It was midmorning on a weekday, before schools closed for the summer. Three boys, no older than 15 years, to guess, walked along the sidewalk past the car dealership at Cedar and Maple streets. They seemed to be having the time of their lives, soft drinks and bags of chips in hand, bright boxer shorts atop droopy pants, chic that required a slow and practiced gait — legs splayed, a hand freed from time to time to yank up the garment. They were in no hurry at all, clearly enjoying one another’s company.
These kids should be in some school somewhere at this hour, I thought. If school is where they were headed, they were awfully late and would need one heck of an explanation for the tardiness. And if they were not headed to school, maybe they had an excused absence.
Or maybe not. Cutting school, after all, is a time-honored form of adolescent rebellion. But make it a habit, and cutting school glides into a permanent separation: dropout. Almost 8 percent of 16- to 24-year-olds had not earned a high school diploma and were not enrolled in school in 2010. Some dropouts eventually do manage to earn a GED, though for most, the odds of success are long. It is little surprise that some charter school operators do brisk business as dropout-prevention high schools.
The research is lengthy on the consequences of dropping out of school before graduation. In an increasingly competitive market for workers, the most obvious consequence is the severely reduced job options and low wages of nongraduates, who earn roughly half the income of their peers who graduated. Studies show dropouts are more likely to experience longer periods of unemployment, involvement in criminal activities, depression and poorer health.
These quality-of-life concerns are the compelling reasons school districts and state governments are under pressure to raise graduation rates and to meet benchmarks for career- and college-readiness for all students. There is no way to advance on those goals if students are present intermittently or not at all. It is a tough assignment to teach students who don’t want be in school and are not shy about advertising it. All said, lowering truancy and dropout rates is a big deal.
Part of President Obama’s anti-dropout remedy is a proposal he announced during his State of the Union Address this year. He recommended that states keep students in school until they graduate or turn 18. “When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better,” he said in urging states to raise the compulsory school attendance age to 18 years.
The legal age to leave school before graduation in a majority of states is 16 or 17 years. Ohio is among the minority of states where attendance is mandatory until 18. “When students aren’t allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma,” the president said. A new study released this month by the Brown Center on Education Policy at the Brookings Institution observes rather drily: “Compulsory school attendance laws are honored much more in the breach than in the observance.”
On the effectiveness of the policy as a dropout deterrent, the findings of the Brookings study are less than encouraging. Contrary to studies that have linked a higher compulsory age to improved graduation rates, it reports little such evidence to support such linkage. In fact, over a 14-year period from 1994-95 to 2008-09, the study found that in states with a lower legal age than 18, graduation rates rose 3 percentage points while the rates in the higher-age states remained flat.
Not that states have rushed to legislate a higher attendance age since the president made the call; all the same, the study represents so much cold water on the temptation to settle for an easy pass at a complicated problems. It would be easy enough to legislate the change and would cost very little to implement because compliance rates are low, the study concluded. The harder task is to find answers to why so many students get bored by school, why they don’t see the relevance of school to their life circumstances now or in the future.
Ofobike is the Beacon Journal chief editorial writer. She can be reached at 330-996-3513 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.