“Any young person without a high school diploma is at a severe disadvantage in our high-tech labor market, with its accompanying demands for advanced education. We can’t prepare students for the 21st century who aren’t in school. Increasing graduation rates requires a continuum of strategies that engage students, including ensuring their presence in the classroom.” The above-mentioned quote by National Education Association (NEA) President Dennis Van Roekel sizes up the situation crisply. Although critics contend that students inclined to dropping out of school will quit school anyway and education is a responsibility of local and state governments and raising the compulsory school age will have little effect, research indicates there are benefits in raising the national compulsory school attendance age to 18.
Compulsory school attendance refers to the minimum and maximum age required by each state for students to be enrolled in and attending public schools or some comparable education program as defined by law. The good news is student in the United States are graduating from high school at a rate better than any time since 1976; the bad news is about 20 percent still drop out, most of whom are minorities. The figures are from the National Center for Education Statistics’ report, “Public School Graduates and Dropouts from the Common Core of Data: School Year 2009-2010.” Dropouts face extremely bleak economic and social prospects. Compared to high school graduates, they are less likely find a job and earn a living wage, and more likely to be poor and to suffer from a variety of adverse health outcomes. The statistics are sobering.
Both in the short-term, when dropouts first leave school, and in the long-term, over their entire working lives, dropouts are severely disadvantaged relative to students who complete high (Rumberger, p. 88, 2011). Dropouts are almost twice as likely to be poor—in 2009, 25 percent of high school dropouts had incomes below the poverty level compared to 14 percent for high school graduates with no college (Rumberger, p. 92, 2011). The economic disadvantages of not completing high school have grown more sizeable over time as the availability of low-skilled jobs has declined. The median annual earnings of full-time, full-year dropouts were 15 percent less than high school completers in 1980, but increased to 21 percent by 2008 (Rumberger, p. 93, 2011). In recent years, the drop-out rate in US schools, currently estimated at over 20% overall and overrepresented among low income, Black, and Latino and other minority students, has gained a great deal of attention, because of its impact on the students and on the communities in which they live.
There are some dynamics that fuel these inordinate rates for minorities. By raising the compulsory school attendance age and providing supports for struggling students, 25 percent of likely dropouts remained in school because of compulsory schooling laws (“Raising the Compulsory School Attendance Age,” National Association of Secondary School Principals. May 2010.) To remain in school, students must devote their time and attention to their schoolwork and their school activities. They must also get along with their teachers and fellow students. But some students engage in a number of behaviors in and out of school that increase their risk of dropping out. These behaviors include misbehaving in school, delinquent behavior outside of school, drug and alcohol use, and sexual activity and teen childbearing. The research literature finds that engaging in any of these behaviors increases the risk of dropping out of school ( Sanchez p. 172).
Potential dropouts will not get the specialized help if they dropout because they were not required to stay in school until the age of 18. Dropouts are generally unprepared to contribute to society and are a burden on the nation’s economy. Lower local, state, and national tax revenues are the most obvious consequence of higher dropout rates; even when dropouts are employed, they earn significantly lower wages than do graduates. State and local economies suffer further when they have less-educated populaces, as they find it more difficult to attract new business investment. Simultaneously, these entities must spend more on social programs when their populations have lower educational levels.
The nation’s economy and competitive standing also suffer when there are high dropout rates. Among developed countries, the United States ranks twenty-first in high school graduation rates and fifteenth in college attainment rates among twenty-five- to thirty-four-year-olds. Dropouts represent a tremendous loss of human potential and productivity, and they significantly reduce the nation’s ability to compete in an increasingly
global economy. Furthermore, recent estimates project that the future domestic workforce demands will require higher levels of education among U.S. workers. However, without significant improvements in the high school and postsecondary completion rates, the nation is on track to fall short by up to 3 million postsecondary degrees by 2018 (Junn, p. 7). Critics
Those contending that raising the compulsory school attendance age would be useless are mistaken. Research indicates that approximately 25% of potential dropouts remain in school because of compulsory school laws. Compulsory school attendance laws provide for the direct enforcement and policing of school attendance. In addition, overall enrollment rates among 16 year olds are lower in states that allow them to drop out when they turn 16. Philip Oreopoulos, in two separate studies using information gathered by various surveys analyzed the issue of implementing compulsory attendance laws (Oreopoulos-2005, p. 12). Using additional information from countries like England and Ireland, he concluded that students who are compelled to complete at least one more year of school will earn 12 percent more than those who choose to drop out earlier (Oreopoulos-2005, p. 13). In the second study specifically concerning that increasing the drop out age (above 16) increases an individual’s schooling by .12 to .16 years, thus better preparing them for the labor force. In his study he also observed a decrease of 1.2 and 2.1 percentage points in the overall dropout rate.
As with some of the other studies, he concluded that the policy does not affect the rates; other factors such as funding and alternative measures must be put into place (Oreopoulos-December 2005, p. 17). Critics also argue that education is primarily a State and local responsibility. While this is established by the 10th Amendment to the US Constitution, the United States has a fundamental responsibility to promote policies nationally that effect all of its citizens. The dropout rate is alarming and could pose national security issues. An independent task force launched by the Council on Foreign Relations (2013) is warning the U.S. education system is barreling toward “a national security crisis.” The report highlights a Defense Department statistic that 75% of American youth don’t qualify for the armed forces because of a lack of a high school diploma, obesity or a criminal record.
