There are currently several states debating whether or not they should raise the age that children must attend school if they have not already graduated. These states allow children as young as 16 to make a very adult decision to drop out of school. (20 other states and the District of Columbia do not allow this).
President Obama acknowledges that laws regarding compulsory education are decisions for states and local school districts, but he has wisely used his bully pulpit to encourage them to raise the age requiring kids to go to school. I’m a teacher and a mother, and I want to echo what the President says. Raising the compulsory age for being in school is good for kids. But it’s also good for us. All of us. Whether or not you have kids in school, kids being in school is necessary for this country to succeed.
In the 1950s, the dropout rate was 50%, and presidents weren’t making speeches about it. Most of the compulsory education age laws were put in place in the days where someone who never finished high school could still find a good job on a farm or in a factory and earn a middle-class salary.
You could buy a house in the suburbs and raise a family and take a little vacation now and then. If you could read, write, balance your checkbook, were honest and had a good work ethic, you had a decent chance to make a decent life for yourself.
My Dad never finished 8th grade, growing up a sharecropper’s son in Mississippi. He joined the Army when he was 16 (“fudged” about his age as many kids did who were born at home and had no birth certificate). He told me that his education plan was to raise his hand every time the sergeant asked for a volunteer to learn something. He raised his hand when the sergeant asked who wanted to learn how to repair Jeeps. He raised his hand when the sergeant asked who wanted to learn how to repair electrical generators. He just kept raising his hand until he was promoted to warrant officer in charge of the maintenance of missile guidance systems.
He made a decent life for himself and his family. My Dad wasn’t the exception. He was the rule. But the rules have changed.
For some students, the age for school attendance is a permission slip. For some students, the age for school attendance is the day they don’t have to show any more. For some students they have a countdown to that day the way other kids countdown to the day they get their driver’s license. If this age hits them at a time when they’ve been in trouble or they are discouraged or they want to make money or they’re angry at their parents or teachers or life… they see that age as permission to make the life-changing decision to interrupt – and too often, to end – their education and walk away from the high school diploma that’s the ticket to just about anywhere they’ll want to get to when they’re older.
The grim statistics are that they won’t be given the opportunity to raise their hands the way my Dad did. They won’t be considered for many jobs that pay above minimum wage. Their lifetime earnings will be impacted dramatically; earning hundreds of thousands of dollars less than if they had graduated. Many kids who drop out become adults who live their lives in poverty; their children don’t have health insurance; their bills don’t get paid; they live in constant stress.
Dropouts are more likely than someone with a high school diploma to be unemployed. They are more likely to be chronically ill. They are more likely to be on welfare. They are more likely to be in jail.
We know from the experience of states that have raised the compulsory age to stay in school that almost immediately – without doing anything else - kids dropping out decreased by 25%. That’s big fat wow! Just by telling a student, “Oh, no you don’t kiddo. You’ve got homework to do until you turn 18,” one-fourth of those who were heading for the door turn, shrug their shoulders and head back to their seats.
Ok, so yes, there’s still 75% who need something more. So yes, we need to make high school relevant with richer programs that get kids excited about careers and college. So, yes, we need non-traditional schools for kids who just need something different and who are never going to conform to a traditional school setting. I get that. But raising the compulsory age is the low-hanging fruit. Why wouldn’t we pick it?
We can save 25% of kids who are just waiting for their 16th birthday to make the biggest mistake of their lives. These kids are too young to vote. Too young to drink. Too young to join the Army. But we allow them to make the adult decision that could doom them to a life of poverty and doom our nation to a generation without the skills and knowledge to fill the jobs we need for a thriving economy, without the ability to rise above their poverty, and at risk for desperate acts that affect their health, their future children’s welfare and even public safety and the costs of incarceration.
Sixteen-year-old children are still children. The adults in the room need to make sure that children are in school.