Amanda Ripley


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High School or Bust

27th Jan 2012 posted in Education

It’s hard to get excited about President Obama’s push for more states to require school until age 18. I know kids’ life chances improve if they make it through high school. That’s a big deal. But don’t we have an obligation to make school better before we force kids to spend even more time there?

There isn’t much empirical evidence that raising the drop-out age actually reduces drop outs. So this feels a little retro. Kind of like No Child Left Behind: all stick, no carrot. You can hammer on kids (and teachers) all you want; but if you don’t simultaneously raise the quality of the whole system, then it won’t get you very far.

For 10 years, most American school districts kept the same inequitable funding schemes, the same lackluster principal and teaching pools, the same subpar education colleges. Then, under federal duress, they injected a bunch of lame tests into the system and pounded on schools to do better. Guess what? Most of them didn’t.

Washington, DC, requires that kids stay in school until they are 18. Let me tell you what that looks like. I have been in classes in DC schools that were fantastic, classes in which I had to consciously stop myself from joining in. Classes in which all the kids came in below grade level in the fall, and all the kids left at or above grade level come spring.

I have been in other classes—sometimes in the same schools—that would have driven me to drop out, too. I swear to God, the message in those classrooms was: Your time doesn’t matter. You don’t matter. It was like time stood still.  Nothing happened. The teacher moved at the speed of mud. When she spoke, it was to tell kids to shut their mouths.

I know kids should stay in high school. Kids know kids should stay in high school. The cash price for dropping out has never been higher. You can’t even join the military if you drop out of high school. The disincentives are all in place. What’s missing are the incentives.

I want kids to stay in high school. But more than that, I want kids to want to stay.

It’s important to listen to the reasons kids drop out, as summarized in this 2009 Rennie Center policy brief:

Both national and local research studies have found that dropping out of high school is a gradual process of disengagement. Loss of interest in school, poor relationships with teachers and impersonal learning environments are among the factors that lead to the decision to drop out.

Spend the money on empirically proven methods to engage human beings. Then see if your dropout rate goes down—all by itself.