Compulsory schooling to age 19?

Raise the age of compulsory education to 19 proposes Harold Levy, former New York City schools chanellor, in a New York Times op-ed.

Simply completing high school no longer provides students with an education sufficient for them to compete in the 21st-century economy. So every child should receive a year of post-secondary education.

The benefits of an extra year of schooling are beyond question: high school graduates can earn more than dropouts, have better health, more stable lives and a longer life expectancy. College graduates do even better.

Levey’s other school fixes include an anti-truancy PR campaign, a pro-college PR campaign and improving K-12 education so students can handle college classes. In other words, many students aren’t developing the work ethic and academic skills to benefit from any form of higher education.

The old chicken-and-egg issue arises. Do the educated do better because they spent more years in a classroom? Or because they’re more motivated, hard-working and/or smart than those who drop out of high school or fail to take advantage of community college?

Core Knowledge’s Robert Pondiscio writes:

Levy’s piece is a good example of what might be termed credentialism –favoring the prize over the accomplishment it represents.  While high school graduates may earn more and enjoy better health than dropouts, the diploma does not magically confer these benefits.  The person who has reached this level of achievement is also more likely to live a productive, stable life.  People with health club memberships might be in better shape than those without.  But it doesn’t follow that the key to health and longevity is to give every American a health club membership.  You have to be inclined to work out. . . .

It’s hard to see how flooding colleges with unprepared and unwilling students will do anything other than damage a productive higher ed system.

There are people for whom K-12 schooling isn’t working. More of the same isn’t likely to work any better.

About Joanne


  1. 19? “Sorry, kid, you can get married and join the military, but you can’t leave school yet.” I just can’t see it happening.

  2. tim-10-ber says:

    Hmmm…let’s see before forced schooling literacy rates were 98% in Massachusetts. They have been declining ever since. Before forced schooling parents were responsible for teaching children how to read, do math and their letters before the kids went to a very abbreviated school. Before forced schooling adults were at age 13 and they were captaining ships, apprenticing, learning a trade or developing a business, etc…

    I believe today many, many americans are much less educated than those of 100 years ago…

    Very very sad…to think this was all planned, too…even sadder and it continues…

    Cradle to age 18 then 19 then 21 — the state wants to own your kids…

  3. Also, perhaps it is that those with 1 year of schooling more than high school graduates do better than high school graduates–i.e, better-educated people do better–and that Levy is confusing success through outcompeting with success through objective preparation.

    After all, people with 4 years of postsecondary schooling have been shown to do far far better.

  4. Andromeda says:

    …And we pay for this how? The op-ed seems to suggest that our magic flying ponies bring money. I hope they bring some for me; I have some tuition to pay…

  5. My father quit school in 8th grade and went to work. When WWII started, he enlisted and served. After that, he had a 40-year career in which he was quite successful and rose to a rank in which he supervised 75-100 workers for many years. My mother barely graduated from high school, but was an extraordinary reader and writer. Both were better educated and knew more than the average college graduate at my four-year liberal arts institution of higher education.

    More schooling? How about doing more in a shorter time period?

  6. GreatSchools is polling on this very topic today. I’ll admit, I voted toward Andromeda’s point — “and we pay for this how?” There’s a bit of discussion on the subject here:

  7. Cardinal Fang says:

    What a stupid idea. Rather than keeping the kids an extra year, we should be doing a better job for the first 18 years.

  8. As to the chicken or egg question, when I was on active duty in the 70’s we were concerned with how the new social graduation policies implemented by many school districts would have an impact on the quality of the troops we were getting in the military. This was when the All Volunteer Army was a relatively new thing, and all the services were trying very hard to recruit only high school graduates.

    Previous studies had confirmed a link between non-HS graduates and increased disclipinary proceedings, which was one of the main reasons that we tried to recruit only HS graduates. So we were worried that social graduation policies would affect military performance.

    The study compared social graduates to regular graduates, and found that when it came to disciplinary proceedings (from “Captain’s Mast a/k/a NJP a/k/a Article 15 to courts-martial, there was no difference. We hypothesized that the stick-to-itiveness required to graduate from HS translated over into successful military life. Recent articles I’ve read seem to confirm this idea.

