Raising the Dropout Age to 18?!

Like an angry parent who has become irrational in an argument with a child, the Massachusetts House Education Committee is refusing to listen to teens who don’t like school and is declaring, “We don’t care if you don’t like it.  We’re making you go!” This exasperated response is doomed to failure. Instead, we could respond in a much more supportive way, one that is both emotionally mature and financially efficient.

The Committee has done its research on the bad statistical outcomes for teens who drop out of school. I am sure that these depressing numbers are accurate. However, we need to understand that the problem these statistics reveal is not the lack of a diploma. Teens without diplomas can go to college, find employment, and enjoy good lives. The reason teens who drop out do so poorly is that they have accepted and internalized the message that they are bad and worthless people, and have allowed these messages to destroy their vision.

I wonder if the Committee did as much research talking with teens who don’t like school as they did looking up the negative statistics. Teens don’t like school for many different reasons: they find the content boring or meaningless, they find the pressure for homework and grades stressful, they find the way they are spoken to by adults to be demeaning or controlling, they feel excluded and alone socially. Many teens don’t like school because they feel it prevents them from pursuing their interests and hobbies, such as art and music, and even serious academics such as reading, writing, and science. Many teens dream, “If only I didn’t have to go to school, I could really get busy with my life.”

Our response as parents and teachers to teens who don’t like school is generally limited to, “I’m sorry you don’t like school. Let’s see if we can change your schedule, or perhaps find a club or sports team to join. Maybe we can improve it a bit. Hang in there, many of us didn’t like school. You’ll have a chance at age 18 when you graduate to start your life.” Now, the Education Committee wants to add, “If these adjustments aren’t enough, you can’t drop out. You will be a criminal.”

A calm and informed reply might instead be: “I’m sorry you don’t like school. Do you think there is any way to improve your experience there? If so, let’s work on that. If not, let’s talk about ways to live without going to school. What are your primary interests and dreams? How would you like to go about pursuing them?” The support might include a visit to a community college, some thoughtful suggestions for a job search, consideration of volunteer work and internships, and plans for personal projects. While the GED is not absolutely necessary, many teens might choose to obtain that diploma after age 16. Teens will find that when they approach life with a bit of energy, curiosity, and self-awareness, the adult world can be a welcoming place.

Announcing and legislating that “THERE IS ONLY ONE RIGHT WAY!” is hurtful to teens. Further, it would create a disaster for high schools, who would now have to serve a resentful and captive audience for two more years. Forcing schools to continue with the proverbial “hammering the square peg into the round hole” further erodes the relationships these educators want with their students.

School personnel clearly try hard to make their communities appealing and worthwhile for every student, but some teens want a different sort of environment. We can acknowledge this truth and work with it in a constructive way effectively and inexpensively. Refusing to acknowledge that some teens don’t like school and that our culture has positive options for these teens is willful ignorance. As adults, we should stop picking fights, and behave with the wisdom and maturity we possess.