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School Attendance to Age 18 Ignores Reality

It's hard to know which teenagers President Obama was thinking about in his State of the Union speech when he urged making school attendance mandatory until age 18. But his proposal will not decrease the dropout rate because it is premised on a dated view of young people.

The truth is that teenagers mature much earlier today than ever before. Leon Botstein, the president of Bard College, pointed out that the age of first menstruation starts at least two years earlier than at the beginning of the last century and so has the start of sexual activity. Moreover, "Information and images, as well as the real and virtual freedom of movement we associate with adulthood, are now accessible to every 15- and 16-year-old" ("Let Teen-Agers Try Adulthood," The New York Times, May 17, 1999). As a result, he said that young people should graduate at 16.

Forcing them to remain in high school until they turn 18 is a prescription for trouble, especially because of the increasing emphasis on college for everyone. When students see little or no connection between their future plans and what they are required to study, they act out by disrupting classes. Schools then become essentially holding pens, and teachers are forced to devote inordinate time and energy to keeping order. Just because high school students are in class by virtue of the law doesn't mean they are learning. In fact, they're only becoming more turned off by the prospect of further education.

I'd like to see 12th grade made optional. This policy would benefit everyone. Students who passed a battery of tests would be able to go directly to college or enter the workforce. Those who remain would not be distracted by miscreants. Teachers would benefit by being able to teach those who truly want to be in school. Administrators would not have to deal with endless parent conferences about their children's failure to follow school rules.

Other countries are more realistic. For example, Finland, France, Germany and Denmark permit students to move on when they are ready. Their students haven't suffered. Our anachronistic system is an outgrowth of our history. In 1852, the U.S. enacted its first compulsory education law when Massachusetts required that all young people between the ages of 8 and 14 attend school three months a year unless they were able to demonstrate mastery of the material. Fifteen years later other states followed, and 66 years later all states did. It was largely the abuses associated with child labor in factories and mines that led to the rise in the age of compulsory education.

In the end, the decision to eliminate the senior year will probably come down to money. If it can be shown that money would be better spent in pre-K programs than in 12th grade, high school as we know it may undergo a much needed change.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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