  9. Oh, Lord, no. They’re rotten enough at 16 when they don’t want to be there.

    The literacy rate in Massachusetts was 98% because the Puritans believed you needed to be able to read the bible in order to achieve salvation. Culture at the time was also intensely text-based in a way that we can’t even fathom I don’t think at this point. Somehow I think the times, they be a changin’ on these points.

    But go ahead and change the compulsory education laws and see what happens in the urban core and rural areas. Should be interesting.

  10. The rest of the article’s a hoot as well. High-pressure sales tactics to keep kids in school? Advertise to encourage college enrollment?

    Proving that a blind squirrel finds the occasional acorn, there’s unsealing college accreditation reports but to sort of offset that idea is confusing desirable outcomes for the means of achieving them – we need to produce more “qualified applicants”, i.e. kids need to be better prepared to go to college.


  11. I’d actually suggest going the opposite direction and ELIMINATING compulsory schooling altogether – let the kids who want to learn stay in school, let the attrition or real discipline (expulsion that actually carries some teeth) take care of the discipline problems.

    Sure, maybe we get some folks leaving school at 10 or something who have no useful life skills – but I bet they either go back, or try to find a trade school that will take them.

    And I really hope this “keep ’em in ’till 19” plan doesn’t mean shoving the “I don’t want to be here” kids into lower division college classes once they age out of public school…

  12. Margo/Mom says:

    I am always very cautious about getting into the “kids who really want to learn” morass. But–it’s interesting to note that based on Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (that’s OECD–the group that does PISA) studies that compare countries on the highest age at which 90% of the population is in school, the US loses out at about age 17–despite a general compulsory (varies by state) schooling age of 18. Japan, by contrast, succeeds beyond the legally required age (I am thinking that it is 16? 17?) by at least a full year.

    I know that as I write this, I am begging for the folks who will crawl out of the woodwoork and rail about our inferior culture that does not value education–compared to the Asians who do (with an assumed corollary that Asian teachers have an easier time of it because Asian parents do a better job than Americans do). But, there are two important points. One is that the legal requirement to stay in school is less sucessful than we would seem to think (and more important to me than the cost of educating the post 18 year olds– which I think would be recouped in the long run, is the question of what to do with the drop-out/push-out crowd–jail them at even greater expense?–and one that cannot be recouped). The second is that if, in fact, we are dealing with cultural norms, this is not likely to be the most successful means of dealing with them. Most research that I have read indicates that parents of low-income and minority students (the ones most often seen as “the problem”) have aspirations for their students that exceed those of their teachers–and in fact place a high value on education. They may differ from teachers on the degree to which they believe that their aspirations are achievable. And despite tim and anon’s low esteem of the value of American education, it seems as though most parents place a value on schooling at least equal to that of educators.

    Perhaps, we could get some mileage out of education reform, however. LS lightly tosses aside the remark about how unbearable 16 year olds are who don’t want to be in school. I am well acquainted with the unbearable qualities of the average 16 year old given the proper (or improper) conditions–but, I think we have to give up on this perceived dichotomy with regard to the kids “who really want to learn” and all others. It frightened me when I first heard it applied to my son (by a school psych intern, no less) when he was in kindergarten. (And my experience with LS’ comments is that her school actually leads the pack in acceptance and figuring out how kids actually fit–rather than the opposite).

    Educators are certainly not unique in trying to fit the kid to the mold of the school. From years in social work, I can suggest that social workers have also moved to a large extent from a profession aimed at reforming society to meet the needs of groups and individuals to fixing individuals to fit society. I do believe that (even in a standards-based environment) we can do far better at delivering education that fits the kids we actually have–and in ways that are very American (rather than Japanese). To the extent that we are able to to this, we will not only counter the wasteful practice of dropout/pushout, but we may succeed in convincing more to hang around past high school.

  13. Cardinal Fang-

    Succinct and to the point- well stated!

  14. Heh,

    Nevada changed it’s dropout age (aka compulsory schooling) to 18 about 1 or 2 years ago. Doesn’t matter, kids are gonna drop out or do whatever they want to when they reach their late teens, and this nation no longer has compulsory education, it’s a lot more like compulsory attendance.

