sense.  After all, if uninterested students are forced by statute to stay in school and schools must prop up such students’ participation with content-thin/interest-high coursework, what good is the extra time in school anyway?  Though they can “wait out” their diplomas, will they actually be more prepared for post-secondary life than they would have been if they’d been allowed to drop out at 16 or 17?  At the Core Knowledge Blog, Robert Pondiscio: “What’s the value of a diploma that is conferred by coercion?  And where’s the win in forcing kids to stay in ‘dropout factory’ schools against their will and where they get seat time and nothing of use of relevance?” 

Later in his post, Pondiscio yields the floor to Michael Goldstein, founder of Boston’s MATCH charter school, who offers a completely fresh take on the dropout issue.  The best solution, Goldstein suggests, would be to actually allow disconnected students to drop out more freely, then spend our energies on creating the best plans to educate them when/if they’re genuinely motivated to learn.  [Reading the post in its entirety is highly recommended.  Click above Core Knowledge Blog link to access.] 

Though Goldstein’s is an idea few would wave around in public, I appreciate his fresh take and hope it inspires others to think creatively about their schools’/districts’/states’ dropout issues.  Simply, the answers we continue to lob at such issues, like raising legal dropout ages, structuring more engaging programming (often slowing down true academic momentum across all students), building intricate pyramids of support (only to have many students drop out anyway), etc., are most times financially unsustainable and educationally fruitless.

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