During his State of the Union Address, President Obama strongly urged every state not to allow students to drop out of high school before the age of 18. The president alleges that because Americans with higher levels of education have a lower unemployment rate, requiring students to stay in school will offer a cure to high levels of unemployment.
This is a neat thesis by the President’s administration, but the equation is not nearly so concise. Even if students are required by law to stay in school until they are 18, there is no guarantee that extra time spent in school will make them more prepared to get a job or attend college. For unmotivated students to be required by law to attend class not only robs them of their autonomy as citizens, but is also unfair to already-beleaguered teachers. If a student is in class because he is required by state law to be there, that doesn’t mean he is learning. He is probably far less motivated to participate in a class the state requires of him than he is in one he chooses to attend.
Though the government would like to think of its citizens as perpetual children incapable of choosing for themselves, a student who drops out of school is making a choice. The factors that influence that choice are a far more pressing concern than the age at which a student is allowed to leave school. The factors that lead to a student dropping out are of far more consequence than the age at which a student is allowed to leave school.
If a student is not being prepared by his school to attend college, requiring him to wait a few more birthdays to leave school will not change that. If a student knows at 16 that he won’t have the resources to finance higher education, or if his community does not value higher education, a high school diploma by default of his birthday is unlikely to convince him to work hard and go to college. This proposed policy is unfair to the limited resources of teachers and students who do care to learn and pursue higher studies. If a student does not believe in the value of a high school diploma, using the law to enforce it upon him is unlikely to convince him of the value of learning.
Dropping out of school is, of course, a personal choice. However, it’s a choice precipitated by many complicated factors that would be a much better point of attention for education reform than personal rights of high school students. If area schools, beginning with grade schools, are not preparing students to do well enough to get into college and qualify for scholarships, that’s not because of a lack of motivation from 16-year-olds. If a community does not believe college is possible for its children, that is a far better point of attention for state reform than passing a blanket law that not only doesn’t fix the problem, but reduces dramatically the rights of students and the value of their conscious attention.
Increasing the number of high school graduates by passing over broad state laws will not automatically turn around the economy. If schools continue to fail to educate students and be required pass them regardless of their performance until their 18th birthday, young Americans will continue to be disillusioned by a school system that sees them and their concerns as an equation in which administration and leadership does not factor. Instead of passing a law and absolving responsibility, education leaders should take a look at why students drop out at 16 and whether two more years of cursory attendance will really do anything to fix their problems.
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