In the recent State of the Union address, President Obama challenged states to address the required age of school attendance. The President stated, “… when students don’t walk away from their education, more of them walk the stage to get their diploma. When students are not allowed to drop out, they do better. So tonight, I am proposing that every state — every state — requires that all students stay in high school until they graduate or turn 18.“
For the eighteen states that use sixteen years of age as the attendance requirement and the eleven states that require attendance until seventeen years of age, Obama’s expectation that they raise the age requirement is probably causing some lively discussions among school reformers. The Education Week blog Obama Rekindles State Debates on Dropout Age by Lesli A. Maxwell sheds some light on this highly relevant topic. According to Maxwell, experts on this issue contend that changing attendance laws will do little by itself to decrease national dropout rates and that without comprehensive strategies for making school engaging and relevant and for identifying and addressing early signs of dropping out, states and districts are not likely to have much success with increasing graduation rates.
The blog goes on to cite national statistics on dropout rates, stating that nationally 8.1 percent of people between 16 and 24 years of age are considered dropouts. The blog fails to report on the graduation rates of students of color. The National Center for Education Statistics reports that in 2007-2008 dropout rate for white students was 2.8 percent, with the Hispanic dropout rate at 6.0 percent, the Black dropout rate at 6.7 percent, and the American Indian/Alaska Native dropout rates at 7.3 percent.
A study by the Schott Foundation for Public Education points out that only 47 percent of Black males graduate, while 78 percent of white male students graduate.
President Obama’s advocacy to raise the required graduation rates and the points offered in the Education Week blog cause me to wonder about the students’ experiences on day-in and day-out basis. I contend that if what the student experiences everyday isn’t dramatically changed, having more of the same thing is not likely to improve the outcomes for students, even if they do stay in school longer. The Education Week piece does make the case that other strategies are needed beyond mandates for required years in school to make a difference in graduation rates. As an example of efforts underway to increase school attendance and improve graduation rates, New Hampshire reforms are presented as a case study. Paul Leather, New Hampshire’s Deputy Education Commissioner, stressed the importance of tackling the dropout problem by providing extended learning opportunities, creating multiple pathways to graduation, and making the state’s programs in career and technical education and adult education more accessible. New Hampshire’s data suggests that their approach is making head-way — the cohort rate for students who had dropped out of school (and did not earn a GED) was 3.3% in 2010-11 – down from 4.4% the previous year. Interestingly, Maxwell cites a 2010 report by the Everyone Graduates Center at Johns Hopkins that suggests that of the six states that increased the compulsory-attendance age between 2002 and 2008, only Nevada accomplished a decrease in graduation rates. Illinois and South Dakota saw an increase in their high school graduation rates.
I am reminded of the comments made by Richard Elmore of Harvard University. In various presentations, I have heard Dr. Elmore comment on his observations of classrooms that he believes are “excruciatingly boring”. He goes further by stating that educators have a moral responsibility to save students from being bored and disenfranchised by ensuring they are given engaging and challenging tasks. Anecdotally, I have personally visited many classrooms where students are politely engaged in lessons and tasks that are designed to address the expected standards and curriculum. The noteworthy commonality across these observations was that the students seemed bored and that the lessons and tasks were not particularly relevant or student focused.
Ethan Yazzie-Mintz, a scientist at the Center for Evaluation & Education Policy at Indiana University and director of the High School Survey of Student Engagement (HSSSE) reports findings from the HSSSE annual survey of students’ perceptions about their school experience, the learning environment , and their interactions with the school community. According to the 2009 analysis of this survey, students report that boredom is a major factor in deciding to drop out. The report lists these findings: “Two out of three respondents (66%) in 2009 are bored at least every day in class in high school; nearly half of the students (49%) are bored every day and approximately one out of every six students (17%) are bored in every class. Only 2% report never being bored, and 4% report being bored “once or twice.”
Education policy makers may hope that, with the stroke of a pen, they can make a significant difference in the graduation rates by changing the policies that set the age of mandatory attendance. Keeping students in school longer does have some face validity, but as suggested by the states that have changed the mandatory age without results, it may not yield the quick- fix that is desired. If students anticipate being bored and disappointed by what they are asked to learns as they walk through the school doors each day, just requiring more days may not be the best strategy. Providing learning experiences that are relevant, challenging, and connected to the real world beyond the classroom should be high priority for school reformers. Particular attention must be paid to designing authentic learning experiences for all students of color and for black males, to make schools an engaging place where students choose to stay. These improvements will require changes to the curriculum and intensive professional growth for teachers and school leaders to learn new practices. Additionally, working conditions in schools will need to be established to provide teachers with the time to plan and collaborate with each other as they develop dynamic and more personalized learning opportunities for students.
The Obama Administration provided this graphic on the costs of dropping out as part of the State of the Union presentation. Considering the statistics on dropouts, along with the costs of dropping out, creates a sense of urgency to do something. Taking action to transform instructional practices and the learning students engage will accomplish far more than just extending the mandatory age of attendance. Improved teaching and learning will not just keep students in school; it will also prepare them for the world they will face when their K-12 years are over. Funding the more comprehensive reforms will be expensive, but the considering the cost of dropping out, the investment should be indisputable.
 National Center for Education Statistics. (2007-08). Public school graduates and dropouts from the common core of data: School year 2007-2008. IES Institute of Educational Sciences. Retrieved from http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2010/graduates/findings.asp
 Yazzie-Mintz. E. (2009) Charting the path from engagement to achievement: A report on the 2009 high school survey of student engagement. Retrieved from http://ceep.indiana.edu/hssse/images/HSSSE_2010_Report.pdf