    You can take a horse to the water, but you cannot make the horse drink (if the horse doesn’t want to).

  15. Richard Aubrey says:

    Can we force them to pass?
    It is not–although the reflex to say it is turns out to be enduring–true that slackers and those who don’t want to learn are for the most part in lower-income or SOE classes.
    My wife teaches in a mid-middle class high school. There are kids who simply will not do the work. Parents cannot or will not make them to do it.
    I have a friend whose daughter graduated, leaving a couple of dozen well-off friends behind. They didn’t graduate. They hadn’t done the work. They didn’t want to do the work. Their parents were not lower SOE. Not even close.
    I asked my friend what the kids had in mind for the real world and the answer was that, as far as his daughter had heard, the subject never arose.
    Having these slugs in class for another year will do what, exactly?
    What are you going to do that you should already have done in k-12? Is this remediation? Is this sort of pre-community college? Is this generalized AP? Is it college prep? How are you going to make it different from what went before?

  16. “I have a friend whose daughter graduated, leaving a couple of dozen well-off friends behind. They didn’t graduate. They hadn’t done the work. They didn’t want to do the work.”

    What makes people think they can say “a bunch of rich kids didn’t graduate high school” just because it’s a comments section of a blog?

    If in fact a bunch of rich kids “didn’t do the work” and flunked out of high school, it would have made the papers. So link the article. Or admit you’re simply too dim to realize that you can’t construct a believable lie.

    Look, people, the kids who aren’t graduating from high school have *nothing* to do with the families of people who read blogs. Your experiences, your kids, your neighbors kids, all irrelevant.

    As always, Margo/Mom takes several banal paragraphs to make a point–a tedious one, but a point–that could have been made in three sentences.’

    As to my own opinion, of course this is a ludicrous idea. As it is, we are forcing kids to take more education than they need, all to pretend that there isn’t something radically different about the bottom quintile of students. Add an extra year of waste before college starts?

    Fortunately, it’s not happening.

  17. Oh, it isn’t necessarily a matter of “kids who want to learn” — by 17, many people are simply ready to do other things besides secondary education. They want to go off and learn in the woods, on the family farm, by holding a full-time job, or even college — but they’re more than ready to start learning on their own terms (mistakes and all).

    Unbearable 16-year-olds often want to learn in spite of themselves. You just have to get past their behavior (I know — I specialize in unbearable 16-year-olds and have taught hundreds of them). But a 19-year-old is a diffrerent beast.

  18. For many kids, it is the prior 16 or so years of issues that determine success later in life, both on the home/social front and in school. Adding an extra year does little to help the histories that students carry with them. If simply looking at my treadmill helped me be fit and lose weight, I’d be Charles Atlas by now. Its so much more complex. But, historically in education we gravitate to what is easy or popular to implement (or fund) rather than work hard at systemic changes and innovations that have the chance of really making a difference for these students in question, and likely for all students.

  19. It seems to me that the only value of mandatory schooling is that it gives parents of some students the ammunition to say, “you sure the hell ARE going to school: it’s the LAW”.

    Other than that, you’re leading a horse to water.

    Personally, I think the 21st century pretty much demands life-long learning. Things change too fast these days to imagine that you can “get educated” in your youth and have that inoculate you from further learning.

  20. <<< One is that the legal requirement to stay in school is less sucessful than we would seem to think (and more important to me than the cost of educating the post 18 year olds– which I think would be recouped in the long run, is the question of what to do with the drop-out/push-out crowd–jail them at even greater expense?–and one that cannot be recouped).

    Margo raises an excellent point in noting that compulsory education is less compulsory that meets the eye. But the drop out/jail statement is a doozy. Yes, the incarcerated population features a disproportionate percentage of high school dropouts. But do you really mean to suggest there’s no other route beside a) graduate or b) go to jail? My guess is an overwhelming percentage of non-high school graduates never spend a day behind bars. Likewise, I doubt there are many who have ever said, “Gee, I’d love to hold up that convenience store with you guys, but I really need to study for my chemistry mid-term.

    Suggesting the lack of a high school diploma *causes* incarceration is exactly the same logic suggesting that earning one *causes* higher income. It’s seems more likely that having the diploma is a characteristic of the motivated and purposeful and not having one is a signal — one among many — of other difficulties.

