Dropouts check out in elementary school

Requiring school attendance through age 18, as proposed by President Obama in his State of the Union speech, won’t make a difference, argues teacher Marilyn Rhames in Ed Week. Students drop out mentally long before high school — as early as third grade, she writes. By high school, it’s exceptionally difficult to save the 16-year-old illiterate or the 16-year-old expecting her second baby or the 16-year-old who “doesn’t feel safe at school because of bullying or gang activity.”

Reform efforts to lower the high school dropout rate must be focused on supporting the under-performing students in elementary and middle schools. This is where we can get the best bang for our buck. Of course, high schools would also need systems in place to continue to motivate students to stay in school. I believe that it is never too late to try to help a student, but by the time students prone to dropping out reach high school, they may be in need of an organ transplant—a radical, life-changing intervention. Just forcing him to spend a couple more miserable years in school until he reaches 18 is just prolonging the inevitable, especially if the learning credits are not there.

Some 1.2 million students drop out of high school every year, Rhames writes.

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  1. Many students need a much stronger start than they currently receive. Starting in kindergarten, at-risk students (in some schools, this is everyone) need explicit instruction, both in academics and in the habits and behaviors which enable success. This means good curriculum (phonics, Singapore Math, Core Knowledge) and good instruction. Reading by third grade is not the answer; kids need to read in first grade or they will be too far behind the 8-ball in third grade. They need teachers to read aloud to them, both fiction and non-fiction, to widen their horizons and their knowledge base. They already know their neighborhood; they need to learn about the wider world, how it works and how they can move into it.

  2. Every industrialized nation in the world – Except the United States – allows an opportunity for graduation or transition to the workplace by the age of sixteen. This is a significant reason why they outpace us in international assessments, especially at the senior high school level.

    And, the comment on students dropping out before high school is apt. Statistically, a student who is not reading at grade level by fourth grade will never catch up. Never. Certainly there are anecdotal examples to the contrary. And self selecting charter school achievers can defy the odds.

    But the Obama plan is naive and actually a terrible idea. You have to create and promote a culture that makes them want to stay, not force them to do so against their will.

    A community organizer should know better.

  3. I’d sooner eliminate the compulsory age than raise it to 18 and keep boxcar numbers of kids in schools that serve them poorly and where they (sometimes quite sensibly) do not wish to be.

    The best solution I’ve heard so far is Mike Goldstein’s: he proposes letting kids drop out, but banking the dollars saved in a kind of educational IRA. When the kids get a little taste of “freedom” without an education, they can use the money to pay for further education, vocational training, a GED or college.

    More here:


  4. Mr. Obama is just campagning for the votes of people who expect the gov’t to solve their problems for them. This proposal is neither beneficial to the students schools or the taxpayers.. It makes it sound like he wants to do something but all this will do is increase the truancy rate.

  5. Richard Aubrey says:

    This proposal is based on the hydraulic pump model of education. Force their mouths open, start the pump…presto, education.

  6. There is one thing I can agree with Marilyn on.

    I agree that mandating that students remain in school until age 18 or graduation will have little effect. That doesn’t address the cause of many students dropping out. Those students who were inclined to drop out, but cannot because of such a mandate will find other ways to avoid being involved in school. As Marilyn indicates in her article, there are many reasons why a student drops out. As long as Obama doesn’t address those exact reasons, those students will remain minimally involved in school.

  7. There’s too much hand-wringing over why kids drop out of school. I don’t care why they drop out. Wasting time trying to save the world is frustrating and unproductive. Kids should be given the freedom to do drop out. Disruptors should be kicked out. To hold kids hostage in classrooms until they’re 18 will increase the classroom disruption, truancy, graffiti, and drug use that schools are forced to deal with every day. As in economics, so also in education: Barack Obama knows nothing.