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Study Finds That Early Compulsory School Attendance Laws Increased Equality

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An intriguing new report published online this month in the journal Education Evaluation and Policy Analysis suggests that forcing students to stay in school longer could be a way to increase educational equality.

University of Kansas researcher Emily Rauscher looked at U.S. Census data to determine the impact of early compulsory attendance laws in the United States, passed between 1852 to 1918, on school attendance and educational attainment by class and race. During this period, all states introduced laws requiring students to attend school until a certain age; in most states, students were required to go to school from age 8 to age 14.

In "Hidden Gains: Effects of Early U.S. Compulsory Schooling Laws on Attendance and Attainment by Social Background," Rauscher shares her findings. She discovered that compulsory school attendance (CSA) laws reduced inequality in school attendance by class and race. In northern states, where CSA laws had the biggest impact, the laws shrank the gap between rich and poor student attendance by 25 percent and reduced the difference between white and non-white student attendance by 30 percent.

Rauscher also found that CSA laws increased equality of educational attainment (as measured by highest grade completed) among different racial groups, boosting attainment for non-white students more than for white students. When there were no requirements to attend school to a certain age, white women completed, on average, 3.4 more grades than non-white women. When CSA laws were in place, white women completed only 2.7 more grades than non-white women.

One possible explanation for the equalizing effects of CSA laws: attendance requirements make leaving school for work opportunities less attractive. "By increasing the costs of nonattendance (e.g., through fines or social stigma), compulsory schooling should make attendance more likely among lower class youth and increase equality," Rauscher writes.

Rauscher's research could give states a new reason to consider extending the time they require students to stay in school. While 11 states raised their compulsory school attendance ages to 17 or 18 between 2002 and 2011, a 2012 call from President Obama to raise the CSA age to 18 in every state did not light a fire under lawmakers. (Currently, students can leave school at age 16 in 22 states, including Florida, Georgia, and New York.)

The lack of enthusiasm for the idea could be partly due to the fact that research doesn't support claims that raising the compulsory attendance age reduces dropout rates, a goal that's often behind the adoption of CSA laws. In an August 2012 paper, for example, Russ Whitehurst and Sarah Whitfield from the Brookings Institution's Brown Center on Education Policy found that states with higher CSA ages do not have higher high school graduation rates than states with lower CSA ages.

"If skill demands continue to rise, results suggest raising the compulsory schooling age to 18 could increase educational equality by race and class," Rauscher writes.

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