Maryland May Target Dropouts by Increasing Compulsory Attendance Age

Published May 1, 2008

School dropout rates have been an intractable problem for decades. Until recently the actual rate has been universally understated, concealing a problem creating a national peril.

But today, thanks to various reliable investigative reports, the true dropout rate is known: Approximately one out of three high school freshmen nationwide will not graduate within four years.

Since this figure is a national average, it means the dropout rate for some school districts is more than 50 percent. As a matter of fact, one in 10 schools nationwide–that’s 1,700 schools–are “dropout factories,” where less than 60 percent of the students graduate on time, according to a Johns Hopkins University study.

School districts across the nation are trying to solve this vexing phenomenon. A Maryland effort is based on a 112-page study released in February by a 50-member statewide task force, “Attending to Learn: The Implications of Raising the Compulsory Age for School Attendance.” The report contains several recommendations, the most controversial of which is to increase the compulsory age of attendance from 16 to 18.

Approval in Doubt

On March 21 the Maryland Senate approved a bill to raise compulsory attendance to age 17, instead of 18. If signed into law, it will take effect in the 2010-2011 school year and will cost an estimated $200 million by requiring the employment of 1,100 new teachers and space for 21,000 additional students.

Similar efforts by the state in the past have failed to raise the required attendance age.

Christopher Summers, president of the Maryland Public Policy Institute (MPPI), an independent, nonpartisan think tank based in Rockville, doubts the plan will win final approval, because there is no proof it will work. He referred to it as a piece of “fiduciary irresponsibility.”

However, Summers predicted the measure would help the teachers union by adding many new members to the Maryland State Teachers Association, which supports the proposed legislation.

Ineffective Measure

Several other policy organizations agree with MPPI’s position. They find increasing the age of compulsory attendance does little to improve student learning or reduce the dropout rate.

The Home School Legal Defense Association noted, “Raising the compulsory attendance age fails to achieve significant results.” The John Locke Foundation, an independent think tank in North Carolina, wrote in a 2007 study, “Raise The Bar, Not The Age,” “There is no consistent relationship between the maximum compulsory age and graduation and dropout rates.”

Although some students will drop out of school regardless of what is done for them, most want to continue their education in a manner meaningful to them. According to a 2006 Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation report, “The Silent Epidemic,” 47 percent of dropouts said classes weren’t interesting; 43 percent had missed too many days of school and couldn’t catch up; 38 percent said they had too much freedom and not enough rules in life; 35 percent said they quit because they were failing in school; and 32 percent said they had to get a job and make money.

When asked what might have kept them in school, 81 percent called for more “real-world” learning opportunities. Seventy-five percent wanted smaller classes with more individual instruction, and 71 percent called for better communication between parents and schools and more parental involvement.

Warning Signs Well-Known

The warning signs that students are at risk of dropping out of school have been known for decades.

According to the National Dropout Prevention Center/Network, a research group based at South Carolina’s Clemson University, the common variables found in research identifying possible dropouts include: poor attendance, low grade-point average, low standardized test composite scores, grade retention, discipline referrals, truancy, parents’ education level, socioeconomic status, special education placement, number of school transfers, low reading and math scores, ethnic/gender/racial distinctions, language spoken in the home, suspensions, pregnancy, and living in a single-parent home.

These are the true warning signs a student is likely to drop out. Unfortunately, public schools do not address these problems, because their programs are generally based on preparing kids for college. For the potential dropout, such programs have little meaning, so they give up.

In addition, some of the at-risk characteristics of potential dropouts are beyond the ability of the schools to correct–such as parental behavior and teen pregnancy.

Vouchers for Dropouts

There is an immutable principle of learning that states, people learn best when they are ready. Most dropouts are not ready to stay in school, and the school can do little about it. But some of these dropouts will become ready later in life.

When I directed a large adult education program, I admitted several students whom I had expelled from high school when I was their principal. They had become ready to learn. It was a pleasure each time I handed these adults a high school diploma.

This experience convinced me that instead of wasting time and money on futile attempts to retain kids who are determined to drop out, we should give them lifetime, universal vouchers to complete their high school education sometime in the future–when they are ready.

Because, after all, dropouts are taxpayers, too.

Richard Neal ([email protected]) writes from North Carolina.

For more information …

“Attending to Learn: The Implications of Raising the Compulsory Age for School Attendance,” Task Force to Study Raising the Compulsory School Attendance Age to 18, December 1, 2007. (Not available online, but can ordered by telephone at 410/767-0307.)

“Locating the Dropout Crisis: Which High Schools Produce the Nation’s Dropouts? Where Are They Located? Who Attends Them?” by Robert Balfanz and Nettie Legters, Center for Social Organization of Schools, Johns Hopkins University, 2004:

“One-Third of a Nation: Rising Dropout Rates and Declining Opportunities,” Educational Testing Service (ETS), 2005:

“Raising the Compulsory Attendance Age Fails to Achieve Significant Results,” by J. Michael Smith and Michael P. Farris, Home School Legal Defense Fund, March 21, 2005:

“Raise the Bar, Not the Age: Why Raising the Compulsory School Age Won’t Reduce Dropouts,” by Terry Stoops, John Locke Foundation, May 31, 2007:

“The Silent Epidemic: Perspectives of High School Dropouts,” by John M. Bridgeland, John J. Dilulio Jr., and Karen Burke Morison, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, March 2006:

“Dropout Indicators,” National Dropout Prevention Center/Network, 2004: