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Age 18 Dropout Law

It's really hard to argue against this.  At a first glance this sounds like a really good idea.  No one can argue the importance of finishing and graduating from high school.  There is overwhelming evidence that people without a high school diploma are pretty much screwed.  Yes, there are the odd cases of high school dropouts that went on to be great successes, but those cases are by far the exception, not the rule.  With this in mind, why shouldn't we require anyone under the age of 18 to be subject to compulsory school attendance?

You might think that a guy who has spent a lot of time as a volunteer helping high school math students would be 100% behind this initiative - and I would if I honestly thought that it would do anything to improve the graduation rate.  The problem is that as most of our schools are presently structured, this is not a good idea and it will create more problems than it will additional high school graduates.  It sounds great in political 10 second sound bites, but as usual, the devil is in the details and I see the rule of unintended consequences all over this one.  The politicians get to go on TV and say they did something while in reality they dumped the problem into the lap of local schools (like they need anymore problems).

Learning is generally a transactional experience.  There are two conditions that have to be met; there must be a good teacher (and we have plenty of them in spite of what some in the media claim), but there also must be a student who is willing to be taught and who wants to learn.  It is this condition that is where this whole thing gets sticky.  Some students for whatever reason really aren't too interested in their part of this transaction.  They simply aren't interested in the subject.  Of course, in most cases they are being provided "high cover" by parents who for whatever reason that only they know simply don't think there is any value in education.

I think it is important for me to state here that in no way do I think dropping out of high school is a good idea.  In fact, I will tell anyone (and have) that for a 16 year old, dropping out is (unless you've killed someone) the absolute by far worst decision you will have made in your young life.  It saddens me greatly that there are parents out there that will willingly go along with this poor decision and actually come to the school to sign the papers.  When I hear things like "I didn't graduate from high school and I'm doing OK" it makes me want to puke.  School and education are all about opening doors.  Without even a high school education most doors are pretty much slammed shut and locked.

One of the students in a class I assisted with dropped out shortly after his 16th birthday.  A parent came into the school, signed the papers and they were gone.  This student had made the decision long before it actually happened.  A really good question is why?  When I questioned the student about helping them with the course early in the year, the polite reply was that I should focus on someone else in the class since they were going to drop out anyway when they turned 16.  If such a law as to require mandatory attendance is enacted, what are we to do with students such as this?  Fortunately in this case, the student was a very polite individual who caused no trouble and was quite satisfied to sit quietly and basically daydream for the entire class.  Not all potential dropouts have such a peaceful disposition.  Hard as it may be to believe, some of these potential dropouts are disruptive and interfere with the teacher's ability to teach to the students who actually want to be there are learn.  Once the decision to dropout has been made, there really isn't a lot the school can do.

Just being in school doesn't mean that you are going to graduate anyway.  Most kids turn 16 sometime in their sophomore year in high school.  Most turn 18 sometime in their fourth year (notice I didn't say "senior" since if you aren't on track to graduate, you are much more of a "fourth year student" that a "senior".  If you've decided sometime in your sophomore year that you just weren't interested, you are simply going to bide your time until the day you turn 18 and you can unceremoniously walk out the door never to return (until perhaps to realize how bad the decision to drop out was and you need to go back to school for a GED).  This is because the mandatory attendance law hasn't addressed the core reason(s) why these students decided to "check out". 

I sincerely believe that it is extremely unfair to hold school staffs (administrators and teachers) responsible for any student dropping out.  This is clearly in the realm of parental responsibility. 

So now that Kentucky has enacted such (as we are presently structured) an ill advised law the question becomes:  What will we do?  If students just stop showing up, will we place them in truancy and essentially criminalize the lack of attendance?  Do we prosecute/fine/maybe even jail the parents?  What will this accomplish?  We can through brute force make a kid come to school, but we can't make them learn if they don't want to (kind of like a horse and water).  I suppose we could cook up some "alternative" program that somehow resulted in the issuance (not the earning of) a devalued high school diploma (that is assuming the "student" actually shows up).  Of course, this "diploma" won't be worth the paper it's written on.  No we need something else.  As usual, our politicians have gotten it backwards.  Of course, since funding is based primarily on average daily attendance, you can bet that a bunch of school boards are going to jump on this bandwagon.  I guess I can't blame them though since if they don't support this it looks like they don't care.

That something else we need (and should have addressed first or at a minimum as part of a complete system analysis) is getting back to a robust technical and vocational training program.  Not every kid aspires to be a doctor, lawyer or engineer.  Some kids want to be mechanics and other things that do not require a four year college degree.  Please do not interpret this as implying that people without a BS in something aren't intelligent.  Using the example of auto mechanics, today's vehicles are complex machines that require well training technicians to keep running well.  What they don't require is for a technician to know the difference between a hyperbola and a parabola.  I sincerely believe that if we brought back vocational and technical education, we wouldn't need compulsory attendance laws anyway.

One final thought - as with most things, 100% is simply not attainable.  As you approach 100%, the marginal return becomes very costly.  Sadly there is nothing we can do about this.  The best we can do is make a meaningful education available.  Let's do that first and see how things go.

Updated/Reviewed August 24, 2014
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