A Teacher or a Jailer?

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The Article

Earning a high school diploma is key to ensuring one’s future economic well-being. Incomes for people without high school diplomas have been shrinking over the last few decades, while welfare rates, crime rates, and addiction rates have been increasing. Dropping out of high school is just not a good idea.

Boosting graduation rates has thus become a key public policy goal. How to achieve this, however, is far from straightforward. New Brunswick, and now Ontario, have decided to take the “stick” approach, requiring kids to stay in school until age 18 or else face a variety of negative consequences. Other provinces are also exploring this idea. 

Does this work? A study by the C.D. Howe Institute found that in the nine states in the U.S. that raised mandatory attendance age to 18, graduation rates increased by between 1.5% and 2.1% for kids in that age group, and college attendance also increased by a small percentage. So it does seem to be keeping kids in school.

However, aiming to keep more kids in school inevitably impacts more than just those kids who would otherwise have dropped out. What about the majority of kids who are committed to stay in school? What does it to their education and their school experience if they’re surrounded by kids who don’t want to be there? It’s one thing to have a misbehaving 9-year-old in your class; it’s quite another to be surrounded by several resentful 17-year-olds who are bigger and stronger than the teacher.

A study out of McMaster also warns of another potential pitfall in pushing for higher graduation rates. It seems that increasing the requirements of courses increases the drop out rate. In other words, make things harder, and some kids flee. But if we want kids to stay, does that not also mean that we may have to correspondingly make the courses easier? If schools are required to reduce their dropout rate, doesn’t that mean that there will be subtle pressure on teachers to pass kids who otherwise should fail? Will the curriculum be dumbed down, to the detriment of those who wanted and deserved a more challenging education? Already Premier McGuinty has lowered the standards for several courses. If we expect even unmotivated students to graduate, this trend will only continue. Kids who actually want to learn will be the ones to lose out.

Besides, can we really try to keep kids in school without addressing why it is that they want to get out in the first place?  For many the school experience has been awful. They haven’t mastered basic concepts and find themselves falling farther and farther behind. Instead of using the stick, then, maybe we need more of a carrot. Let’s make being in school better by ensuring that in elementary school kids actually learn. I know “let’s get back to the basics” is getting old, but there’s truth to it. Some kids need a lot of time to master phonics and times tables and long division, and the more we fill up the school day with character building programs or health and safety awareness or basic hygiene classes, the less time they’ll have to master the essentials. And when kids can’t catch up, they feel dumb. Who wants to be in a place where they always feel stupid? No wonder kids want to leave.

But there’s another aspect to this whole debate that is too often ignored. In Ontario, for instance, the Liberal government touts the figure that 30% of teens fail to complete a high school diploma in five years. Statistics Canada, however, says that only 9% of Ontario adults between the ages of 20 and 24 are either not in school or not in possession of a high school diploma.  The only way to explain this discrepancy is if those who drop out eventually drop back in. And if “dropping back in” is that widespread a phenomenon, then is increasing the mandatory attendance age really that good an idea? It looks like kids are working it out for themselves already.

My brother-in-law left high school at 16 and pumped gas for two years. That was the biggest motivation to finish school he could ever have had. He finished via correspondence in six months, went to college, and now is a successful engineer. Would he have gone to college if he had not had that rude awakening? Sometimes a little life lesson is worth more than anything a school can teach you. Maybe all provinces should consider that before they adopt more stringent compulsory attendance laws, and turn teachers into jailers.

S. Wray Gregoire
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