Friday, February 10, 2012

The Folly of Raising the Age for Compulsory Education

Tuesday’s Trentonian carried a story that our “enlightened” legislature has decided that raising the graduation age to 18 should be a priority as we struggle to find answers to the deplorable state of education in the inner city. Their argument, as far as I can gather, is that the growing need to acquire skills necessitates that even students intending to drop out should at least stick around long enough to learn those requisite skills.

Of course a secondary benefit of this change in our system of compulsory education is that the graduation rate might show improvement since most students don’t turn 18 until their junior or senior year in school. I guess they figure that if kids are required to stay in school until they turn 18 they might just figure “what the hell” and stick around long enough to graduate. But then again these kids would now be required to take the HSPA, and it may just be that instead of reducing the dropout rate it will increase the HSPA failure rate. That in turn would further increase the intrusion of government in the schools as the worsening statistics will lead to greater scrutiny of a school’s performance.

No doubt the legislation will include a provision for those who intend to drop out for “hardship” reasons such as providing income for the family, or maybe in cases of pregnancy. I’m going to digress for a minute; I wonder if the “Family Leave Act” would apply to students that feel the need to stay home and help care for a newborn?

So why would I have a problem with this idea? Well for starters, I’ve always had a problem with the idea of “forcing” kids to stay in school. Shouldn’t we be designing the kind of education where kids “want” to be in school rather than having to stay in school? Don’t we really need to provide the kind of schools that kids look forward to each day because they are motivated by the curriculum, the teachers, and the opportunities that will be available at the end of the journey?

Providing those kind of schools seems a distant dream, and will stay a distant dream until we reduce the volume of required “cumulative progress indicators” and content requirements. By concentrating on what kids MUST learn prior to graduation, and creating a HSPA that actually tests kids on that curriculum- something it currently DOES NOT DO- we can untether educators from teaching required courses and give them an opportunity to create innovative, dynamic courses that will inspire and motivate kids, feeding off the passion and knowledge that teachers would bring to their classrooms. It would also allow us to refocus our attention on the skills we should be requiring kids to learn. Given the rationale for extending the age of compulsory education, my line of reasoning seems wholly consistent with the legislature’s apparent goal.

My greatest problem with extending the graduation rate, besides priming the public to think of school as something kids must do, is the fear that discipline problems, crimes, and a general sense of insecurity will arise as we require kids that don’t want to be in school to in fact stay in school. Can’t we assume that a vast majority of those “potential dropouts” were students who felt disconnected from the “learning experience” and were either “trouble makers,” candidates for special education programs, or kids with failing grades and who were in all likelihood not “at grade level” in terms of their basic knowledge and skills? Why foist these kids on the rest of the student body, forcing them to sit in classes with kids that want to be there?

Theoretically speaking, I don’t believe education should be compulsory. I oftentimes wonder who would show up for school if they didn’t have to. Some would show up because that’s where their friends are, and no doubt learning social skills is an important part of the learning process. And some would show up because they truly value an education and want to learn. I suspect most kids attend for a combination of the two.

I’m sure the legislation will pass, and we will either see a rise in graduation rates or HSPA failure rates throughout the State. But please don’t mistake any increase in graduation rates as a sign of improvement in the quality of our schools. A more telling statistic will be the increase in discipline problems, crime, and insecurity. Like much of the legislation we see today, the law of unintended consequences will prevail. This legislation is a mistake, a distraction, a palliative. The only thing that should be compulsory in education is having our leaders get to work building an education system that works.

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