"I see no purpose in going to class." This was the bland outlook on life of one of my high school freshmen students when I taught in Hong Kong International School. He barely endured all of his courses, despite the fact that they were taught by the best teachers selected from across the United States. And all of his classmates were excited about their schoolwork.
We were sitting in the principal’s office. His father understood that his son was adrift.
"How about taking the spring semester off?" I suggested.
The student lit up.
He was not yet 16. But Hong Kong did not have truancy laws. There was a tourist boat in the harbor that offered sheltered employment to young adults and my student had expressed an interest in doing something "meaningful." That sounded like a great idea to him. So parent, principal, teacher-advisor and most importantly the student all agreed. We had a 15-year-old drop-out.
The daily routine of a dead-end job worked its magic. By the end of the semester, my student was ready to come back to school. The prospect of a lifetime of mindless work had become real. He now saw many reasons to study English and math and science.
In pioneer days, our students had a childhood full of real experiences; school helped them make sense of that world. They were experience-rich and knowledge-poor. Today’s children are so sheltered from the real world that they are experience-poor, and the knowledge they could gain in the classroom is no longer "meaningful."
But what we did in Hong Kong we cannot do in any of the 50 states because the student was not yet 16. Yet that is precisely what some students need. A survey released three years ago found that only one in three drop-outs were actually flunking classes; the other two were bored and felt school lacked meaning. Taking a semester or year off to live real life would be a good prescription for many of our potential drop-outs.
So from one side, we have the Department of Labor wanting to prevent our farm kids from working on the farm—one of the best real-world experiences a youngster can have. On the other, we have President Obama wanting states to force all students to stay in school until they are 18 or graduate.
One thing that American schools—and the good students who want to learn—do not need is more classmates who do not want to be there.
Kansas actually moved the minimal age for dropping out up to 18 in 1995.
The results were not good, and the Kansas legislature backed off by 1997 to again let students drop out at 16, but following a parent-student-counselor meeting to stress the disparity of income, etc.
The President’s theory for requiring students to stay in school until they are 18 is "When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better." Unfortunately, his assertion lacks evidence.
In "An Examination of Compulsory School Attendance Ages and High School Dropout and Completion" by Rebecca N. Landis and Amy L. Reschly, these researchers found "...no discernible pattern of reductions in drop-out rates was evident for states that raised their attendance ages."
Another study focusing on Texas and the brief Kansas requirement found that when Kansas temporarily raised our dropout age, graduation rates remained the same because truancy rates went up about 33 percent.
And in another study of the 18 states that recently increased dropout age to 18, six of those states had fewer, not more students graduate than before the mandate.
Turning schools into prisons for unmotivated students does not work.
A better policy would be to lower the compulsory school age and give those students who need life experiences an opportunity to see how boring life can be without a fuller education.