Keeping Kids in School
In his State of the Union address, President Obama urged legislation requiring all students to stay in school until they graduate or until they turn 18. A handful of states already have such laws, but for most states the age of compulsory attendance is 16.
In New York State, where I spent my administrative career, the law was modified a few years ago so that students could not simply quit school as a birthday present to themselves on the very day they turned 16. Instead, the new law required them to remain in school until the school year ended. Students I knew who officially dropped out at 16 had actually dropped out academically and emotionally years before that. It seemed unlikely that we would be able to cajole them or even force them to stay for even a day beyond 16, and frankly, we didn’t have the resources to drag them back to class if they refused. Many of them were so far behind in amassing credits for graduation that even two more years wouldn’t allow them to walk across the stage and receive a diploma.
Poor attendance was just a symptom of a dearth of compelling programs that made kids want to stay in school until they had acquired the academic and emotional skills to be out on their own. Our programs for at risk kids have been woefully inadequate; in 2009, six million young adults were neither enrolled in school nor had a high school diploma according to a report by Jobs for the Future, an organization that works to develop educational opportunities and job skills for young adults. Six million.
On the other end of the spectrum, a handful of states are encouraging students to graduate early by offering them scholarships to for college. The move is controversial and financially driven. State governments who base school aid on enrollment see the initiative as a way to save money; school districts see it as a loss of aid. Students who want to graduate early and get on with their lives are grateful for scholarships, but some worry that students may be academically ready but not mature enough to be successful on their own. Still others note that the initiative is an incentive for students on the high achievement end of the spectrum, but offers little to students ready to drop out as soon as they can do so legally.
What all of this tells us is that we need diverse programs for diverse student populations. We need more high schools partnering with their local community colleges so that students can begin the transition to post-secondary education seamlessly and sooner. We need technical centers that provide both training and academics so that all kids have choices. We need more work study programs so that kids can see practical applications for the skills they are learning in school and maybe earn some money at the same time.
The real tragedy about school reform is that the focus and the money have been spent on tests and evaluations of the current system. Imagine what we might have done if the focus had been on developing programs to meet kids’ needs.