    Joanne’s point seems the salient one: the answer surely can’t be an extra helping of the thing that’s not working.

  21. Extending the current school year by 1 month would give thme an extra year for students now beginning the first grade. No extra cost.

    Unfotunately, in too many schools, what we do now in school is not working well. Why would extending it help?

  22. Richard Aubrey says:

    Cal. Why would it have made the papers? Kids flunk. Kids fail to graduate. It doesn’t make the papers. Some of them are not from low SOE classes. It doesn’t make the papers.
    My wife’s students, three or four of them, who are not going to graduate because they don’t do the work are different from those who quite literally can’t. The former don’t turn in their work and get no better than random on machine-scored tests if they bother to complete them.
    My friend knows some of the families from whom the non-grads come. They are not poor and the daughter tells him the kids simply don’t do the work. Skip school. Don’t study. Take a half a shot at a test at best.
    Question is, what are you going to do with these kids if you force them back to school next year?

  23. Margo/Mom says:

    Robert–actually, I wasn’t going there (to the acknowledged correlation, whether causal or not, between those who do not complete and those who are in jail), tempting though it might be. What I was reacting to, in my own mind, is our lack of success in moving the 30-70% (depending on the school, the district and the method of counting) or so who don’t make it to graduation–or even the end of compulsory education with or without a diploma. There is, in fact, some research to support a few interventions (it’s one of the areas where looking at What Works is actually helpful). The interventions far more frequently offered, however, when interventions are offered, or suggested, tend to rest far more heavily on punishment (yes–that means sending to jail) for parents who have failed at ensuring that the body is present–whether the mind is engaged or not. The logical follow-up to this thinking then, when it comes to moving the compulsory age beyond that at which a parent can be assumed (legally) to be responsible for the actions of offspring, would be to jail those who break the law by not attending.

    So, the logic would be–breaking the law causes incarceration. But–I wasn’t advocating that we go there, just following the logic of those who are.

  24. Our drop-out rate is <3%, but I still don’t think that’s any reason to hold onto them for another year. We do have a number of programs in place to keep that drop-out rate low, but they’re expensive and I wonder if they’ll survive the economy over the next few years. We’re about 70& white, 25% black, 20% impoverished. (Apparently, our staff is also 99% fully certified and our average salary is $39K — no Teach for America, no huge salaries, no uniforms or head shaving — I wonder why people aren’t flocking to OUR doors to find out what we’re doing.).

    Extending the school year one month is a LOT of extra cost. How is that free?

  25. An extra 30 days would not have to mean an extra month at the end or start of the year, just a extra week plus less vacation days and fewer in service days. I agree it depends on the labor agreements. Maybe we could spend less on “technology”.

    I have been led to believe a reason our students don’t measure up is our school year is too short compared to the nations who out perform us. Is this really a source of their advantage?

    I have my doubts about how effective an extra year or an extra month would be. Would the kids score 10% higher with a longer school year. What are they going to be able to do at 19 that they cannot do at 18.

    I agree with Rex about high school graduation and retention in the armed forces. If they cannot cope with the school bureaucracy how can the handle a military bureaucracy?

  26. And exactly where will you find the space to house another grade?

  27. Lightly Seasoned wrote:

    > Our drop-out rate is <3% … I wonder why people aren’t flocking to OUR doors to find out what we’re doing.

    Enjoy the distinction. You’re among a select group who’ve demonstrated professional excellence and thus been ignored by the balance of the profession.

    In the public education system success isn’t easily transplanted which is why idiotic ideas like extending school to age nineteen are constantly being floated.

  28. Would employers or colleges prefer a graduate who had the extra year? Would it reduce the expense of a college degree? If the answers were yes it might be a good idea.

    I know there used to be sonething called Prep School where the elites sent there high school graduates for an extra year so they could get into ivy league schools. Does this still happen?

  29. I think the theory is that everyone would go to adult ed, community college or the first year of four-year college to meet the extra-year requirement, not that everyone would have to spend an extra year in high school. Of course, quite a few students are unable to graduate at 18 and need that extra year if they want a diploma. I know a young man who was very close to 20 when he graduated.

  30. What about their kids?