Beware wishful thinking on dropouts
To address the twin problems of a high dropout rate and low graduation rate, the Schenectady Board of Education may soon be considering a proposal to raise the compulsory school attendance age from 16 to 18.
We’re tempted to say, if this is such a great idea, why aren’t others doing it? But the fact is, they have. In 32 other states the legal age for dropping out is either 17 or 18. And according to a Brookings Institution study, it has had a negligible, if not adverse, effect on dropout and graduation rates.
We don’t wish to make light of the issue. In a society where a high school diploma is the bare minimum for any kind of decent-paying job, failure to graduate is a disaster for the individual and a heavy burden on the communities in which they live. It means a much greater likelihood of unemployment, social services, drug use and criminal behavior. So it’s tempting to support any proposal aimed at keeping kids from dropping out.
But this is a complex, multi-faceted problem, and there’s no simple solution. With students who are a few grade levels behind, who have given up on school and don’t want to be there, even if you forced them to stay an extra year or two, it doesn’t mean they’d try, or even come. The district has had success with truant officers finding and dragging middle-schoolers in, but that might not work so easily with 16- to 18-year-olds. And if they did come under duress, it could well be at the cost of disruption in the classroom and increased danger in the halls.
There are dropout prevention strategies that have been shown to work. They include: early detection of academic problems and more intense support for those who have fallen behind; strong pregnancy and parenting support; better connections to school through sports, arts and other activities; mentors inside the school or in the community; and internships with local businesses that will guarantee hours of employment as long as the student meets specified academic, attendance and behavioral goals.
Without such programs, which may be eligible for grants from the federal government and various foundations, merely raising the legal dropout age would be little more than a gesture. With them, it might not be necessary.