I have pondered the high school dropout problem for more than three-quarters of a century, and I have not heard much in the way of a new argument in all that time.
No one has ever come up with a simple solution for this complex problem, which goes back to an old adage: You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. Like almost all adages, this one can be easily taken apart by a clever wordsmith. I once heard someone say that you try to make him thirsty, and then you will not have to make him drink. This type of adage quoting is of little real value in solving the problem but the adages do make sense to some extent.
When a student reaches 16 and has lost all interest in continuing his schooling, he becomes a severe distraction to the education of the others if he is kept in the regular school. The British thought they had solved this problem more than a century ago when they gave tests to 11-year-olds to determine if they should proceed in academic studies or be given immediately practical instruction in how to do useful things.
This procedure came under fire from many directions as a form of elitism. Some also protested of the reliability of testing.
In America, we once encouraged the mentally slow to drop out of school, then we established special education for them and then we decided that they should be integrated back into the regular school program.
We pass laws mandating that every student take two years of math and often wind up teaching second- and third-grade math again to high-schooler’s.
How do you make a student go to school when he or she no longer wants to attend? I suppose the humane idea would be to teach things the student wants to know, which in some cases would be limited to beer, sex, drugs and a few other things we are trying to play down for teenagers.
We are looking for simple solutions where there are no simple solutions. You will probably not hear the word compulsory or coercive very often in this debate, but unless they are there in force, the law will be no more than a scrap of paper.
One very effective way to accomplish the goal of keeping students in school would be the requirement of being in school with good behavior to get a driver license. But such often well laid reasoning, goes awry with all sorts of unforeseen negative consequences.
It is a very good thing to think about, but it needs a great amount of planning for implementation and for all the new problems it will create. Just sitting in a classroom that is boring and incomprehensible would get kids off the street but it would make the schools even less efficient.
I am for compulsory education to age 18, but it is not a simple yes of no matter. Please be careful to consider how you will meet all the problems. You will need to consider the impact and the reliability of testing, the problem of curriculum requirements, the possibility of alternate schools, the problem of teacher burn-out and a host of emotional concerns that are sure to arise.
If you think you are wholly against pornography and wholly for free speech, you are bipolar and really have no opinion. If you are for compulsory education until age 18, you will have to be for some other things that you will probably want to resist.
Let me end by cautioning you that I am almost 93, and if you take advice from a 93-year-old, you may have a bigger problem than compulsory education to think about.
TOBY HIGHTOWER is a retired educator and former Hopkinsville High School teacher. His email address is email@example.com. Write to him at 222 S. 25th St., Apartment 434, Terre Haute, IN. 47803.