Pro/Con: Should MCPS raise the high school dropout age from 16 to 18?

March 14, 2012, 12:10 p.m. | By Peter McNally, Claire Koenig | 12 years, 4 months ago


Claire Koenig says yes: Raising the dropout age keeps students in schools and off the streets.

Nearly 1 million students every year don't make it to graduation. According to a 2006 study by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 70 percent said they could have graduated if they had tried. 38 percent claimed that they had been given "too much freedom" in their decision. And today, 74 percent of high school dropouts wish they had stayed in school.The dropout epidemic sweeping the nation isn't going to wipe itself out, and raising the dropout age will not be the be all and the end all solution. It is a necessary first step on a long road to ensure that students stay in school long enough to make the right decision for themselves. And as President Obama so aptly punned during the State of the Union address: "When students aren't allowed to walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma."

The numbers don't have to be drastic to make a difference. According to a study by Columbia University in 2005, if only one-third of high school dropouts were to earn a diploma, federal savings in reduced costs for food stamps, housing assistance and Temporary Assistance for Needy Families would amount to $10.8 billion annually. That's a substantial sum - even when weighed against the potential costs involved in improving the system to get students to graduation in the first place.

But frankly, raising the dropout age isn't about erasing the national debt or improving American educational rankings – it's about keeping individual people with bright futures in jobs and off the streets. And, statistically speaking, students dropping out early in order to find jobs to support themselves or their families won't be doing anyone a favor. Studies from the Child Trends Databank show that the male employment rate for high school dropouts was about 52 percent, and female rates were as low as 38 percent in 2010. This is compared to 65 percent employment for high school graduates, and 84 percent employment for people with college degrees.

Whereas these poor prospects apply to all students who leave school early, only 32 percent of dropouts cut out to find jobs, according to a report from The News Journal. The rest are victims of a poorly constructed education system that is failing to provide for students who are in the red. They fell behind early on. They missed too many classes. They felt like their education was a waste of their time. But these shouldn't be reasons why we let students give up on themselves.

The issue is one of push and pull. There is little our schools can do about the pull factors taking students out of classes; like sick relatives or families in dire need of financial assistance. But the push factors, that is, issues within schools that are prompting students to decide that their futures would be better without a formal education, these are the ones that need to be corrected.

We need to make schools meet student standards, to monitor students in danger of failure, to improve elementary education and guarantee that children are not left behind, to find a system that ensures that attendance is not the reason to ruin a student's life.

But in the meantime, before these reforms can be made, we need to keep kids in school.

Peter McNally says no: Raising the dropout age only creates more rules and misses the root of the issue.

Reforming our educational system is vital to the health of the U.S., but the necessary change must be carried out with surgical precision. Instead of a sweeping mandate, we need to take precise measures to solve the problem. Raising the dropout age performs that surgery with a hacksaw, when it needs a scalpel.

Although some students do leave high school to pursue a serious career or to enroll in some sort of alternative education, many students dropout because of outside influences. "[Problems] start very early before students even come to school…it's kind of hard to leave those things at home," said Marty Buckenfield from the National Dropout Prevention Center. Instead of preventing students from wanting to dropout by providing them support, raising the dropout age diverts resources towards keeping students in a place where they do not want to be for two more years, further compromising their ability to learn.

Raising the dropout age is insensitive to both students who want to withdraw from school and their peers who want to stay enrolled.

According to the UCLA study, due to "strong motivational dispositions" that can develop over time, some students don't want to be in school, and make it known by acting out. The study notes that this can seriously interrupt the learning process for all the students in the classroom.

Disciplinary measures and other accommodations needed to deal with misbehaving students divert resources away from the actual learning. Raising the dropout age does not engage students; it only creates one more rule, increasing the rigidity of the system.

Raising the dropout age is taking a blind swing at an issue that needs to be solved with more precise measures. "It sends the message that education is important," said Buckenfield, "but that's all it can do. It cannot solve the dropout problem."

In a time where our public schools are struggling to educate on tight budgets, we cannot implement such a broad policy that could push our school systems to spend more money just to send a message.

Reform needs to be more specific and meaningful, and change needs to take place on every level, not just with students. "Dropout prevention is everyone's problem, not just students…the change in behavior needs to come from the schools and the communities," said Buckenfield.

Instead of instituting a sweeping mandate, let's work on making students confident that they deserve and are capable of receiving a good education. This includes reforming the way we hire and fire teachers, making curricula more specified to the needs of students, abandoning one-size-fits-all policies and offering more outside-the-classroom support for struggling students. These are only some of the measures that need to be taken in order to improve our schooling system.

Changing the legal dropout rage is only addressing a single symptom of the multitude of more serious problems that our educational systems face. In order to achieve real and lasting solutions, we need to dig deeper and determine why our students are dropping out in the first place.

By simply raising the dropout age and legally binding students to the schooling system for a few more years, we are diverting our time, our resources and our energy to the wrong place.

Last updated: May 4, 2021, 12:40 p.m.

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