The disproportionate number of minority groups with high dropout rates could be further investigated by the office of Civil Rights (OCR). Why are so many minorities leaving school? We live in a highly mobile society with people constantly moving from state to state. This mobility will result in different compulsory school attendance ages in different states. In 1980, Congress established the Department of Education (DOE), as a Cabinet level agency. Today, the DOE operates programs that touch on every area and level of education. The official mission of the Doe is to “….promote student achievement and preparation for global competitiveness by fostering educational excellence and ensuring equal access.” Raising the national compulsory school age to 18 would carry out this mission perfectly. It is difficult to determine how many students would choose to pursue a higher education or technical training, once they graduate, it is extra difficult to reasonably argue that they should be allowed to give up on school. Faced with the reality of trying to get a job and raise a family, most students who dropped out wished they had remained in school.
The facts are well documented—the economic consequences of dropping out are dramatic (John M. Bridgeland, John J. DiIulio, Jr.and Ryan Streeter argue: Their concerns are merited – the economic consequences of dropping out are dramatic. In the United States, high school graduates earn 43 percent more than individuals without a high school diploma, and college graduates earn more than 150 percent – one and a half times – more. Median earnings for people who have not graduated from high school are currently a mere $415 per week. Research has shown a 10 percent rise in earnings for people who simply stay in school one year longer. Over their lifetimes, female high school dropouts earn between $120,000 and $244,000 less than female graduates, and males $117,000 to $322,000 less than male graduates.
College graduates earn between $800,000 and $1,387,000 more over their lifetimes than high school dropouts. Not only are earnings prospects bleak for dropouts who have jobs, but the prospect of having a job at all is not guaranteed: dropouts are much more likely to be unemployed. The unemployment rate among individuals who have not graduated from high school is 65 percent higher than it is for graduates and three times higher than it is for college graduates. Clearly, dropping out of high school is often equivalent to choosing a life of financial hardship. It also places a burden upon society as a whole. Annual public health costs for dropouts have been estimated at $58 billion, and approximately $10 billion could be saved each year in public assistance if all our students graduated from high school. (p. 10) In their overview and survey of research on the importance of compulsory school ages (Hoor & Reynolds p 3-4) find that raising the age is an important component of confronting the dropout problem. In their study, “Understanding and Addressing the Issue of the High School Dropout Age,” the authors find evidence that raising the compulsory school age is gaining support across the United States in part because doing so helps reduce dropout numbers. The paper also provides a sampling of evidence-based interventions that help reduce the dropout rate.
There is no simple way to nationally raise the compulsory school attendance age to 18 years. Just raising the age to 18 is not enough. It will take cooperation from many sectors to realize this needed policy change. Evaluating past reform efforts and the existing more recent research literature on implementation will provide information needed for developing more successful programs in the future. Though all states will benefit from raising the age to 18, states have varied factors they must consider and must do what fits for that state. Making schools and schools districts accountable for implementing and maintaining the national compulsory school attendance age of 18 is a great start. Thankfully, No Child Left Behind is is being left behind. However, a fair, consistent and reliable means of effectively addressing dropouts must be developed. The school environment itself determines whether at-risk students succeed. Students who are supported, motivated, and encouraged by their teachers, who regard their teachers as caring, and who receive guidance from their teachers usually like school.
In contrast, dropouts often report leaving school because they did not get along with their teachers or classmates. Smaller class sizes or counseling and guidance programs for struggling students are ways to improve how students perceive their teacher support networks. (Oreopoulos, Philip 2006 p. 31). Making funding available to hire and train teachers and providing smaller classes will help ease these issues. Providing other school-appropriate proven resources will also help. Currently, many school districts expel or suspend students for long periods of time, but are still able to receive FTE (Full-time equivalent workload of a student) funding for much of the time period the student is not in school. They are not providing services, but they get the money whether the student is in school or not. This must stop. Otherwise, schools have no monetary incentive to keep students in school. School-based approaches as standalone programs are unlikely to solve the dropout crisis without providing adequate support to families and communities.
In particular, even widespread school reform that raised the persistently lowest-achieving schools to even average achievement levels will unlikely raise the graduation rate sufficiently and at best eliminate about one-third of the achievement gap differences between racial and socioeconomic groups. Therefore, to improve graduation rates and to close gaps in graduation will require interventions in two other arenas: families and communities (Rumberger p. 274). Making families and communities more responsible by empowering them will go a long way. Family involvement is one of the most important contributors to school completion and success. The most accurate predictor of a student’s school achievement is the extent to which his/her family encourages learning. Success is more likely if the family communicates high, yet reasonable, expectations for the student’s education and future career and becomes involved in his/her education (Schargel & Smink, p. 99, 177). Although the research explicitly confirms the positive and long-lasting effects of parent, family, and community involvement on student learning, this data is often overlooked in local, state, and national discussions about raising student achievement and closing achievement gaps (Berliner, p. 975).
As much as the nation should be alarmed by the scope and gravity of America’s dropout problem, we should also be encouraged by the leadership that states across the country are demonstrating to address it. The District of Columbia and 17 other states already require students to be in school until they are 18. The pessimists will exclaim that changing the compulsory graduation age to 18 will not stop those determined to quit school from quitting and the responsibility of school laws should be left to states, however, there is a compelling body of research that indicates benefits to raising the compulsory age of school attendance to 18 nationally.
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