PESPD'S Myth # 4: All High School Aged Kids Should Be Encouraged to Stay in School
"Stay in school!" I don't know how many times I've heard this over the years. I've heard it on public service commercials on TV, and I've heard it from politicians and other prominent citizens. It's another saying that sounds very good, and for most high school aged kids, it's reasonable advice. The problem is that for many of the young people to whom this saying is most intended to be addressed, it isn't.
Before I go on, I should say that I recognize that in many places the drop-out rate is very high, and that is definitely a problem that needs to be addressed. The causes need to be examined, and solutions need to be found. We need to find ways to encourage more kids in those areas to care about their own educations. But the solution definitely is not to simply tell kids--or worse, to force kids--to stay in school. Being in school definitely has value for any student who is willing to make an effort and follow reasonable rules, but some students aren't willing to do those things. For those students, being in school is of very little, if any, value, and they become real threats to the education of other kids.
A few years ago, we had a student in our school who got into trouble with the law, and was ordered to attend school regularly as a condition of his probation. This might have been beneficial if there had been some performance standard attached to this condition, but there wasn't. I'm sure the judge and the probation officer assumed that anyone who attends school will pay a reasonable amount of attention, do a little homework, and do some studying for tests. They assumed wrong! As it turned out, this young man would frequently be found roaming around our hallways during school hours. When asked if he wasn't concerned about how this might affect his probation, the young man answered, "The judge said I had to go to school. He didn't say anything about being in class."
This would be bad enough if the only student being effected was the wandering student, but that is not the case. Kids in a school affect other kids. At the middle and high school levels, peer relationships become extremely important. Many kids care much more about their relationships with their friends than their relationships with any adults--even their parents and especially their teachers. Any time a motivated student moves into our school district, I feel good, because I know that student might cause other kids in our school to become more motivated. On the other hand, every time an apathetic or disruptive student walks into our school, I know that this kid might lead other kids in our school astray. It seems to me that judges and policy makers have no recognition of this.
For example, during our last school year we had a rather nasty incident take place involving a couple of our students, and they ended up being sent to a "training center." I had both of the young men involved in my classes. The first was constantly a major problem in the classroom. He rarely did any work, and I learned very early that I could never turn my back on him. There were many times that I wondered to myself, "Why is he even here?" Some students were entertained by his antics, however, and he seemed to possess a certain amount of charisma. The second young man involved started off very poorly in my class, because he was not naturally gifted in social studies. He was a quiet kid who never bothered anyone in class, and he plugged away, so that by the time he was sent away, he was earning a solid C in my class. He had definitely earned my respect, and I felt good about his progress. Although I'm still a little unclear about the incident that got the two students in trouble, my guess is that if the charasmatic troublemaker hadn't been around, the second young man would never have gotten involved. In public schools, we seem determined to save them all. By trying to do that in this case, I think we ended up losing a student that we didn't have to lose.
I really believe that all high school students should make a choice. They should either commit themselves to trying to be successful, which means making an effort and being willing to follow reasonable rules, or they should leave. If they choose to leave, we should respect that decision. Celine Dion dropped out of school when she was twelve years old, and she hasn't done too badly. When asked about it, she said she hopes her own children will do well in school, but she also said that she believes school isn't for everyone. Maybe she's right. I mean after all, would it have better if she'd have been forced to stay in school?
Rather than forcing or even encouraging kids, who don't want to be there, to stay in schooI, wouldn't it make a lot more sense to make it clear to them that if they ever decide they've made a mistake, we will welcome them back? Time Magazine's "Dropout Nation" featured one student who did just that, and ended up doing very well. I would be all for programs that would encourage dropouts to do follow his example. Chicago had a such a program a number of years ago that was featured on "60 Minutes" and it seemed to be working. There was actually one situation in which a mother was in a high school class with her daughter. I don't know if the program is still around, but I think it was a great idea. I can think of no better example for some of our young people than to have someone in their twenties who had dropped out of school, found that it's a lousy way to go, and is now showing up for all his classes, doing assignments and studying for tests.
I don't know about other teachers, but when students are willing to make an honest effort, I don't care how old they are or what their backgounds are, I'd love to have them in my class. But if I have kids who have made up their minds that they don't want to be there, or they want to be there for the wrong reasons, there's really not much I can do for them.