Politicians, please be careful when fighting the dropout problem!
Chicago has just passed a very well meaning law that I think is a bad idea.
Driving a car ranks near the top of many teenagers' wish lists; school, for some, doesn't make the list at all.
So this fall the secretary of state's office and state education officials will try to use that desire to get behind the wheel as leverage to keep more of them in the classroom.
A state law that went into effect July 1 will revoke the licenses of students who have more than 18 unexcused absences from school, are expelled or drop out.
It's part of an effort to stem the statewide dropout rate, which topped 24,000 students last year. The number has declined from more than 36,000 five years ago, but education leaders and lawmakers think the new law can help bring it down further.
The problem with this policy is that its sole purpose is to keep kids in school. Forcing high school kids to simply "be in school" when they don't want to be there does no one any good and it probably does a lot of harm to many other kids who want to be there and want to get an education. I wish that courts and legislatures would learn that any time they tell kids that they must be in school, they need to include some sort of minimum performance standard.
A story I used last year in a post illustrates this point better than any I've ever heard. A few years ago we had a student who was ordered to be in school as part of his probation. Instead of going to his classes, the young man would frequently wander our hallways, where he would get in trouble and eventually be brought to the principal's office. Finally, someone asked him, "Aren't you concerned about how this might affect your probation?" The student's reply: "The judge just told me I had to be in school. He didn't say anything about going to class."
I'm all for encouraging kids, or for that matter people of any age, to get an education. I'm sure that that is what judges and legislators who want to force kids to stay in school believe they are doing. But they're wrong! Judges and legislators are generally people who did reasonably well in school, and they're acting according to their past experiences. They assume that anyone who is in school will pay a reasonable amount of attention, do some of the assignments, and get something out of their classes, because they did. They don't understand that some kids in school make no attempt to learn anything in their classes, and they don't understand that if those kids are disruptive, they can make it much more difficult for their classmates to learn.
I must admit that I cannot recall ever shedding a tear over any student I've known who has dropped out. I have never seen dropouts as "victims" of our education system, as so many seem to. When it comes to dropouts, the only people I've seen as victims have been the kids stuck in classes with them before they dropped out. Our school has never had a very high dropout rate, so maybe that's part of the reason I see things the way I do. Maybe I would look at things differently if we had a thirty, forty, or fifty percent dropout rate, but I really believe the principle is still the same. Education is an opportunity. It is of great value when someone is willing to grab it, and make the most of us. It is of little or no value for those who aren't.
Before you conclude that I am simply a heartless educational Neanderthal, I want to make it clear that I am all for allowing dropouts back into school if they ever make the decision that they really want an education. Chicago had a program like that a number of years ago that was featured on 60 Minutes , but I have no idea if the program still exists. The 60 Minutes program featured a mother who was in her early thirties who was attending classes with her sixteen-year-old daughter. The young adults featured on the program seemed to be doing well, and that doesn't surprise me, because they had made the decision that education matters. When that happens, we can help people--I don't care how old they are.